Call me old fashioned but when I think of cooking burgers, I generally think of frying, grilling or possibly barbecuing them. But then, I wasn’t raised in Japan. For in that land of magic and marvel there is to be found a right royal teatime treat, one that, to a British mind at least, could well seem as alien as a Pleiadian scout ship: the Japanese boil-in-the-bag burger.
OK, so some people might say it’s not a burger per se but rather a local interpretation of the Hamburg steak, but more on that later. First up, have a watch of the following vid I made of these bad boys in action. Oh, and remember to turn up your speakers for some classy jackin’ house, yeah?
But Is It a Burger?
Now, coming from Cornwall, I had never even heard of Hamburg steaks until I first washed up in Japan. Thus, when I did see places selling these ‘Hamburg’ (ハンバーグ) things, I just assumed that the English word ‘hamburger’ had somehow gotten mangled in translation. Especially as, in line with the local love of abbreviation, the ‘steak’ bit had been dropped a long time ago. But is a Hamburg (steak) a burger?
Well, I’m sure there are people who would care to quibble but I’d say it most definitely is. After all, both consist of a seasoned patty (or burger, if you’re British) of minced meat (usually beef and/or pork) mixed with bread crumbs and diced onion. Furthermore, both have a shared etymology through their (possibly apocryphal) association with the German port city of Hamburg (home to more bridges than Venice, I’ll have you know).
What’s more, given that the one in the video (along with the many others I have scoffed over the years) tasted very much like a frikadelle, which is what the Germans call a burger (when they’re not calling them a bulette in Berlin), I’d argue that these things are indeed very much burgers. Consequently, it’s my unshakeable belief that in this particular culinary context the terms ‘Hamburg’ and ‘Japanese burger’ are interchangeable. Although I’m not sure I could be bothered to fight anyone over it.
What They Are Not
However, what these joyous creations are most certainly not are hamburgers as these consist of a burger in a bun. Indeed, the word ‘burger’ is itself a back-formation from ‘hamburger’ and refers solely to the main meat (or equivalent) component sans sandwich encasement.
And while it is questionable as to whether the hamburger, like the Hamburg steak, really hails from Hamburg1, there is little debate that the Japanese burger is typically delivered devoid of any bread, buns, baps, cobs, rolls or other baked bits and bobs that could otherwise make it a sarnie or something similar. So there.
Who Begat the Japanese Burger?
But enough of all that because whatever these things are (and, yeah, they’re burgers), they are certainly very common in Japan. However, while the first Hamburgs are believed to have appeared there shortly after the US forced open the country’s borders in 1854, it still remains a mystery as to who exactly introduced them.
Although the obvious choice might be sailors or visitors from Hamburg, Japan-born foodie Marc Matsumoto presents a strong case against this being so. As he observes here, these Japanese burger jobbies were originally known in Japan as German steaks (ジャーマンステーキ) and not Deutsche steaks (ドイツステーキ) as would no doubt have been the case had a native German speaker been the first to unveil such a wonder to a curious crowd of lip-smacking locals.
Thus, it seems much more probable that the first forerunners to today’s boil-in-the-bag burgers were unleashed by visiting English speakers, most likely Americans and maybe even Commodore Perry of the aforementioned gunboat diplomacy himself (although this latter notion seems unlikely as I just made it up). Whatever the truth, though, Matsumoto also provides a very thorough run-down of the Hamburg’s ingredients and how to make one, if that tickles your turnips. But I digress because regardless of who introduced it, the Hamburg didn’t really take off in Japan until the post-war period.
The Modern Rise of the Japanese Burger
While the US occupation (1945-52) may well have given the Hamburg a fillip, it was arguably the rise of industrialised food processing techniques in the 1950s and 60s that really saw them becoming such a go-to gob-filler thanks to their appeal as an increasingly affordable alternative to more expensive non-processed meat cuts. And while most things in modern-day Japan seem shockingly expensive to a tightwad like me, these fantastic boil-in-the-bag burgers still offer the coin-conscious consumer a convenient and cost-effective mealtime meat fix.
For instance, the one in the video set me back ¥298 (about £2.20 or $2.80 at the time) for 160g (net) of highly palatable protein. This compares to a shedtonne more for a steak. Consequently, you can find these brilliant burger benisons retailing pretty much everywhere in Japan these days, from corner shops and convenience stores (konbini) to supermarkets (soupaa) and restaurants (resutoran), including specialist ones that sell little else.
Of course, you could always follow Matsumoto’s lead and knock one up yourself, but from my experience of Japanese flats, there’s typically not much prep space for making anything more complex than an omelette. Then there is the issue of cooking them as part of a proper square meal given the propensity of many Japanese kitchens to have just a single hob, ring or burner (and absolutely no oven), which is itself the reason why the microwave has become such a de rigueur domestic device there.
Boil That Burger!
But while you can microwave many a shop-bought Japanese burger (the instructions for the one in the vid recommended three minutes in a 500W unit), I typically tend to boil mine, choosing to employ the microwave for heating up the pre-cooked frozen fried rice and added frozen veg I usually dish them up with. Not that a Hamburg has to be served in such a way, mind.
Indeed, on broaching the matter with my mate Manami, she duly informed me that while she, like most Japanese, typically eats her Hamburgs with rice, she also rustles them up with noodles, “ramen, udon or soba“, adding that pasta is also a common choice for both her and her culinary compatriots.
Gravy or No?
Although you can buy plain Hamburgs that you could boil up then bung in a bun to have as a hamburger, I’ve always gone for the ones with integrated gravy (or demi-glace as the local manufacturers like to label it)2. These, unsurprisingly, don’t really lend themselves to bread-encased engorgement. However, they are perfect for jazzing up some rice with a load of beefy meat juice goodness.
But if gravy’s not your bag, you can also buy other pre-packed variants that come complete with either internal or external cheese; Japanese curry sauce; or even ‘Italian’, viz tomato, sauce. Manami, a very gifted cook in her own right, eschews all such options, though.
“I like them Japanese style – wa fu – with daikon oroshi [grated Japanese radish] and soy sauce,” she says. “I like Hamburg. It is very easy cooking and they have a good taste. I eat them maybe once every two weeks.”
Japanese Burger Boshing Techniques
Of course, exactly how you scarf your boil-in-the-bag burger is entirely up to you. However, as a Westerner, it seems only natural to me to use a knife and fork when such an option is on the table. Meanwhile, for a native Japanese such as Manami, the use of chopsticks (hashi) is the obvious choice, employing the said wooden eating irons to slice up the burger’s boiled bounty into bite-sized chunks prior to ingestion.
However, if you can’t be had with any of that malarkey, you could always use your hands instead. And if you’re not sure how best to do that, let top indie food fighter Molly Schuyler show you the way. Admittedly, they may not be Japanese burgers she’s gurgitating, but her style is clearly beyond reproach.
And while I’m banging on about burgers, here’s the Ramones with a song about falling in love at a burger bar. After all, as Francis Bacon kinda put it in his guise as the Bard, “if burgers be the food of love, play on”. Too right, sir!
Notes and Credits
1) There is little agreement when it comes to the origin of the hamburger, although it does seem possible that this American sandwich staple was first developed in the 19th century when someone Stateside started serving Hamburg steaks between bits of bread.
If this is indeed true, then the Hamburg steak is most definitely a burger because, as previously stated, ‘burger’ refers to the main meat (or equivalent) component of a hamburger, which in this case would have been a Hamburg steak. QED.
Anyway, a couple of different but equally plausible hamburger ‘creation myths’ can be found here and here if you’re interested. Either way, I still feel right in referring to Japanese Hamburgs as Japanese burgers. Comment below if you disagree.
2) From what I gather, a Hamburg steak served with gravy/demi-glace would be called a Salisbury steak in the States. However, I’m not an American so that’s just a guess, I guess.
Words and pictures © Ignatius Rake.