- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

SANTORINI, Greece — I’m standing in the kitchen of Kallisti, a homey taverna on the main square of the village of Bigros on the lovely island of Santorini. I’m watching an Egyptian grill master named Mustaffa prepare bifteki, which appears to be a hamburger.

Like an American burger, it is made with ground meat, which is shaped by hand into a patty. Like an American burger, it is flavored with chopped onion and charred crusty and brown over charcoal.

There the similarity ends. The meat is a mixture of beef and veal to which half a loaf of bread (crusts removed, soaked in water and wrung out) has been added, producing a patty that tastes like a cross between an American burger and a Swedish meatball.

What’s more, it’s served with a red-onion-and-parsley relish and a wedge of lemon for squeezing, and there’s nary a bun in sight.

Now I’m standing beside a grill (charcoal-burning, of course) in the restaurant Don — more of a truck stop, really — in an industrial neighborhood in Belgrade, Serbia. Jelena Stuparevic, the pit mistress here, demonstrates how to make a cevapcici, a Serbian burger.

She mixes three parts ground veal with one part ground pork, adding chopped hot chilies and some slivers of garlic (to order, mind you). She forces this mixture through a sort of oversized funnel with four parallel tubes.

The result is a deeply ridged, square patty, which is seared over glowing charcoal, again to be served with chopped onion and again, without a bun.

Round three takes place in a renowned grill restaurant called Karim in Old Delhi, India, where a turbaned grill master combines ground lamb with chopped cilantro, ginger, cumin, nutmeg, chilies and half a dozen other ingredients into a mixture he’ll grill on a wide flat metal skewer over embers excited by a small electric fan. The dish is called “seekh kebab.” It’s yet another member of a burger family that by now you may come to understand is much vaster than many Americans realize.

As you travel the world’s barbecue trail, grilled ground meat patties turn up everywhere. What goes into them and how they’re seasoned and shaped varies as much as the language and culture of the country where they’re enjoyed.

The short list of burgers on planet barbecue include pljeskavica from Bosnia-Herzegovina, mititei from Romania, chapli kebab from Pakistan, kufteh from Bulgaria and lyulya from Azerbaijan.

Even the burger we know and love may not be quite as American as we think. Our beloved patty takes its name, not surprisingly, from Hamburg, Germany. In the 18th century, Hamburg was the largest port in Europe — now it is second-largest after Rotterdam — and thus, something of a culinary melting pot.

German seafarers, the story goes, acquired a taste for the seasoned chopped raw beef known as steak tartare, which was popular in trading ports in Russia. Tartary was the Russian name for the steppes of Central Asia, where marauding Mongol horsemen made the original ground-beef patty by placing tough slabs of meat under their saddles to tenderize.

There are some gaps in the story. Who first had the idea to cook steak tartare instead of serve it raw? Did they really eat hamburgers in Hamburg, and how did the dish come to the United States?Many places claim to be the birthplace of the hamburger.

Few defend the title more vigorously than Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Conn. According to the owner of this tiny red brick building — patronized by untold generations of Yale students — the hamburger was invented in 1898 by Louis Lassen, a Danish blacksmith-turned-preacher and lunch-counter operator whose frugality made it painful for him to discard any leftover scraps of beef.

He ground them into patties, which he broiled over open flames and slapped between two slices of toast. Lassen thought his burgers were so remarkable they shouldn’t be camouflaged under ketchup or mustard. To this day, these condiments are eschewed at Louis’ Lunch.

It’s an interesting story, but records indicate the hamburger reached America in the early 19th century. By 1834, hamburger steaks were listed on the menu of the legendary Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. Curiously, they sold for 10 cents an order, which was twice the price of a veal cutlet or a slab of roast beef. My own belief is that there is no one original hamburger — that like language or law, it was a great idea that occurred in many parts of the world at pretty much the same time.

Jeffrey Tennyson, in his book “Hamburger Heaven: Illustrated History of the Hamburger” (Warner Books), writes that Americans consume 38 billion pounds of hamburger meat each year, which, shaped into burgers and “placed end to end, would form a heavenly chain of hamburgers 1.8 million miles long.”

I’m going to assume you know how to make a great American-style burger. (Everyone has a pet theory as to what makes the best.) My own thoughts on the subject are to use a mixture of ground chuck and sirloin, to avoid making a burger too lean (15 percent fat is ideal) and to keep the seasonings to a minimum. (I use only salt and pepper, letting the flavor come from the beef and eventual garnishes on the bun.) Unless I’ve ground the beef myself, I often tuck a pat of butter into the center of the burger. That way, you can cook it all the way through for food safety and still have a deliciously moist burger.

Instead of the all-American burger for this year’s Memorial Day party, here’s a recipe for bifteki, the Greek burger made with veal, beef and bread.

Greek bifteki (Greek burgers)

1 4- to 5-inch chunk country-style white bread or 4 thick slices white bread

Water

1 pound coarsely ground veal

½ pound coarsely ground beef

1/4 red onion, finely chopped (about 3 tablespoons)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper

For serving:

½ medium red onion, chopped, or a few thinly sliced scallions

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Nonstick cooking spray or oil for greasing grill grate

Lemon halves or wedges for squeezing

Place bread in a bowl with lukewarm water to cover and soak until very soft, 5 minutes. Drain bread and peel off and discard crust. Squeeze bread between your fingers in two or three batches to wring out water.

Place bread, veal, beef, onion, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste in a shallow bowl and mix until smooth with your fingers. (The motion is rather like kneading bread. Mix with your fingers and push with the heel of your hand.) Once combined, form mixture into patties 3 inches across and about ½-inch thick. Chill until ready to cook.

For serving, mix together onion or scallion and parsley and set aside. Set up grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. If not using a grill basket, brush and oil grill grate. If using a grill basket, mist it with cooking spray.

Arrange burgers in basket and close it. Place burgers on grate and grill until nicely browned and cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes per side. If not using a grill basket, arrange burgers on brushed, oiled grill grate.

Grill as described above, using a spatula to turn burgers. Transfer grilled burgers to a platter or plates and serve with onion-and-parsley relish and lemon wedges for squeezing. Makes 6 servings.

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