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Roujiamo: the Hamburger of the East

Roujiamo or rou jia mo (Chinese: 肉夹馍; pinyin: ròujiāmó, literally: 'meat sandwiched in bread'. Say "Roger Moore" when ordering and you'll be sure to be served a roujiamo), is a traditional snack originating from the cuisine of Shaanxi province, which some locals claim to be the world’s oldest sandwich (or hamburger) since this bread dates back to the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) and the meat to the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BC), now widely consumed all over China.

In 2016 this “Chinese Hamburger” was named as Shaanxi Province’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, a well-deserved title to my modest opinion since I became a tenacious fan of this delicacy.

Roujiamo with juicy meat and fragrant spicesA classic Roujiamo

Xi’an (the modern-day provincial capital of Shaanxi) served as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and travellers brought spices and foodstuffs, along with philosophies and religions, from India and the Middle East to China during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Today, the city is the home to China’s largest Muslim population outside of Xinjiang province, and the strong flavours that originated in the Middle East still enrich the food of the region today.

chinese hamburger or roujiamo, bread filled with chopped meatchinese hamburger or roujiamo, bread filled with minced meat and peppersThere are many different types of Roujiamo, some only have chopped meat (left) and others have minced meat with peppers (right)

So, there’s the meat, and there’s the bun. Simple, right? Let’s talk about both.

The meat is most commonly pork, stewed for hours in a soup containing over 20 spices and seasonings. It is also possible to use only a few spices (which many vendors do), but the resulting meat is less tasty.

Some alternatives are also available. For example, in Muslim areas in Xi'an, the meat is usually beef (seasoned with cumin and pepper), and in Gansu province, it is often lamb. The meat is then minced or chopped and stuffed in "baijimo", a type of flatbread. 

Depending on the types of spices used to cook the meat and the way the bread is made, the taste of Roujiamo can vary greatly from vendor to vendor.

The bun, aka “ 馍”, (the Northerners’ word for mantou 馒头, bread), is the Northern provinces’ main source of starch, rather than rice. Some are steamed and others are baked. In this case, the is baked in a wok or pan with the lid on. 

three types of roujiamo bread, fried bread, steamed bread and crispy breadThree types of roujiamo bread: the most common one here in Kunming is baked or fried bread (left), some roujiamo's have steamed bread (middle) and there is also a crispy baked type of bread (right). Some types of bread are small and some are big.

As I got in Kunming, few months ago, I was used to going and having dinner in a Muslim small restaurant, 餐厅, just a few steps from the place I used to live.

Every single time, as I came in, they smiled at me. They are a very nice couple, a warm welcome it’s always something that makes me feel at home, wherever I am.

One night, when I saw that kind of buns wrapped in a plastic bag ready to be sold I instantly thought: “Ok, I am going to have a hamburger right now”, wondering if they could actually fill that bun with proper minced meat, and… at that moment, I saw a picture of the Roujiamo on the wall!

I ordered one and it was love at first… bite!

I went to some other Muslim restaurants to try a different variant of that and the best one I found is located in the well-known Wenlin jie (Chinese: 文林街 “Culture Street”) exactly the opposite side of the Mandarin bookstore. Its name is 兰州拉面 (Lanzhou lamian).

It is run by a lovely Muslim family: mum, dad and 4 cute children. The elder brother is one of a kind and he is the one who takes the orders and acts as the real owner, “bossing” around and checking everybody is satisfied!

If you are around there, just pass by and try this delicacy, you won’t regret!

Lanzhou Lamian restaurant at Wenlin Street KunmingLanzhou Lamian restaurant store front of Muslim restaurantThe Lanzhou Lamian (兰州拉面) restaurant at Wenhuaxiang in Kunming (left) has the best roujiamou in town! But Lanzhou Lamian branch restaurants are everywhere, every town in China, so everywhere you go, look out for the 兰州拉面 characters if you want to eat a roujiamo (right). Most of the time, these Muslim restaurants have picture menus on their walls too, so it is convenient to order other (delicious) dishes there too.

Kunming wenhuaxiang culture street lanzhou lamian muslim restaurant at night

Further reading about the delicious food you can find in Kunming:

Incredible Edibles in Kunming

Eat like a Local

Kunming's Traditional Food

Visit our Cuisine Blog Section for more mouthwatering articles

Or click here to read about Other Food in South West China