Jianbing is a Chinese savory breakfast crepe and one of the country’s most popular street foods. The fillings vary depending on which city you’re eating your jianbing, but the general rule is that there are no rules: meats, vegetables, dairy and fried buns are all game in a tradition of morning crepes that would make a Frenchman’s toes curl.
Originally from China’s northern Shandong province – right between Shanghai and Beijing – jianbing’s popularity has grown with the country’s urbanization boom in the 1990s as natives of Shandong dispersed through the country and took their jianbing with them.
ENOUGH JIANBING TO FEED AN ARMY
Jianbing supposedly originated on third-century battlefield in China’s Shandong province, where the Mess Chef of General Liu Bei’s military camp was faced with a conundrum: an army of soldiers to feed without any woks! What’s worse, the army was ambushed and in desperate need of calories to give them the strength to fight their way out.
Liu Bei consulted with his chancellor and advisor, a man called Zhuge Liang. From what we know about Zhuge, it seems that his abilities reached far beyond the scope of culinary logistics. Gifted at maths and mechanics, he was a top-notch military tactician who supposedly devised a special bow for shooting several arrows all at the same time. And he invented landmines. Did we mention he could also read the wind and foretell the future?
So it comes as no surprise that the advice he gave to Liu Bei’s beleaguered wok-less army ended up being a stroke of genius that was to introduce a new favorite food to Shandong that would stick around for good.
Zhuge Liang ordered the cooks to evenly mix water with wheat flour and spread the dough onto a copper-made griddle suspended over a fire, effectively making the first jianbing. This new-fangled crepe lifted the soldiers’ morale, and they managed to fight their way out of the ambush.
The excellent result aside, the question remains: how does an entire army lose all of its woks?
WHEAT IN THE NORTH, RICE IN THE SOUTH
China’s culinary map is varied as the country is vast, but there is one noticeable divide between northern and southern staples in the country. There is a proliferation of rice in the warm south to contrast the coarser grains like wheat and millet in the chillier north. This means that proto-breads (called bing), noodles and such are more common up north, while southerners in China eat a lot more rice and rice-based dishes.
In the days before electricity was brought to rural areas, houses in the north of the country had water-powered stone mills called shuimo that would be used for grinding coarse grains into flour. The milling would take place the evening before and jianbing would be made fresh the next morning, pan-fried on a metal griddle over hot coals.
JIANBING TAKES FLIGHT
After sizzling for centuries on the hotplates of Shandong, jianbing began to get itchy feet. The 1990s were a period of heightened migration within China that saw people leave their villages and rural homes and move to cities that promised more work. Jianbing saw its opportunity, as did the Shandongese who profited massively from the dissemination of their provincial breakfast staple.
One striking example is the tiny village of Youlou nestled into the far-flung boondocks of the Yimeng Mountains in Shandong. Prior to jianbing’s rise to fame, the people of Youlou were poor, subsisting on a meagre income earned from the harvesting of honeysuckle.
THE JIANBING GOLDMINE
Waves of workers started to leave the village in the ’90s (about 700 people of the 1226-strong population) and became entrepreneurs in the larger cities, plugging their local jianbing into China’s love of fast, freshly-made street food. Jianbing caught on and the economic effect was extraordinary: the migrants from Youlou alone collectively generated millions of dollars in profit, most of which was sent back to their home village.
This new income transformed Youlou. With this new money pouring in, the villagers have developed dozens of new buildings, as well as upgrading their internet and other amenities infrastructures all thanks to jianbing.
One reason for jianbing’s success is its adaptability to regional palates, and a good way to trace the ancestry of a jianbing is to look at the ingredients of the batter (thickness and greasiness tend to be the subjective choice of the chef).
The Shanghai jianbing tastes quite different from the Beijing one. In Beijing, there’s a larger selection of grains on offer to make up the crepe base – for example, purple sticky rice, mung beans, black beans – or ingredients incorporated in to the batter, like tomato or celery.
In sweet-toothed Shanghai, savvy vendors used a sweeter soybean paste for the main sauce, and the jianbing will often be stuffed with a youtiao, which is a deep-fried dough stick that looks a bit like a churro. The tradition of the youtiao originally hails from the city of Tianjin.
The flour used for jianbing on the east coast tends to be a mixture of wheat flour and mung bean flour, and in Shanghai you might even find bits of bacon in your pancake next to other fillings like Chinese sausage, shredded carrots, radishes and chicken.
So deeply has jianbing soaked into the syntaxes of local culture in China, there is now even such a thing as a jianbing ren, a “jianbing person.” Such an individual is said to be like the pancake itself: substance spread thinly in many directions over a large area.
The jianbing ren is therefore a papery and superficial personality in both social and professional environments. It tends to be a criticism aimed at the younger generation who can be seen as a lazy, impulsive product of the new privatized market and a symbol for the growing gap between generations and a shift in values.
ABOUT THE RECIPE
Ever since we had a hearty jianbing in Shanghai one morning last year, we’ve been wanting to try our own hand at making it at home. It was a most excellent breakfast item, even if the one we tasted was a health nut’s nightmare: we decided to go for pretty much every ingredient on offer and came away with a folded breakfast pancake that contained herbs, a sweet paste, a hot dog and a particularly greasy youtiao. Let’s say it was a breakfast that stayed with us until dinner time.
For our first attempt at homemade jianbing, we decided to make some changes to the classic ingredients to create a slightly more slimline crepe. Out with the hot dog and oily youtiao, in with ham, green onions, peanuts and cream cheese.
We also decided to make our jianbing northern-style with a mixture of millet flour and mung bean flour, which gives them the added perk of being gluten-free. Though if you prefer, you can switch out the mung bean flour for all-purpose flour. Millet flour can be easily made by grinding the millet grains in a liquidizer.
The reason it’s taken us a year to make our first jianbing is that the prospect of actually making it has been daunting: the memory of our jianbing chef adroitly spreading the pancake mixture paper-thin onto a giant circular hotplate and then removing it with equal skill has had us dreading what results our own experiments at home might produce.
A large non-stick pan is the closest we can get to the hotplate we saw in Beijing, and without the special batter-spreading stick used to get the jianbing around the pan, we’ll have to rely on swirling the mixture around manually.
PREPARING THE BATTER
Prepare your ingredients. Mung bean flour can be replaced with all-purpose flour if necessary, and if you’re having trouble sourcing millet flour, do what we did, which is to grind down actual millet grains in a blender.
Have your filling ingredients ready too, since once the process starts, it all goes very quickly!
Mix the mung bean flour and the millet flour together.
Stir in the coconut milk and oil.
Slightly grease a 12″ pan with a drop of sesame oil. Wipe away any excess oil with a paper towel.
Pour in half of the batter, or just enough so that when you swirl it around, the batter just covers all of the bottom of the pan. In order to do this, make sure the pan is not too hot when the batter goes in, otherwise it will harden much more quickly.
Add an egg on top and spread evenly over the crepe with a spoon or spatula. Cook for about a minute.
Add the herbs, sprinkling them evenly around the crepe. Keep cooking till the eggs are fully set.
Loosen the edges of the crepe with a spatula. The thinner the spatula, the better.
Now flip the crepe over.
Mix the chilli flakes into the cream cheese.
Spread the cream cheese over the middle third of the crepe.
Cover with slices of ham
Pour some plum sauce over the ham.
Sprinkle the crushed peanuts over the top.
And add more chopped herbs, according to taste.
Start to fold your jianbing over while it’s still in the pan. The easiest way is to fold the two outside edges of the circle in towards the center.
Done! You can either sit down and eat your jianbing right away, or take it to go; it’s a marvellously portable snack that, if wrapped right, can travel with you wherever you go.
OUR TAKE ON THE RECIPE
We were definitely happy with the way our jianbing turned out. The fact that the crepe stayed in one piece was a definite victory for our pan skills, though we do think we could have gotten the batter even thinner than it was, and for this it might have been better to have the pan initially cooler so that the batter does not harden too quickly. But the texture and crispiness were great.
The source recipe we used was intended more as a late night snack, since it called for ground meat and beans. Since we’re eating our jianbing for breakfast, we opted for a lighter ham and cheese variety, but what’s great about the jianbing concept is that you can really let your imagination run wild as far as the fillings go.
The crepe itself has quite a neutral taste and will adapt to a lot of different ingredients. You might even want to try salmon roe caviar with fruit jam ricotta topping on this crepe, instead of pancakes, which is how the Russians eat this interesting breakfast.
As well as the flexibility of the ingredients is the flexibility of the jianbing batter itself. You can play around with the flour to produce different textures and tastes, and this dish is easily made gluten free. Don’t feel like making the crepe? Skip this step and opt to serve the ham and the sauce on a english muffin or bagel instead.Print