Why Jianbing is China's Most Popular Street Breakfast

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[Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

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 also might be China's best-kept culinary secret. The savory crisp-fried crêpes are all about bold contrasts of flavor and texture: eggs, spread over the surface of the wheat and mung bean flour pancake as it cooks. Crunchy puffed strips of fried wonton. A jumble of grassy cilantro, peppery scallions, and tangy pickles; a sweet and spicy layer of hoisin and chili sauces. And each one is cooked fresh to order on a circular cast-iron grill, just the way you want it.

Every metropolitan neighborhood across the People's Republic has its own jianbing vendor serving breakfast from dawn through mid-morning, satisfying hungry locals on their way to work. But until recently, you might have struggled to find jianbing outside of China and Taiwan. Now a few Western pioneers, self-taught in the secrets of making jianbing, are bringing them home to America and Britain.

A Breakfast Worth Waiting For

Jianbing stands are the ephemeral breakfast architecture of every Chinese city. At around five in the morning, the vendors appear with everything they need, packed on the back of a bicycle or motorbike: A heavy circular grill, a few tubs of ingredients, and a tin box for collecting their takings. Oh, and about twenty dozen eggs, precariously stacked in cardboard trays tied together with raffia string. They set up in unused spaces—doorways, shuttered shop fronts, street corners—and within minutes of the first bing (pancake) crisping on the hot griddle, there's a line.

As transient as these jianbing stalls might be, this is no grab-and-go street breakfast. For jianbing, there is always a line. You might be late for work, or filled with ravenous hunger, but that's all irrelevant to the vendor behind the griddle. To preserve the crispness of the pancake and fried wonton filling, jianbing are never cooked ahead of time, so waiting for your turn is part of the culture. If you need to eat something fast, buy a baozi (steamed bun) instead.

Jianbing have a longer history than almost any other Chinese street food. Thought to have originated in Shandong Province during the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280 AD), military strategist Zhuge Liang had his soldiers cook batter on shields held over the fire after their woks were lost.

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The recipe for a modern day jianbing holds fairly closely to this principle. A thick, sticky wad of dough is deftly spread into a giant pancake, thin as a crêpe, using a thick wooden paddle.

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While the crêpe cooks, an egg or two are cracked onto its uncooked surface and spread evenly...

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And then topped with finely chopped mustard pickles, scallions, and coriander.

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The jianbing is folded in half like a fan, and hoisin sauce and lajiao chili sauce spread on the back to taste. For crunch, the vendor folds the bing around a sheet of crispy-fried wonton and some lettuce, before chopping it in half to make it easier to eat.

Of course, if jianbing were that easy to make, they would have taken the world by storm long before now. Part of the challenge in replicating the dish is that the batter and fillings used in jianbing differ by region, and even by vendor. In northern China, the batter might be made from mung bean or black bean flour, while on the East Coast it's a combination of wheat 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 to shredded carrot, grated radish, chicken, or even—in cosmopolitan Shanghai—strips of crisp-fried bacon. Many consider making your own jianbing impossible without months of practice and tuition from a master.

Taking Jianbing West

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Yet a few committed foreigners have conquered the secrets of jianbing for themselves. Portland food vendor, Alisa Grandy, recently opened the city's first dedicated jianbing business, Bing Mi and is struggling to keep up with demand. She found the recipe difficult to track down in any exact form. "I was eager to recreate what I had tasted in China, but internet research left a bit to be desired. It seemed that most recipes I found were intentionally vague. They would talk about pickled vegetables, but not what kind of vegetables, or would mention a fried cracker, but say 'fry some dough' without describing what kind of dough. Eventually, I went to a large Asian supermarket in Portland, Oregon, where I purchased everything I thought might go into the jianbing. I came home and combined and recombined ingredients until I hit on a combination that tasted the way I remembered."

In Berkeley, California, John Romankiewicz, better known as Jianbing Johnny, has been selling jianbing from the back of his bicycle since 2012. "I tell everyone that I learned how to eat jianbing in Beijing, and learned how to make it in Berkeley. When I lived in Beijing from 2006 to 2009, I probably ate a couple jianbings per week. I had a lady across the street from me who made them. I watched her techniques, and learned about all of the ingredients." Romankiewicz describes the hard work of recreating that essential jianbing taste and texture. "It definitely takes practice. I knew all of the ingredients, but I had to experiment with a couple different flours to get a batter recipe that I liked. I try to keep my recipe and flavor as close as possible to the best jianbings I had in Beijing."

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And in the UK, twins Melissa and Oliver Fu, owners of Mei Mei's Street Cart are converting first London and now Manchester to the joys of jianbing, but only after spending months perfecting their technique. Melissa Fu says, "I'd never made a crepe with the proper utensils before I started making jianbing. I spent weeks scouring the Internet and watching YouTube videos of jianbings being made in China before teaching myself how to make them. Learning how to properly and evenly spread the batter took a long time and the recipe development was something I worked on for months until I was happy with it."

Each of these vendors were inspired to bring jianbing to a hungry audience back home after their first taste in China. "I couldn't believe we didn't have jianbing in London—with such a rich multi-ethnic population," explains Fu. "For me, jianbing is the epitome of Chinese food: textures from the soft pancake and crispy wonton cracker in the middle, fresh flavors from spring onions and coriander, the balance of sweet hoisin with salty soy bean paste and a kick of chili and served hot and fast—it's the ultimate comfort food."

Alisa and Neal Grandy had a different motivation but a similar belief that jianbing might be a street food of untapped potential. "Returning from a trip...Alisa had an eight-hour layover at Beijing airport," her husband and business partner Neal explains. "She took the subway into town and noticed makeshift carts where people were lined up. She watched for a bit, was intrigued, and decided to try it. She raised one finger to order and was rewarded with her first and only Chinese jianbing. She was instantly hooked and came home committed to recreating what she had eaten."

"There was something very compelling about watching a wonderful old woman bent over what appeared to be an overturned oil drum," Grandy adds. "It's special because the taste is simply fantastic. Very humble ingredients combine to become greater than the sum of their parts."

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After word of Grandy's success at cooking jianbing reached China, it led some to accuse her of "stealing" jianbing, leading to a storm of internet controversy. A sense of cultural ownership may go some way to explaining why everyday Chinese people felt the need to vent their rage when they learned foreigners were cooking "their" jianbing. Over the next week, every jianbing vendor in China seems to be discussing how an American has stolen the Chinese secret of jianbing and is now getting rich on the knowledge. "She learned how to make jianbing in Ningbo," one vendor tells me, confidentially. "It took two years." Another tells me she studied in Beijing. Everyone, it seems, can't believe an American can charge six dollars for something that costs them about 80 cents. "Those Americans," says one vendor. "They're so good at business."

Neal Grandy has a different take, seeing their jianbing business as a tribute to China. "I'm not sure intellectual property rights apply to food, and if they do, the world has some explaining to do to Italian pizza makers. Food is an amazing cultural bridge, and part of how we grow and learn about each other is through traditional foods. Every culture should be proud that something that originated in their country is loved and valued throughout the world."

John Romankiewicz agrees. "I'm not stealing Chinese culture, I'm celebrating it! Most of my customers have not heard of jianbing before, and they really enjoy learning about (and devouring) this wonderful Chinese dish."

"Bringing jianbing to the UK isn't spreading a secret but sharing a traditional part of Chinese culture that deserves to be shouted about, because it's so good!" argues Melissa Fu.

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A few days later, I'm in line for jianbing again at my favorite local vendor in Shanghai. I ask her what she thinks about an American woman selling jianbing for six dollars. "Ha!" she says. "Maybe I'll put my prices up!"

She begins. Dough, spread; egg, crack; scallions, cilantro, pickles, fold; hoisin sauce, chili paste, lettuce, wonton crisp, fold, fold, chop. For three minutes I watch, lost in the moment, anticipating the first bite. The line behind me lengthens. I look over to the baozi shop next door as customers rush in and out, the transaction taking seconds. I wait. Maybe in the midst of our frantic brain-busy days, this moment of silent observation, of waiting while someone cooks something especially for you, is the true secret of jianbing. No wonder the Chinese have guarded it closely for so long.