They call it the world’s oldest hamburger, and like its American cousin, the Rou Jia Mo sandwich is a very basic composition that has gone through countless interpretations and iterations. Chinese street vendors—from Shaanxi Province to Flushing, Queens—have their own stubborn take on what constitutes the definitive Rou Jia Mo, but essentially all that’s needed is (preferably red-braised) meat wrapped in flatbread.
It’s simple, it’s flavorful, and don’t you dare stray too far from the ancient tradition. But one chef—in Las Vegas of all places—has taken the thousands-of-years-old recipe a little further by incorporating Indian naan bread, resulting in a juicier sandwich.
When Head Chef Shirley Chung helped open China Poblano at the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, she wanted to recreate the dish—Chef-owner José Andrés had the sandwich during a tasting trip in Beijing—but neither she nor Andrés was happy with the traditional (and dry) Chinese flatbread. “We Chinese don’t use much yeast for our breads,” Chung said. “It’s usually just water, salt, and flour.”
A diligent, exhaustive cook, she hunkered down in the Oyamel test kitchen and developed nearly 20 types of bread, even English muffins. Andrés shot them all down. It just wasn’t right. Finally, she realized how similar mo is to naan, the puffy Indian flatbread. So she cribbed a naan recipe from a fellow pastry chef, and substituted Mexican crema for the yogurt. “José totally loved it. The bread perfectly soaks up the juice [from the meat],” Chung says.
Delicious as the red-braise-soaked bread might be, some traditionalists would argue it is not mo, that hundreds of Chinese grandmothers would turn in their graves at the thought of Indian naan with Chinese red-braised pork. They might clamor that Chung should at least use a clay oven (instead of her restaurant’s plancha) to get the right texture. Then again, they might also argue that only horsemeat, the filling in the earliest versions of Rou Jia Mo, should be used.
If her customers are any gauge, though, Rou Jia Mo lovers have little cause for concern. Chung says she has received only accolades from her patrons, and some of her proudest moments have been when Chinese visitors to Las Vegas have commented on the dish’s excellence, some even saying they prefer it to the street Rou Jia Mo they get back home. “I saw one old Chinese grandfather actually pouring the juice [from the bag] into his mouth after eating it,” Chung said.
Chung takes a less revolutionary approach to the sandwich’s filling, and doesn’t stray too far from the ancient method of the red braise—that ancient Chinese process of reusing sauce over and over again to cook new batches of pork or lamb or even vegetables. While she does use a bit of Mexican cinnamon in the recipe, her red-braise liquid is now more than 1½ years old. It’s a far cry from the still kept by many cooks in China, who boast red-braise bases of 100 years or older. Then again, Chung won’t likely have to bury her braising liquid in her back yard to avoid the Red Army, as some reputedly Chinese peasants had to do during the Cultural Revolution.
Chung slathers her red braise onto pork belly and marinates it in vacuum-sealed bags for two days. She then slow-cooks the meat sous vide at 180°F for 10 hours. The bread is then wrapped around the meat and stuffed into a fry bag, which keeps the messy business of consuming the Rou Jia Mo somewhat civilized. The slightly gelatinous mouthfeel of the deeply flavored pork, along with the absorptive bread, is proof positive that street food can be made better by historical research and nouveau technique.
Mo Bread Technique
1. Mix milk, cream, eggs, and water. Separately mix flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Combine wet and dry mixtures and mix using a spiral dough hook on medium speed until dough pulls away from the bowl and forms a single mass.
2. Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator.
3. The next day, portion the dough into 4-inch balls and place onto a tray. Cover with plastic and proof for 2 hours at room temperature
4. Flatten the dough slightly larger than the final size, as it will shrink. Cook on a medium heated pan or flat top with oil on both sides.