You can’t get far in Beijing without catching a whiff of the heavenly fragrance of pan-fried dough and egg that defines jianbing (煎饼), one the city’s most popular snacks. Read below to find out what it is, where to get it and why, according to a famous legend, it’s considered a life-saver.
Jianbing, a traditional snack/meal that’s often eaten for breakfast, is a fried crepe made from a batter of wheat and grain flour that is fried on a griddle with an egg(s) and can be topped with scallions, baocui (薄脆 a kind of crispy fried cracker) and cilantro. It can be thick, thin, crispy or chewy, but it’s almost always folded several times before serving.
Where can I find Jianbing?
Jianbings originated in China’s northeast, where grains and cereals are common, though they can extend down to northern Jiangsu (you won’t, however, find them most places out west). The most common version of jianbing sold in Beijing hail from Shandong Province, and are made from the aforementioned batter of wheat and coarse grains (beans, cereals, etc.). Similar are the jianbings sourced from Hebei Province and northeast China, nearby Shandong. The other main family of bing hails from the nearby city of Tianjin, where it is sometimes called a jianbing guozi (煎饼果子, with guozi referring to the youtiao stuffing). Tianjing jianbings are traditionally made from green mung bean flour, a gluten-free ingredient used to make the transparent “glass noodles.” The composition of the batter is the best way to trace your jianbing’s ancestry – when it comes to level of grease or thickness, it’s a matter of your cook’s preference, and all bets are off.
Jianbing to the Rescue!
According to legends, jianbing was invented nearly 2,000 years ago during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280) when Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei’s chancellor in Shandong Province, was faced with feeding an army of soldiers who’d lost their woks. Zhuge Liang ordered the cooks to evenly mix water with wheat flour and spread the dough onto a copper-made griddle suspended over a fire. The dish lifted his soldiers’ morale and they fought their way out of an ambush. Since then, jianbing has been passed down through generations of families living in Shandong.
Jianbing can be topped with a variety of flavors, but most common are cilantro, hot spices and a thick soy sauce
Jianbing in Beijing
Jianbing is found on nearly every street corner, especially outside of subway stations or tourist attractions. Some are more popular than others. For instance, at a Shandong-style jianbing stand in Zhongguancun, northwest Beijing, people can expect to wait in line several minutes—this jianbing is hot.
The owners are a middle-aged couple from Dezhou (德州) city, Shandong Province, who have established themselves in Beijing, where people can’t easily make jianbing at home.
In rural Dezhou on the other hand, it’s common for people to eat jianbing every day. Before electricity reached the countryside, every household had a water-powered stone mill (水磨 shuǐmó) to grind the coarse grains into flour. People usually milled a day in advance and pan-fried jianbing on a metal griddle over hot coals the next morning. Because jianbing contains a variety of nutrients, is filling and can be well-preserved even in high temperatures, people tend to pack it in their bags to take on long journeys.
The couple in Zhongguancun sells two kinds of jianbing: The first is made of soy beans, mung beans, black beans, peanuts and eggs, is smeared with soy bean paste, decorated with scallion, cilantro and lettuce and folded around a thin sheet of self-made deep-fried wheat flour for a take-away breakfast for just four yuan; the other is made of millet and corn, and customers can take it home and add whatever toppings they please.
If you’re not in Beijing, there are recipes out there that can be easily made at home, so be sure to check one out and impress your friends by cooking up some authentic Beijing street food. If you’re here, we want to know where your favorite jianbing stand is! Come on, share the love.