A visit to northern China is not complete without sampling the carb-loaded street food staple known as jianbing.
Somewhere between a crepe and an omelette, jianbing hails from the port city of Tianjin, where it’s a common breakfast item.
But the snack’s popularity means it’s also served at all times of the day, much like the all-day breakfast menu at American diners. One can start the morning with jianbing and end a night clubbing with jianbing.
And while the city of Tianjin has tried, in vain, to standardize the recipe—even going as far as issuing an official rubric—that hasn’t stopped innovators from adding more unconventional ingredients.
Sausages, smashed avocado, and even Sriracha hot sauce have been thrown into jianbing, putting it in the pantheon of great fusion creations like the Korean taco and boba pancake.
After all, jianbing is fundamentally a pancake, a blank slate on which to freely experiment and adapt.
The traditional recipe
The accoutrements vary, but the base is more or less the same wherever you go.
The batter is traditionally made with mung bean flour, though some also mix in wheat. It’s then spread onto a flat cast-iron pan, where it’s molded into a perfect circle through the precise, compass-like movements of a spatula.
An egg (or two) is cracked on top, broken up, and spread evenly with swift tapping movements. Unlike a French crepe, where the egg is infused in the batter, the egg is cooked on top of the pancake in a jianbing.
Black sesame seeds are then sprinkled on top, and the whole thing is turned over.
From here, every seller has its own take on size, filling, and sauce, but most include a crispy, deep-fried rectangle of dough—known as 薄脆 baocui—that helps keep the jianbing’s shape when folded.
Others will use a fried dough stick known as 油条 youtiao instead.
A brush of fermented soybean paste and chili sauce is common, as is a generous sprinkle of chopped spring onions or coriander.
Jianbing is so tied to Tianjin’s heritage that in 2018, a local trade association issued guidelines for how to make a proper pancake, though judging from the wide variations on the street, they’re hardly followed.
Among other criteria, vendors have to make sure the crepe measures 38 to 45 centimeters in diameter.
There are even rules for what toppings are allowed—only deep-fried dough, shallots, eggs, fermented soybean, and chilli sauce. Everything else, including meat, is sacrosanct.
For what it’s worth, the association says the guidelines are not strictly enforced, which suggests the intended purpose is to preserve the traditional jianbing recipe rather than issue a draconian edict.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from coming up with their own creations.
Avocado Drum in Beijing dishes up Mexican-inspired jianbing stuffed with salsa, cheese, corn, and, of course, avocado.
“Besides Chinese food, Mexican is my favorite because I love spicy food,” says Wang Xiangkang, the owner. “I first tried it about 10 years ago and thought Mexican and Chinese cuisines were very similar.”
Wang’s stall, a tiny hole-in-the-wall next to a live music venue in the hip Gulou neighborhood of Beijing, is a popular haunt of late-night snackers.
“Jianbing reminds me of late nights working as a DJ in Beijing.”
“Jianbing reminds me of late nights working as a DJ in Beijing,” Wang says. “I could always find a vendor going home in the early hours.”
Jianbing sellers are often the first to open their stalls, before dawn, and the last to close, long after nightfall. Avocado Drum only caters to the night crowd, but Wang often finds himself working into the wee hours of the morning to satisfy hungry partygoers.
While Wang is staying true to jianbing’s origins as a street snack, others are offering it as bar food.
At The Great Outdoors, nestled in one of Beijing’s distinctive alleyways, jianbing shares a spot alongside bar classics like burgers and chicken wings.
“Pancakes are usually a dessert in the West,” says Paul Peng, a partner at The Great Outdoors, “but in China, it packs so many different flavors.”
Peng’s coup is completely eliminating the deep-fried crisp and usual condiments.
Instead, his jianbing is stuffed with sautéed peppers, onions, cheese, and generous splashes of Sriracha, a spicy chili sauce popular in America.
While jianbing makers in China are getting inspiration from the world’s cuisines, the street food staple is also becoming popular outside its home country’s borders.
Early in the scene was The Flying Pig, a food truck that opened in New York in 2015.
Inspired by the flavors of home, Beijing native Yolanda Li wanted to bring jianbing to the streets of Manhattan, but she also knew that in order to sell well, she would have to pack more than just carbs into the recipe.
“I was experimenting with all different ingredients—tuna, chicken, like weird stuff.”
“I was experimenting with all different ingredients,” she says, “tuna, chicken, like weird stuff.”
Among her offerings is a jianbing with braised pork belly—a recipe from her mother, she says—and another incorporating crayfish, a summer staple in China.
“You can basically add whatever fillings you want as long as it is to your preference,” she says.
Another jianbing stand that has taken assimilation to heart is Pleasant Lady in London, which opened last year to rave reviews.
Besides the traditional vegetarian option, curious eaters can also try jianbing stuffed with cumin lamb, miso grilled chicken, and Iberian pork.
“Tradition holds back a lot of things,” co-founder Alex Peffly told The Evening Standard when Pleasant Lady first opened last April. “If you always made the dish the same way you’d have a pretty boring palate. We’re throwing tradition to the wayside but keeping the authenticity.”
(Read more: Can an AI robot taste ‘authentic’ Chinese food?)
With a dish as storied and beloved as jianbing, it’s easy to judge a newcomer with the weight of tradition. “But it’s not a jianbing if it doesn’t have a baocui, or the fermented paste, or if it’s not made completely with mung bean.”
But food evolves over time. It adapts to the changing palates of people and places. Jianbing should be no different.
Producer and Host: Clarissa Wei
Videographer: Nicholas Ko
Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche
Animation: Ray Ngan