Propping burger

From being the poster boy of American pop culture to an effective gamechanger of the dining space, leading chefs deconstruct what makes the good old burger such a brilliant culinary charm.
From the simple hamburger to a taiwanese interpretation of the american favourite, burgers have come a long way across the globe and over time.
From the simple hamburger to a Taiwanese interpretation of the American favourite, burgers have come a long way across the globe and over time.

When an average Roman in 59 AD Pompeii at a roadside thermopolium gorged on his plate of Isicia Omentata, he didn’t recognise the game-changer before him. He didn’t know his frugal meal of a patty and grilled slices of bread was the future.

Isicia Omentata is essentially a meat patty made with minced pork meat, pepper, wine, pine nuts and Garum (a rich fish-based sauce that eventually created ketchup). The patty is then wrapped in thin layers of tasteless caul fat, a fantastic way to repurpose leftover meat and arguably Roman cooking at its finest. And as per culinary anthropologists today, the great granddad to meatballs, patty and the burger too.

How Roman fast food made its way into the world is anyone’s guess. As one of the most powerful dynasties of ancient times, they ruled half the earth at one time, or all of it if you’re a Flat Earther. This gave them the opportunity to easily influence different regions, especially when it came to food that could travel well. 

Many historians believe that the Isicia Omentata was the muse for the British meatball. This eventually led to the creation of the Isle-style burgers around the 1700s thanks to Georgia. The patty was adopted as a sausage, grilled well and squished between two slices of bread for port workers as a handy lunch. The idea back then was to have the patty and throw the slices, which often served the miniscule role of being a sponge to the juices. In functionality, the British meatball was much like the German hamburger tartare that was served to the port workers of Hamburger.

The journey from hamburger steak to burger

Before it came to be the stacked up layers of heaven between a patty, the hamburger was served pretty much like one would a steak today. Image: unsplash.
Before it came to be the stacked up layers of heaven between a patty, the hamburger was served pretty much like one would a steak today. Image: Unsplash.

According to food history, by the early 19th century, the earliest version of what was going to become the hamburger was already in place. The hamburger steak was served along with pickle, lettuce, onion, tomato, and sometimes ketchup sans bread. A popular fast food enjoyed by the upper class as well, it was still a far cry from burgers as we know them today.

Over the course of the burger’s global and extensive history, it’s gone from being a hamburger steak to just a hamburger. The change occurred between 1885 to 1921, thanks to Fletcher Davis and Charlie Nagreen, both credited with creation and coinage of the first hamburger sandwich to be called a hamburger. Lewis Lason, who toasted the slices of bread to crank up the taste; followed by Oscar Weber Billy who grilled the meatball and served it between a bun, and White Castle chain that baked special bread to serve their offering in 1921 led to the burger’s modern-day avatar.

However, even in its relatively modern avatar, burgers remained true to their thermopolium’s origin and were often served with cutlery. That is, until Whimpys opened in 1934. Introducing not just the informal style of eating the dish, they also cranked up the good old hamburger of White Castle with a slice of cheese. This umami upgrade was the start of the burger empire, soon to be joined by legends like McDonalds and the ilk.

In a country with as many vegetarians as india, something like a potato burger neatly straddles the line between fine dine experimental and comfort food.
In a country with as many vegetarians as India, something like a potato burger neatly straddles the line between fine dine experimental and comfort food.

Thanks to its filling nature and convenience, burgers soon rose to be a part of the new pop culture that was seeing a rise of casual communal dining, comments Chef Vidit Aren of Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît and a self-admitted burger aficionado. He adds, “After all, here was a format that made classics look even better.”

And by classics, he clarifies, “I meant the beef patty. In fact, even when burger chains became the hallmark of globalisation, burgers continued to be all about the patty. [Often this was a] delicious mass of minced meat (offal too in many cases) till the early 90s. Then burgers began their descent towards Asian countries. [There], thanks to a culture of dim sum, momos and flatbreads, they had an evolved culture of putting addictively delicious thingmajigs between them to create food that comforted.”

The bun of it all

“It was the early 1990s when the buns were given a rethought. [The] need to change not just the patties into culture-appropriate ingredients – but the addition of sauces was felt too – and this meant a sturdier structure. Or in other words, the bun,” says Chef Sandeep Sadanandan of Byg Brewski. He believes that was the beginning when chefs began experimenting with breads and zeroed in on freshly baked brioche owing to the “right girth, sponginess and sweetness that went brilliantly with all kinds of protein that was part of the patty, meat or otherwise.”

The right bun is often described as spongey and light, whilst being sturdy enough to hold all of the glorious layers and sauces. Or simply put, brioche. Image: unsplash.
The right bun is often described as spongey and light, whilst being sturdy enough to hold all of the glorious layers and sauces. Or simply put, brioche. Image: Unsplash.

The same is a fact, as Chef Aren endorses, “the right bun also ensures that one has liberty to go overboard or just do a simple burger where each element stands out and yet comes together to create a great bite.”

Incidentally for India, says Chef Vikas Seth of Embassy Leisure, “the burgers thanks to our earlier versions of vada pav and such, [threw the playground wide open] as chefs and burger chains had more to experiment with.”

And yet, during the initial years of burgers gaining ground in India, the experiments remained limited. Chef Seth recalls, “[It was] mostly with the patty, sauces, flavourants, and of course the accompaniments. For the rest, we followed the West where the burger cult was evolving.”

It was, says Chef Neeraj Rawoot of JW Marriott Bengaluru Prestige Golfshire Resort & Spa, “this platform on which all new things were being tried on, whether it was reviving moringa, going glocal with desi varieties of meat, beets or jackfruit or even working around the bun and introducing newer tastemakers as well.”

The rise of the posh burger

What made burgers the perfect base? The bun and the ability to stack up, says Chef Rawoot, who finds a burger’s ability to layer multiple flavours – complementing or otherwise – as the ‘secret ingredient’ that transformed this port side handy lunch into a culinary revolution. A kind of ace card that could be used to both introduce and regale.

Then came 2001 – the year when burgers turned posh thanks to one chef’s endeavour to upscale the Roman Innovation. It was none other than Chef Daniel Boulud, who made the ground-breaking foie gras – fattened burger at his outpost db Bistro Moderne in Manhattan. Dubbed “DB Burger,” with a $27 price tag and a patty made of beef and goose, the creation socked out the burger from its patty-bun slumber.

The adzuki bean and sprout burger is the vegetarian response to traditional meat patties, packing in the umami with a slice of himalayan gouda and pickled beet.
The Adzuki Bean and Sprout burger is the vegetarian response to traditional meat patties, packing in the umami with a slice of Himalayan gouda and pickled beet.

Chef Boulud’s creation proved to be the final nail on the burger purist’s agenda. Burgers across the world continued to take on a ritzy avatar that was larger than life both in its stacking, structure, and ingredients. On the national scene, the frontrunners to have changed the image of burgers were some of the finest culinary minds including Chef Bakshish Dean with Johnny Rockets. Together, they introduced the concept of the Great Indian Patty. Alongside the same, Chef Paul Kinny, Culinary Director, The St Regis Mumbai, designed its umami-rich, vegetarian contender. Entitled the Adzuki Bean Burger with Pickled Tendli, it proved to be the gate crasher for the ‘patty only’ burger diktat.

Since then, burgers in India – leaving those served in the chains – have gone through seasons of its very own resort collection, says Chef Sadanandan. He adds, “Where everything from chargrilled fillet to pork loins to mushroom tartare have made their debut, won hearts and made way for newer compositions that have given the standard brioche a miss too.”

Playing to the gallery

A good example of this is the Taiwanese burger served at Chef Seth’s Sriracha, which is an interpretation to the traditional bao and Chinese mantou. In fact, says the oriental specialist, “Our Mantou sub is a take on not only the popular Yuan dynasty favourite breakfast but also the Georgian way of burger making of the yore. Yet another rendition is of course the quesadilla burger, which uses a tortilla instead of the bun, but works on the same philosophy.”

The pulled jackfruit mantou is a burger that brings forth complex flavours in the same comforting manner.
The Pulled Jackfruit Mantou is a burger that brings forth complex flavours in the same comforting manner.

But what constitutes a posh or a great burger today? While most believe it is the quality of ingredients used and of course the stacking, for Chef Aren, “It is quite simple: the right bun – which can be any sturdy variant including our own kadak pav – followed by a well-seasoned patty, and that goes for meat and vegetables both; grilled or panned depending on one’s liking with just one sauce or another element for crunch.”

Prithvish Chakravarti of The Mighty Slice concurs. A known burger specialist in Kolkata, Chakravarti’s definition to a posh burger is all about getting the flavour tone right. He explains, “You need the bun to be a sponge but [also] one that can hold on its own, the patty or the main hero to have the element of crunch and softness, and the sauce to just add enough contrast to the entire bite. And that is what my Korean Fried Chicken was constructed, where I use a brioche bun because it can hold on its own, the burger patty is a quarter pounder, batter-fried chicken thighs that are deep-fried low and slow to make it super crisp and then tossed in our special Korean Gochujang based sweet n spicy sauce and liberally sprinkled with sesame seeds. This gives the burger that quintessential Korean taste in a handy format.”

The fried chicken korean burger from the mighty slice in all its glory.
The Fried Chicken Korean Burger from The Mighty Slice in all its glory.

The stacking matter too, he adds, “the patty first and then kimchi slaw the last so the bite is a perfect matrix of Korean flavours.” For Chef Sadanandan, it is the selection of local aged cheese along with a fried egg and salsa style sauces that ensures that flavoursome bite and right “juiciness that adds to the eating experience.”

Truly, the best burger comes down to being bun in a million. Pun and bun intended.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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