What Makes Japan's Yakiniku Rice Burgers Unique?

Most of us have probably never seen anything like the yakiniku rice burger before because the dish plays fast and loose with that name. Instead of bread, you get two lightly grilled rice patties — a dream for those looking to avoid gluten — cooked to a light brown color. At the heart of the dish are crisp lettuce leaves cradling thin slices of grilled beef. There are no tomatoes, pickle slices, or the option to add pieces of melty cheese. Regardless, these uniquely Asian sandwiches are still referred to as "burgers" and are popular fast food options in East Asia, although they may not have had a prominent start in the areas they can be found today.

The yakiniku rice burger — the world's first to be made with these grains — is the chain Mos Burger's way of creating fast food that reflects Japan's use of rice as a staple. The menu item debuted in 1987, and to make it, the franchise appears to have set aside the concept of an American burger to develop a wholly Japanese sandwich.

Rice burgers were inspired by grilled rice balls

Building a rice burger begins with making rice patties — which might sound easier than it actually used to be because early creators could not get the grains to stay in shape. Inspiration is said to have eventually come from another traditional Japanese dish: yaki onigiri, or grilled rice balls. Served at izakaya restaurants, these triangular-molded items are coated with a sweet soy sauce and roasted atop charcoal grills until the grains are toasty and brown. Mos Burger found that when rice is finished this way, the patties will hold their shape. They didn't even have to be toasted on a grill because they could be prepared on a cast-iron pan with the same effect. But these bun alternatives could only be made with japonica rice since jasmine and basmati varietals are considered too dry.

The Japanese tabletop grill or yakiniku style of cooking didn't just inspire rice patties; it gave Mos Burger the idea to fill the sandwiches with something different: The dish comes with grilled meat, thin slices of beef that soak up the flavors of a sweet-savory marinade that can include soy sauce, mirin, sake, and fruit juice, as well as different aromatics. 

The rice burger comes with multiple filling options

Every part of the yakiniku rice burger appears to have been carefully thought out. Aside from grilling, the beef is separated from the buns between fresh lettuce, which keeps sauces from soaking the grains. Without the leaves, the rice loses its shape and disintegrates, which means you'd have to eat the sandwich with chopsticks or a fork — and this is not how the dish is meant to be consumed. And just because this unique dish is coined as a "burger," doesn't mean that it only has beef on the inside; for example, outside of Japan, Mos Burger only gets more creative with its sandwiches by offering up different fillings like mushrooms, egg, or kaisan kakiage, a mixed seafood tempura. 

Numerous copycats have since created their own versions of the dish (we're looking at you, McDonald's Japan and Yakiniku Like), but Mos Burger can always lay claim to being the first to serve up an all-rice, gluten-free burger bun.