For the longest time, we’ve been making the best darn hamburger on the face of this earth (insert personal bias.) We’ve never had a specific name for the recipe until someone tagged it as the “magic meat”, but not as in “mystery meat” or “I can’t tell if this is chicken or beef.” Rather, it was to describe the magical flavor sensations that everyone experienced when they bit into one of our patties. That “magic meat” term described the juicy, flavorful and savory burger patty that everyone fought over. Sometimes the buns were tossed to the side or forgotten because the meat was just so darn tasty.
It wasn’t until recently, with all the discussion on Umami (the rich, savory taste in foods) that our burger recipe was re-named as the hamburger loaded with Umami. Our hungry friends were always stumped to figure out the secret ingredient and could never, ever pinpoint that “magic” flavor that made our patties so unique.
It’s the ultimate burger that is so satisfying and savory, no one can eat just one. Make it a double, please.
But this umami rich burger recipe isn’t a new invention, nor is it a trendy recipe to keep up with the popularity of umami rich foods. It’s a family recipe that started from a Vietnamese family back in the early 80’s, in a 2-bedroom apartment, in the middle of Southern California.
That family is obviously mine. Growing up in a Vietnamese family of 6 kids who were always hungry and thirsty for more American foods, my parent had to figure out a way to feed their hungry pack of kids. Back then, hamburgers were the “American’s food”, “that sandwich with that big piece of meat in it, with the red and yellow sauces and the sour cucumber slices.” My siblings and I wanted to eat “Ham-buh-guh” all day long and we wanted it NOW.
My parents figured out that it was much more economical to make burgers at home and did exactly that by created their own recipe for the patties. Of course, being Vietnamese, they marinated the beef in the only way they knew how—splash fish sauce to it. Fish sauce is the golden elixir to us Vietnamese, take it away and you drain the blood out of our cuisine. Fish sauce is the fermented salvation from the food gods above, and it’s pure umami brings out the savory depth in all foods.
With their batch of beef, my parents splashed fish sauce as the one and only marinade into the burger recipe. With the addition of a little sugar for balance, garlic for more aromatic love and black pepper for bite, their simple recipe has evolved into what our friends call today as “The Ultimate Umami Burger.”
This recipe isn’t unique by any means, especially in a Vietnamese household. I’m certain there are many Vietnamese-American families who splashed their burger meat with fish sauce!
I know what a lot of you white people are thinking, “Fish sauce? Um, hell no.” But wait, my dear skeptics, and listen to my confessional. For many years when I first joined up with this beautiful, crazy Asian, I avoided fish sauce. Let’s face it, it stinks like something most of us are not used to. It is, after all, fermented anchovies. Mmmm, tasty! Not. At least so I thought, but man, was I ever wrong.
One fine meal while dining on a grilled shrimp ball, I dipped it into the Vietnamese classic Nuoc Cham (Viet Fish Sauce Dip) and I suddenly saw the umami. There was no nasty wired fishiness, instead the fish sauce’s own flavor virtually disappeared and many of the other flavors within the grilled shrimp ball became heightened. Everything was good before, but after the addition of the the fish sauce everything was incredible. I was instantly converted.
Ever since I’ve never hesitated in grabbing for the bottle of fish sauce. It was my brother-in-law, a classic mid-west guy who isn’t normally overly adventurous in his culinary choices, who dubbed the fish sauce laden ground beef as the “Magic Meat.” It was that damn tasty. And now we had another believer in the umami.
Sure everything will be tasty without the umami adding fish sauce. However, it will be even better with the magic sauce.
Yield: 4-6 Burgers
Total Time: 30 minutes
Don't be afraid of the fish sauce. Understand the crucial umami factor that fish sauce brings to food and it will become your best pantry friend. So often, the powerful, pungent punch of fish sauce can be intimidating to cooks who aren't familiar with it's marinading magic.
Fish sauce is essentially the salty liquid from the fermentation of small fish and salt. But when used in small quantities, fish sauce brings fabulous umami savoriness to the burgers. It won't taste like a "fish sauce burger." It just tastes like a darn great burger! You'll be a fish sauce marinade convert very quickly.