JIANBING! It’s a Chinese Wrap!
Whilst flicking through the food channel on TV recently, I happened across a story showing crepes being made with one of those wooden dowel spreader things on a huge grill, French style.
Except it wasn’t in France, it was in Jinan, Shandong. Chinese style.
I watched with intense curiosity: this was a pancake I had never seen before, and being a complete sucker for crepes and pancakes of any ilk, I was now to learn the wonders of Jian (fried) bing (flatbread).
Jianbing is one of China’s most popular street breakfasts. And while all manner of Chinese buns and dumplings have spread well beyond the country’s borders, it might also be China’s best-kept culinary secret. The savoury crisp-fried crêpes are all about bold contrasts of flavour and texture: eggs; crunchy puffed strips of fried wonton; a jumble of grassy coriander & spring onions; a sweet and spicy layer of hoisin and chilli sauces. Each one is cooked fresh to order on a huge circular grill in front of you, as you like it. And better still, they are made with millet flour and bean flour, so are completely gluten-free!! YAY!
Jianbing have a longer history than almost any other Chinese street food. Thought to have originated in Shandong Province (220–280 AD), military strategist Zhuge Liang had his soldiers cook batter on their shields held over the fire after their woks were lost. I once had a Chinese home-stay student who attributed his favourite things: pancakes and soccer, to Chinese invention, and he may have well been right!
Millet cultivation predated that of rice in parts of Asia and thus was the main crop available.
After researching, I have seen jianbing made with either a thick, sticky wad of dough, deftly spread into a giant pancake; or a very thin batter poured onto the grill, thin as a crêpe. I think the latter seems much easier and requires less skill.
While the crêpe cooks, an egg is cracked onto its uncooked surface and spread evenly…And then flipped over. The cooked side is then painted with hoisin and chilli sauce and filled with fried wonton skins & lettuce, adding a satisfying crunch.
As with many street foods, the batter and fillings used in jianbing differ by region (and vendor). In northern China, the batter might be made from mung bean or black bean flour, while in the East it’s a combination of millet flour and mung bean flour. In Tianjin, they use you tiao (fried dough sticks) rather than fried wontons as filling, calling them jianbing guozi. Other fillings vary too, ranging from Chinese sausage, or duck, to shredded carrot, or fermented vegetables.
Many consider making your own jianbing impossible without months of practice and tuition from a master. But I have worked out a very easy technique that will have you “binging” in no time!!
The beauty of the actual batter is that it is egg-free so you can omit adding the egg later if you are egg-free and fill it with other yummy things if you wish. The batter is robust enough to hold any fillings, sweet or savoury.
I made mine with almond milk instead of dairy milk but any milk will work well. Traditional jianbing are made on huge grills much like an Indian dosai, in fact the texture is quite similar. They are more pliable than a dosai but still have a lovely crunch. Street jianbing are folded into huge envelopes which is more difficult to do when using a smaller pan, so I was happy to roll mine up – you can get more filling in this way.
Instead of the traditional crispy wonton chips which are based on wheat, I used some sweet potato chips, which I think add a lovely flavour as well as crunch. I haven’t given any quantities for the fillings as you can use whatever you have on hand, although each crepe should have 1 egg on it. Feel free to omit the coriander if you are averse, I love it so I use lots! The meat addition is entirely optional and not traditionally used – I augmented mine with a little leftover duck that I had in the fridge and it was delicious!
This recipe makes 6 crepes (30cm diameter).
70g millet flour
40g besan flour
20g tapioca flour
200g milk (of your choice)
1 tab oil
Mix the ingredients well – I used my nutri-bullet – until a smooth thin batter forms, like runny cream. Let stand for 20 minutes at room temperature.
eggs, lightly beaten – allow 1 per crepe
spring onions, sliced
sweet potato chips or potato chips
leftover cooked meat: pulled pork, chicken, duck etc.
lettuce, cos or iceberg
Heat a non-stick pan which has been lightly oiled and pour some batter to make a thin crepe. Cook over a medium heat. When the surface has dried out, pour over some lightly beaten egg and spread over the surface. Sprinkle on some sliced spring onions and cook further until just set on top.
When the egg has just set, flip the crepe over and brush the cooked side with a little hoisin sauce and chilli sauce. The Chinese like them quite spicy!
In the middle, place a tablespoon of cooked meat, a handful of coriander, a handful of crushed sweet potato chips and some lettuce. Fold up into a parcel (or roll) so that the egg is on the outside and eat straightaway!!
OPTIONAL EXTRA FILLINGS – chopped peanuts, fried shallots, chopped roasted veges, mustard pickles, XO sauce, sliced fresh chilli, bacon, cheese!!