What English-speakers often call a ‘Taiwanese hamburger’ is known to Taiwanese people as guabao or ho-ka-ti (‘tiger bites pig’ in local dialect). This hearty snack of dark brown meat inside a snow-white steamed bun is near the top of many visitors’ ‘must-eat’ lists.
Like several other Taiwanese dishes, the local hamburger doesn’t just give culinary pleasure. Thanks to its auspicious shape – it’s said to look like a purse overflowing with money – it also has a ritual function. For this reason, guabao often appear in the traditional end-of-the-year feasts at which Taiwanese bosses thank their employees for their hard work.
Unlike the round patties found in US-style hamburgers, ‘Taiwanese hamburgers’ feature a single squarish slab of deliciously tender pork belly slightly bigger than a set of playing cards.
Just as the beef makes or breaks a US-style hamburger, the quality of the pork belly is key. The meat should not be too lean, otherwise it’ll be dry and chewy after braising. The gravy in which it’s cooked inevitably contains soy sauce and rice wine, but many chefs also throw in a little sugar, star anise or cinnamon. As for cooking time, the longer the better, so the pork melts in the mouth.
When you bite into a skillfully-assembled guabao, you’ll experience an intriguing blend of flavours thanks to the garnish of fresh cilantro (also known as coriander or Chinese parsley), sugar-and-peanut powder, and pickled mustard greens. The last of these ingredients appears in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, as well as many Chinese and Taiwanese dishes.
While they’re not as ubiquitous as some other local dishes, ‘Taiwanese hamburgers’ aren’t hard to find in major cities, and they’re catching on in metropolises as far away as London and New York.
Taipei foodies especially recommend the versions sold by Lan Jia Guabao (near National Taiwan University) and the flagship store of Olympia, a long-established bakery/grocery/delicatessen, in the same neighbourhood as Zhongshan Hall. Those sold at the latter are especially filling because half a braised egg is added atop the pork, and a slice of taro is tucked underneath.
Taiwan’s culinary scene is nothing if not inventive, so it’s no surprise dozens of guabao variations are available. We’ve seen vegetarian, fish and crab burgers. Decidedly unconventional guabao are sold by Jieji, a long-established purveyor of local delicacies in Ita Thao, the indigenous community on the shores of Sun Moon Lake. They fill their buns (lower image) – which have a yellowish tinge because pumpkin is added to the dough – with mountain boar rather than pork belly. Cheese and fried eggs are optional extras!