Around the World in Pancakes

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

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Breakfast

Everything you need to make the most important meal of the day delicious.

For most Americans, the word "pancake" conjures a stack of fluffy, hot-off-the-griddle flapjacks, a pat of butter slowly melting beneath a rivulet of maple syrup. But pancakes take myriad forms around the world, from delicate French crepes sprinkled with sugar to spongy, sour Ethiopian injera to chewy-crisp Japanese okonomiyaki, studded with seafood and drizzled with sticky brown sauce and mayo.

Once you expand your horizons, you realize that pancakes are a tricky business, and they're nigh impossible to define. I've spent weeks hurtling down the rabbit hole, musing over existential questions like: where do flatbreads end and pancakes begin? Are cookies pancakes? What about biscuits or scones? Is everything pancake?

You may be relieved to learn that everything is not, in fact, pancake. But pancakes are one of mankind's oldest prepared foods, which is why you'll find some iteration of them in virtually every cuisine around the world. The very concept of the pancake is millennia old, a legacy of our earliest forays into grain-milling. Indeed, it's likely that the earliest pancakes were indistinguishable from flatbreads—I'm talking wild grains, pulverized between a couple of stones, mixed into a paste with water, and cooked on greased rocks heated over an open fire. That's right: pancakes? Totally Paleolithic fast food.

And that's where a clearer understanding of the pancake starts to emerge: Both pancakes and flatbreads embody the idea that the most common and basic ingredients can combine into a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. They're quick-cooking and don't require anything more than a pan (or a rock) and a heat source, but they're also the basis for more involved cooking methods, canvases for countless ingredient combinations. They're staple foods to be peppered with seafood, poultry, aromatics, or fruit; topped with whipped cream or cheeses, syrups, caviar, chutneys, or jam; used as a wrap for hearty stewed meats and vegetables. Tortillas become tacos; injera an entire Ethiopian feast; arepas a hearty, satisfying Venezuelan sandwich.

In other words, a pancake, no matter how you define it, is a lens through which to see the world. Before we dive in, though, let's take a look at the most common pancake variables you're likely to encounter.

  • The flour: While your box of Aunt Jemima contains wheat flour, any variety of grain can be ground into a flour, from rice to corn to buckwheat and beyond. And that's not even counting other starchy ingredients, like potatoes, nuts, and legumes, which frequently replace or combine with grain flours in common pancake batters.
  • The liquid: Eggs, milk, coconut milk, and cream can all be added along with, or more commonly, in place of, water for more body and richness. Less commonly, fats like oil, butter, or lard are incorporated directly into pancake batter or dough.
  • Leavening agents: Many pancakes, from crepes to arepas, go unleavened. But fluffier renditions often get a dose of baking powder or yeast for a rise.
  • Fermentation: Sour pancakes, like injera and dosas, are left to ferment, taking advantage of natural yeast growth much like a bread's sourdough starter does. Elsewhere, cultured buttermilk fills a similar role.
  • Cooking method: The strictest definition of pancakes suggests stovetop cooking in a pan or on a griddle, where they're typically flipped and cooked on both sides. Yet crepes cook only on one side, and certain exceptions, like the Dutch baby or Finland's pannukakku, cook in the oven instead. We're equal opportunists here, so we'll take a look at them all.

Of course, far more can differ than just ingredients: There are hundreds of pancake varieties and thousands of ways to prepare, serve, fill, and eat them. Here are 23 great ones that we think you should get to know.

Classic American Pancakes

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

"In the American colonies, pancakes," explains writer and food historian Rebecca Rupp, "were made with buckwheat or cornmeal." These days, they're usually made with neutral all-purpose flour, though variations like oatmeal pancakes abound. Enriched with eggs and milk (or buttermilk) and sometimes oil, most American pancakes get their rise from baking powder. The ingredients are stirred into a viscous batter, often with fresh berries or even chocolate chips; dolloped onto a hot greased pan; and cooked on both sides until golden brown. Served in a stack with a sliver of butter and a side of maple syrup, the fluffy cakes are eaten almost exclusively for breakfast. You'll find similar renditions in Scotland (drop scones, or Scotch pancakes) and Australia (pikelets), though the batters are often sweetened with sugar where American versions are not.

Get the recipe for Light and Fluffy Pancakes »

Crepes

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Translucent, pliable crepes may hail from France, but they're enjoyed all over the world and go by many names, from Hungarian palacsinta to Italian crespelle. The classic is made with a wet mixture of milk, eggs, a pinch of salt, and a bit of wheat flour. It's the kind of loose batter that spreads easily, making for a paper-thin pancake; gently cooked on a butter-greased pan, it develops its prized golden, lacy pattern. "Every French household makes use of crêpes," explains Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, "not only as a festive dessert for Mardi Gras and Candlemas Day, but as an attractive way to turn leftovers or simple ingredients into a nourishing main-course dish."

As with many pancakes, both sweet and savory renditions are popular. Breakfast and dessert crepes (crêpes sucrées) are commonly filled with fruit, whipped cream, syrup, or chocolate, while lunch and dinner crepes (crêpes salées) are made heartier, stuffed with meats, cheeses, eggs, or cooked vegetables. In France's northwestern region of Brittany, a version made with buckwheat flour, known as a galette (not to be confused with the cake by the same name), is traditionally paired exclusively with savory ingredients.

Get the recipe for French Crepes With Spinach and Feta »

M'Semen

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

North Africa's answer to the crepe? Rich, flaky Moroccan m'semen. The yeasted semolina dough is stretched extremely thin and coated with butter and/or a filling, like spiced ground meat or honey. The dough is then folded repeatedly until it becomes a thin strip, much like the lamination technique used to make puff pastry. Flattened out and pan-fried, it makes for layers of flavorful filling separated by delicate, buttery crepe. Some roll the strip before flattening it, for a round crepe known as meloui.

Blini/Blintzes

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

This Eastern European specialty goes by many names, from blintz to blinchiki to blini. But in the States, at least, there's an easily recognizable distinction between blini and blintzes. The former typically resemble a silver dollar pancake—puffy and small—and are often topped with sour cream and caviar; the latter are large, pliable, and crepe-like, and typically served wrapped around a cheese or jam filling and fried to a golden brown.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Abroad, many of those distinctions dissolve in place of regional and cultural variations. Across the board, though, the principle is the same: A yeasted batter, typically made with buckwheat, wheat, or millet flour, is left to rise and then usually diluted with milk or boiling water before it's cooked on a hot pan. The resulting pancake is light and slightly stretchy, with a tangier flavor than its unyeasted cousins.

Get the recipe for Smoked Salmon and Caviar Blini »

Pfannkuchen

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First things first: German pfannkuchen can get a little confusing—in Berlin, where pfannkuchen is actually the word for Berliners, the filled doughnuts, these pancakes are instead known as eierkuchen. Though they look a bit like crepes, they're made from a thicker, eggier batter and cooked on both sides. In many ways, pfannkuchen are quite similar to American pancakes, though they're typically served with jam, applesauce, or other spreads, rather than syrup.

Aebleskiver

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[Photograph: Kenny Louie, Flickr]

Spherical aebleskiver don't look like your typical pancakes—it's the only dish to make this list that isn't even remotely flat. These Danish pancakes may look like popovers, but they eat like a dessert pancake—fluffy and hot, often dipped in jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Think of them as the doughnut hole of pancakes...and a perfect example of why pancakes are so difficult to define. And yet pancakes they are, certainly according to Danes, and quite literally pan-cooked. The egg-, flour-, and dairy-based batter—sometimes given a boost with yeast or baking powder—is poured into the round indentations of a special cast iron pan. As each cake firms up, it's rotated in its indentation, cooking into a sweet, puffy sphere.

Dutch Baby

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[Photograph: Laissez Fare, Flickr]

What happens if you cook your pfannkuchen in the oven instead of on the stove? Say hello to the Dutch baby, a loose riff on the German original that's thought to originate with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Often seasoned with vanilla, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, occasionally studded with tender apples or pears, the breakfast pancake puffs while cooking; when it's removed from the oven, the center collapses, forming a bowl-like shape. The edges are crisp and airy, like those of a popover; the center tender and eggy, with a smooth, creamy texture. It can be filled with fresh fruit or served on its own with lemon juice and powdered sugar.

Get the recipe for Dutch Baby »

Pannukakku

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[Photograph: smerikal, Flickr]

Speaking of oven-baked pancakes, the Finns are fond of pannukakku, a custardy, vanilla-spiked batter that's eaten for breakfast or dessert, like its fellow European pancakes—topped with berries, cream, jam, and/or powdered sugar.

Potato Pancakes

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

You'll find potato pancakes across Europe and throughout the Middle East. They go by many names, from Jewish latkes to Hungarian tócsni. Some call for grated potatoes, others for more of a purée, combined with flour and egg and often seasoned with aromatics like onion. Eastern Europeans typically top them with tangy sour cream or sweet applesauce. Some like 'em super thin and flat, while others prefer them dense and meaty, but in almost all cases, these fritter-like cakes are fried on both sides in a generous amount of oil and come out golden and crispy on the outside, soft and tender within.

Get the recipe for Old-Fashioned Latkes »

Farinata

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This savory Italian pancake is a profoundly simple dish: little more than nutty chickpea flour, grassy olive oil, and water, mixed together and baked in a pan (copper is traditional, but cast iron will do just fine in a pinch). Crisp on the outside, moist and smooth on the inside, farinata is also popular elsewhere along the Mediterranean rim—on France's southern coast, it's known as socca; in North Africa, it's tweaked with spices like cumin for a more custardy, almost flan-like pancake known as karane (Morocco) or karantita (Algeria).

Injera

[Photograph: Brian Oh]

In Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, injera is, quite literally, the foundation of most meals. The spongy pancake is made with nutty-sweet teff flour and gets its sour flavor from a fermentation period of several days. Traditionally cooked on a clay plate over an open fire, it is smooth and elastic on one side, and porous, even pitted, on the other. The brown, chewy flatbread is typically served on a platter topped with wat—spiced meat or vegetable stew—and diners tear the injera with their hands and use it to scoop up bite-size portions of food.

Roti

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Though commonly referred to as an Indian flatbread, you'll find roti across South and Southeast Asia, all the way to the West Indies, where it's a staple in countries like Trinidad and Tobago. Cooked on a griddle until the pale dough is lightly speckled, the thin wheat pancakes are wrap-like but substantial, decidedly on the flatbread end of the pancake spectrum. They are, as Raghavan Iyer, renowned chef and author of 660 Curries, puts it, "an Indian's silverware, used to wrap around succulent curries, stir-fries, pickles, and condiments." The stretchy-tender bread can be deep-fried for puffy poori or layered with ghee or oil for flaky, buttery paratha, a richer pancake typically used to sop up curries.

Dosa

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

The South Asian dosa is a savory, crepe-like pancake made from a fermented batter of soaked rice and urud dal (a close cousin of the lentil). Like injera, it has a tangy, fermented flavor, but that's where the similarities end. Dosas emerge shiny and crisp, more fried and lacquered than crepes. You can find them served plain, but they're usually eaten with a filling, like spiced potatoes, cooked vegetables, or even cheese.

Martabak

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Martabak has many spellings, and even more pronunciations. It's a street-food classic in Thailand, Indonesia, and India. But "according to Bruce Kraig's encyclopedic Street Food Around the World," Kenji explains, "martabak may actually trace its origins to the Middle East. In Arabic, mutabbaq means 'folded,' a reference to the way in which the soft, elastic dough is folded around a stuffing as it cooks."

The dough itself is stretched impossibly thin and flash-fried in a pan, sometimes in aromatic coconut oil, until it bubbles and turns golden. Then it's plastered with a spiced, typically meat-based filling, and folded into a rectangular bundle. It's flipped and fried on both sides before being sliced and served. Of course, that's just the savory end of the spectrum—a thick, leavened version takes care of the dessert side, sandwiching margarine, chocolate sprinkles, and sticky-sweet condensed milk.

Serabi

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

These Indonesian pancakes combine rice flour and coconut—either creamy coconut milk or simply shredded coconut—for a small nutty-sweet dessert. Cooked in an earthenware pan over a charcoal fire, they can be topped with sweet ingredients, like sprinkles or chocolate chips, for dessert, or strewn with cheeses or meats for a savory snack. Though the traditional cake is a pale golden color, you'll also spot plenty of green ones, thanks to the common addition of aromatic pandan leaf juice.

Bing

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

It's a great wide world of bings out there—so great and wide that the Chinese pancakes deserve an article all their own. There are doughy, bready bings and elastic, paper-thin bings. Perhaps the best-known on Western shores is the scallion pancake, or cong you bing: a wheat-based dough that's rolled up like a jelly roll, spiraled, flattened, and pan-fried. It's doughy, greasy, and all kinds of delicious. It's also just the tip of the iceberg. Yeasted pancakes may get split and stuffed with fried eggs or chopped meat—a Xinjiang province burger, if you will. Over in Taiwan, griddled bing will sandwich crisp fried you tiao sticks for breakfast, then get dunked in hot soy milk.

Get the recipe for Extra-Flaky Scallion Pancakes »

Jeon

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Korean jeon are reminiscent of Chinese bing, in that there are a million ways to make them. Think of the dish as a similarly diverse, delightfully eggy vessel for vegetables, chicken, meat, or seafood; there are even sweet rice-based pancakes made with flowers (hwajeon). You can recognize the variety by the word proceeding "-jeon"—for instance, kimchijeon features kimchi, and pajeon are packed with scallions.

Get the recipe for Crispy Kimchi Pancakes With Shrimp »

Hotteok

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

It's hot! It's teok! It's a hotteok! This wintry Korean street food is made from a sugary, yeasty wheat-based dough that's left to rise like a bread. You'll find them stuffed with sticky fillings, like syrup, caramel, or honey, though nuts and spices also make regular appearances. The thick, sugary cakes are then pressed flat and griddled for a molten filling and a tender dough, well toasted on each side.

Okonomiyaki

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Break down the word okonomiyaki and you get okonomi, or "what you want," and yaki, or "grilled." And that's precisely the concept behind this Japanese pancake: a versatile batter, fried with shredded cabbage and whatever fixings capture your imagination, from octopus and squid to pork belly. The unique batter is made with nagaimo, a root vegetable that yields especially moist, creamy cakes. In Osaka, the fillings are stirred right into the batter; Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki are composed in layers, including yakisoba noodles, and finished with a fried egg. But in both cases, once cooked, they're drizzled with Japanese mayonnaise and sweet-and-savory okonomi (or tonkatsu) sauce, and topped with nori flakes and pickled ginger.

Get the recipe for Okonomiyaki »

Banh Xeo

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

It may surprise you to learn that the pale yellow, fluffy banh xeo typically contains no eggs at all, despite the fact that it looks unmistakably omelette-like. In fact, the Vietnamese rice flour pancakes get their vibrant color from warming turmeric. The name can be literally translated as "sizzling pancake," and that's exactly what you'll get—a lacy-edged batter cooked in a wok. In certain regions, coconut milk is incorporated into the batter, which is typically pan-fried with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. It's served with fresh lettuce and herbs, which are meant to be used to pick it up in bits—a sort of reverse roti experience, if you will.

Tortilla

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

The Mexican tortilla is such a staple in its own right that it's easy to forget that it also qualifies as a pancake. The thin, flexible flatbread is used throughout Central America in beloved dishes like tacos, quesadillas, chilaquiles, enchiladas, and beyond. Though you can certainly find wheat flour tortillas, the true classic is made with nixtamalized corn. Milled into cornmeal and mixed with water, the masa is traditionally cooked on a comal, though a cast iron skillet or a tortilla press will do you fine as well.

Learn How to Make Corn Tortillas »

Arepa

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Arepas are a traditional Venezuelan and Colombian dish, consisting of a cornmeal patty that can be filled with cheese or served as a sandwich, stuffed to the brim with savory ingredients ranging from seafood to chorizo to fried plantains, stewed beef, and beans. "Arepas are to Colombians and Venezuelans what corn tortillas are to Mexicans and Central Americans: their daily bread, their basic staple," explains Maricel E. Presilla, author of Gran Cocina Latina. But arepas are more mild-flavored than the thinner, flatter tortilla—"these earthy South American flatbreads are made with a dough of white corn whose skin has been removed by pounding with a mortar and pestle, not by being softened with strong alkali," elaborates Presilla.

The dough itself is cooked on a griddle called a burdare until it develops brown spots. In Venezuela, arepas are thick and rounded, roughly palm-sized, and often split open and filled similarly to pita bread; in Colombia, you're more likely to find larger, flatter, floppier arepas folded around fillings.

Get the recipes for Venezuelan and Colombian Arepas »

Pupusa

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[Photograph: Lauren Rothman]

Think of the Salvadoran pupusa as a close relative of the arepa and the deep-fried Mexican gordita; all are thick cornmeal cakes eaten as stuffed snacks. But pupusas, like tortillas, use more flavorful nixtamalized corn and are sealed around their fillings before cooking. That means hot, melty cheese and/or protein-centric meat or beans. Eat it topped with a tangy cabbage slaw, called curtido, for crunchy, cooling contrast.

Get the recipe for Cheese and Bean Pupusas »