Ancient breakfast going global

Updated: 2016-08-26 08:38

By Matt Prichard(China Daily Europe)

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We arrived in China in 2012 in a blur of excitement and exhaustion.

In less than three months, I accepted a job in Shanghai, married my then-girlfriend Delores, and we sold two houses, quit our jobs, and reduced most of our personal belongings to fit into a 3-by-3 meter storage space.

After saying our farewells to family and friends, we were ready for a new adventure and a new life.

Ancient breakfast going global

We got on a plane in Los Angeles and landed at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport. I barely remember the drive to a serviced apartment. Once we finally set our bags down, the exhaustion won out, and we spent most of the next few days sleeping, living off chocolate bars we had intended as gifts.

We finally emerged one morning, still in a bit of a daze, to hunt for some real food. After wandering down the street, we ended up in a line of people apparently waiting for something delicious for breakfast. As our turn neared, we watched the cook ladle batter onto a round griddle, crack an egg over it, and add chili paste, chopped scallions, cilantro and spices. Then it was folded up with some crispy wafers.

We had discovered the crunchy, eggy, spicy deliciousness of jianbing guozi, a traditional Chinese savory breakfast crepe, often with a rectangular strip of fried, crispy cracker placed inside. The name is a combination of "fried pancake" and "fried dough". I told my wife, "I hope McDonald's doesn't get ahold of this - they'd ruin it."

Four years later, jianbing have spread to the United States, but not in the form I'd feared. A recent article on the food website Tasting Table says: "The go-to breakfast Chinese students have been downing for years is about to hit big." It cites several entrepreneurs in New York City and San Francisco who are improvising, using such ingredients as Peking duck, tuna and even fried chicken and slaw.

It turns out this portable breakfast is quite ancient. The World of Chinese website explains: "According to legends, jianbing was invented nearly 2,000 years ago during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280) when Zhuge Liang ... was faced with feeding an army of soldiers who'd lost their woks."

Zhuge, chancellor of the state of Shu, ordered cooks to mix water with flour and spread the dough onto a griddle suspended over a fire. "The dish lifted his soldiers' morale and they fought their way out of an ambush," the article says.

Ancient breakfast going global

This breakfast of champions is most common in East China, and they're often made on street corners in carts fashioned to be pulled with a bicycle. There are regional variations, with my favorite being Shandong style. We recently discovered that a small vendor a few blocks from our Beijing apartment is willing to make Shandong style jianbing, which seems crispier than the local Beijing version. It's a wonderful discovery - except for perhaps my waistline.

We've never tried to make them at home. First, it's best to have a fairly large, flat griddle. The professionals have round ones perfect for the task. An old-fashioned recipe from a friend in the know, purported to deliver the genuine taste of jianbing, first popularized in Tianjin, is deceptively complicated, or at least time-consuming. The batter includes millet, two kinds of beans and corn, which first should be soaked overnight. Once the batter is made, it should rest overnight. Of course, there are all kinds of recipes out there, some of which advise using any flour you have on hand. But why go to the trouble when you can get great ones on the street? (One of the perks of living in China!)

The Tasting Table article says the new jianbing phenomenon abroad is particularly popular with overseas Chinese communities, who consider it a comfort food with a taste from home.

But more people outside those communities are discovering them, too.

The article quotes Brian Goldberg, "proud New Yorker and founder of Beijing street food company Mr. Bing" as saying in Big Apple style: "'It's a bing. Get used to it, people.'"

Jianbing guozi

(Easy home version)


Thin Lebanese flatbread, carefully separated into two rounds (or use smaller pita bread and split them)



Chopped fresh coriander and spring onions

Hot chili bean paste or doubanjiang (a type of fermented bean paste)

Hoisin sauce

Youtiao or Chinese dough fritters, toasted till crisp


Use a lightly oiled flat frying pan or griddle to toast flatbread.

Break an egg onto flatbread, spread it evenly.

Flip flatbread so egg side cooks.

Flip it back to crisp edges.

Next, assemble it.

Smear hoisin sauce and/or chili bean paste to taste, sprinkle chopped coriander and spring onions on top and place a lettuce leaf in middle, add the toasted crispy youtiao and fold over like a burrito.

Eat immediately before it loses its crunch.

Original Tianjin-style jianbing

Soak 1 cup millet, 1 cup green mung beans, 1 cup yellow corn and 1 cup black beans overnight. Blend together and mash with a little salt and enough water to make a thin batter. Allow to rest eight hours, or overnight.

Make the cracker by mixing plain flour with enough salted water and baking soda to make a stiff dough. Roll out thinly and fold into three pieces. Roll out again as flat as possible and cut into 20cm squares. Deep fry until crisp and puffed up. Keep in airtight container when cool.

Heat a flat griddle until a drop of batter sizzles when tested. Lightly oil and drop a ladle of batter over, using a spatula to spread it very thin, easing the edges up to release the steam and crisp the pancake.

When pancake is cooked but not golden, drop an egg over it and spread evenly.

Flip the pancake over and cook the egg side. Flip it again, and smear on your choice of sauces - fermented red bean curd, chili paste or sweet bean paste (hoisin sauce). Sprinkle chopped coriander and spring onions on top with lettuce leaf.

Add a crispy cracker square and fold the pancake over the cracker. You may also add sausage to bolster the protein content.

Recipes: Courtesy Pauline D. Loh

(China Daily European Weekly 08/26/2016 page1)