Dy­nasty The Bing

孙佳慧

The World of Chinese - - Journey To The Best - BY SUN JIAHUI ( )

With gourmet ver­sions flour­ish­ing over­seas, Sun Jiahui goes in search of the au­then­tic jian­bing 听说煎饼打入了海外美食圈,我赶紧找天津人和山东人聊了聊,到底正宗煎饼哪家强?

It grew up on the street, be­fore head­ing to the big city and mak­ing a name for it­self; now it’s here, there and ev­ery­where—beijing, Lon­don, San Fran­cisco, New York. Jian­bing (煎饼) is the hum­ble im­mi­grant with mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ties, the lowly snack that, some­where along the way, be­came gourmet grub at places like Man­hat­tan’s Mr. Bing, or Mei Mei’s Cart in Lon­don.

In March, The New York Times re­ported on lo­cal at­tempts to make the jian­bing as “fa­mil­iar and es­sen­tial a part of the city’s food scene as tacos and falafel.” Carts of­fer­ing va­ri­eties of jian­bing from be­tween 3.5 and 15 USD can be found in Flush­ing, Queens (long flush with Chi­nese im­mi­grants), Kips Bay, Brook­lyn, and Mid­town East. Hip­ster va­ri­eties of jian­bing have been spot­ted as far afield as Seat­tle and Port­land.

Hail­ing from north China, jian­bing is a crepe made with bat­ter and eggs, typ­i­cally topped with cilantro, scal­lions, and a sweet sauce made of bean paste, of­ten with the ad­di­tion of a deep-fried crunchy wafer ( baocui, 薄脆). It’s usu­ally sold on the streets as break­fast and eaten on the go.

I’m very proud jian­bing is mak­ing its way as an en­voy of Chi­nese food cul­ture into the world of ham­burg­ers, pizza, and pas­trami on rye; I am grate­ful to the lo­cal en­trepreneurs who’ve taken jian­bing abroad, as well the for­eign chefs who’ve tried to lo­cal­ize by adding Western­style in­gre­di­ents to the orig­i­nal pan­cake. But I have to say: I am re­ally sur­prised that some­body is will­ing to pay 15 US dol­lars for it.

Af­ter all, back home, a jian­bing costs only 5 or 6 RMB (less than a dol­lar). And as good as those over­seas vari­a­tions might be, I doubt they’d ever be con­sid­ered au­then­tic.

Find­ing a jian­bing cart in Beijing is as easy as track­ing down a hot dog in New York. Just out­side Chaoyang­men sub­way sta­tion, about 10 min­utes’ walk from TWOC tow­ers, there’s a stall I pass ev­ery day. At lunchtime in the mid­dle of the week, four cus­tomers are lined up out­side the win­dow. A ba­sic “bing” here— baocui and an egg—costs 6 RMB with op­tional ex­tras: 10 RMB, for ex­am­ple, gets you some fried chicken wrapped in­side.

It’s not bad, a bit bland, but the sauce is a dis­ap­point­ment.

I re­mem­ber the jian­bing cart when I was liv­ing in Shang­hai three years ago. It of­fered may­on­naise, ketchup, Thou­sand Is­land dress­ing, chili sauce, and home­made hoisin; you could have what­ever you wanted, or even mix them up. But when I asked the ven­dor out­side Chaoyang­men whether there were any more op­tions, her re­sponse was curt—no one eats jian­bing that way.

When I spoke to my friend Song Feifei from Tian­jin, known as the city of jian­bing, her first words were: “I never eat jian­bing in Beijing. It would break my heart.”

There are many things you should never do in China; one is try to talk back to a Tian­jiner about jian­bing. For Song, it was an es­sen­tial part of her up­bring­ing. She re­mem­bers bring­ing eggs from home for the ven­dor to add: “You’d put your egg on the stove, they’d re­mem­ber when it was your turn.”

As for the in­gre­di­ents, Song is adamant about what con­sti­tutes a proper jian­bing. “First of all, we call it jian­bing guozi (煎饼果子),” she be­gan. “The bat­ter has to be made of mung beans; the fill­ing should only be fried

dough stick or baocui; one or two eggs should be spread evenly on the pan­cake; chopped scal­lions, Tian­jin sweet sauce or gar­lic sauce, and pre­served bean curd can be added. No more is al­lowed.” Song glanced at the jian­bing still in my hand. “Fried chicken, ba­con, ham, rousong (肉松, ‘meat floss’), and let­tuce are all heresy.”

Song’s at­ti­tude may have been strict, but it was no out­lier. Crosstalk comic Guo De­gang, a Tian­jin na­tive, de­scribed eat­ing the snack in Beijing as “ter­ri­fy­ing…take one bite, and your throat gets blocked and you have to poke it all down with a chop­stick.” On the in­ter­net, the proper prepa­ra­tion of jian­bing is a touchy sub­ject. “Ketchup on jian­bing guozi is com­pletely chal­leng­ing our Tian­jin tra­di­tion,” claimed one blog­ger. “Th­ese bizarre vari­a­tions are de­stroy­ing Tian­jin’s cul­tural her­itage,” warned an­other. “If you love your city, you love the cui­sine. It is what we should de­fend,” Song ex­plained.

Against in­ter­lop­ers like Mcdonald’s, per­haps? One jian­bing-lover com­pared su­per­flu­ous in­gre­di­ents to West­ern­iza­tion. “Wrap ham and let­tuce into a jian­bing guozi?” he asked. “Why don’t you eat a slice of pizza with some vine­gar? Are you sell­ing a street-food ver­sion of Mcdonald’s ham­burg­ers?”

In­deed, the fast-food gi­ant has its own spe­cific vari­ant on Song’s beloved snack. Called the “Mc-jian­bing (麦煎饼),” it con­tains ev­ery­thing the avowed Tian­jiner hates—ba­con, ham, even hash browns, all wrapped in a pan­cake bat­ter that has never seen a mung bean in its life. Sur­pris­ingly, Song ap­proves of its slo­gan “Jian­bing? No! It’s McJian­bing!”

“I’m not look­ing down on th­ese so-called ‘jian­bing,’” Song said. “Maybe they taste good for oth­ers. The only prob­lem is that they are not real jian­bing guozi,” says Song.

I re­al­ized it was time to move the dis­cus­sion away from Song’s jian­bing guozi, but still had one im­por­tant mat­ter to con­firm: Is it true that Shan­dong re­ally “in­vented” the jian­bing?

Le­gend has it that dur­ing the Qing dy­nasty (1616 – 1911), a Shan­dong mar­tial artist named Lao­dao killed a pair of thugs he’d seen bul­ly­ing an el­derly man. Lao­dao fled into ex­ile with only a knife and a bag of flour, and is sup­posed

to have lived on pan­cakes cooked on his blade. Along the line, Lao­dao picked up a cou­ple of dough sticks and some leeks to spice up his wa­tery pan­cakes, and even­tu­ally ended up in Tian­jin. Some­how, the story goes, this vagabond con­fec­tion, named “jian­bing wraps” (煎饼裹着 ji`nbing gu6zhe) ac­quired city­wide re­pute and be­came to­day’s sim­i­lar-sound­ing jian­bing guozi.

“I don’t know whether the story is true or just fab­ri­cated,” Song said af­ter hear­ing it. “But Shan­dong jian­bing has all my re­spect.”

The coastal prov­ince has long been linked to the sa­vory pan­cake. There are a mul­ti­tude of ori­gin sto­ries: Some say that Three King­doms mil­i­tary leader Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) in­vented the jian­bing to feed his troops, while a recipe of sorts can be found in the records of the Ming dy­nasty (1368 – 1644), mak­ing the orig­i­nal method of prepa­ra­tion at least 400 years old.

And by orig­i­nal, I do mean back to ba­sics: Zhu Na, a Shan­dong na­tive, de­scribes her prov­ince’s take as “com­pletely dif­fer­ent from jian­bing

guozi. Ours is a dry, thin, pa­per-like thing,” she says. “It’s not a snack. It’s a sta­ple, like rice or buns. The bat­ter can be made from grain, corn, sorghum or even sweet po­tato. And it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily eaten hot.”

It is, in essence, a plain pan­cake—about as far away as pos­si­ble from the lux­ury, bar­be­cued pork, roast duck, and wine-steeped chick­en­stuffed wraps found at Mr. Bing, or even the eggs, herbs, chilis, and ham that goes into Mo­joilla Fresh in the Queens ver­sion. Not that Shan­dong peo­ple are as­cetics; they sim­ply re­gard the an­cient jian­bing as a ver­sa­tile feast. “We wrap ev­ery­thing with it,” Zhu told me. “Stir-fried dishes, pick­led veg­eta­bles, tofu, raw leeks with sauce, even sugar…any­thing you like.”

I didn’t tell Zhu that the last time I’d tried Shan­dong jian­bing, it was so tough I couldn’t chew it at all: It felt like tear­ing a book with my teeth. But ac­cord­ing to Zhu, the tex­ture is ac­tu­ally an ad­van­tage: “You can make a lot of jian­bing at once, and it won’t go bad for months. If you want to soften it, just heat it a lit­tle be­fore eat­ing.”

Al­though Zhu con­sid­ers Shan­dong jian­bing both healthy and slim­ming (“there’s no oil… When I was preg­nant, it’s the only food didn’t make me sick”), she ac­cepts it’s not for all tastes. “Au­then­tic Shan­dong jian­bing is more a home­made food, and doesn’t have much po­ten­tial to be­come a pop­u­lar street snack. To­day, many so-called ‘Shan­dong Jian­bing’ you see are more like Tian­jin’s.” Un­like Song, this doesn’t bother her. “There should be in­no­va­tion,” Zhu said.

In­spired by the spirit of in­clu­siv­ity, I sent her a pic­ture of the Mc-jian­bing. “Do me a fa­vor,” she replied a few sec­onds later. “Call it jian­bing guozi, please.”

“AU­THEN­TIC SHAN­DONG JIAN­BING IS MORE A HOME­MADE FOOD, AND DOESN'T HAVE MUCH PO­TEN­TIAL TO BE­COME A POP­U­LAR STREET SNACK”

A Tian­jin-style jian­bing guozi, with the bat­ter made of mung beans

A woman mak­ing Shan­dong jian­bing

A Mc-jian­bing wtih ba­con and egg in­side

A Tian­jin jian­bing guozi wrapped around fried dough stick

A chef wraps veg­eta­bles, pick­les, and peanuts in a Shan­dong jian­bing

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