I rarely meet a street food I don’t like, and jiān bǐng 煎餅 are right up there with the best. They are usually eaten as a breakfast food, and you can spot a vendor by the long queue of hungry Shanghainese waiting to buy one on their way to work. At around 3 kuai (50 cents) it’s a filling and satisfying breakfast that will keep you going until lunchtime.
These amazing crispy egg pancakes are the stuff of legend – there are whole website forums devoted to them, YouTube has dozens of videos of them being cooked, and the poetic longings of expat Chinese on the internet for genuine jian bing are delightful. Personally, I can’t seem to get equally worked up about Kellogg’s NutriGrain, even though it is Iron man Food, probably because I actually prefer a Chinese breakfast food to cereal or toast. Horrifying, I know – breakfast seems to be the meal held closest to the hearts of anyone living away from home, but there it is.
This is my local jian bing vendor, who starts work at around 6am. The jian bing itself is cooked on a heavy iron griddle – she places a spoonful of the sticky mung-bean flour batter onto the plate, then uses a crepe spreader to make a thin pancake.
While it’s becoming nicely crisp at the edges, she cracks two eggs and spreads these thinly.
Then come a variety of toppings – chopped coriander, diced scallions, finely chopped pickled greens, and sometimes black sesame seeds.
By now, the underside of the pancake is brown and crispy, and she deftly folds it in half. On the semi-circular pancake she now spreads several sauces – hoisin, red bean sauce, and chilli sauce. It is the alchemy of the sauce combination that makes jian bing so fantastic.
Lastly, she places a crisped rectangle of fried pastry, bread, tofu skin or wonton wrapper inside (this is for the essential component of crunch, contrasting with the soft middle of the crepe) and quickly folds the whole thing in thirds. Now she gives it a quick karate chop to break the fried rectangle, folds it again and slices it into two halves. Pop it into a bag and you have instant breakfast-to-go.
If you’d like a recipe or more details, I recommend the 4-part series by the girls at Beijing Haochi, who have a particular devotion to jian bing. Theirs is very faithful to the original Tianjin jian bing, from which this Shanghainese version differs a little. But they all taste great!
Number 24 Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25 Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes