It was a daily ritual – stuffing her mobile phone into her bag Zhong An would run out of her small apartment in Shanghai every morning around 7am, dressed for work. If she walked fast enough, she would make it in time to pick up her favourite breakfast wrap – Jianbing (pronounced Jinbing), from one of the most popular street food stalls in the city, just a few blocks away.
“Jianbing is the best Chinese street food there is. Hands down!” said An, the 34-year-old Chinese expat who now works in Dubai as a sales manager.
The long queue outside her favourite street stall called Fatty Jianbing would be intimidating, but the aroma of the freshly cooked breakfast crêpes would have her tummy rumble, every single day. “My regular order was one Jianbing with egg, sausage, pickled green beans and spring onions,” she said.
For the uninitiated, Jianbing is a crispy crêpe that looks similar to regag in the UAE. The base of the crêpe is made using a batter, which is a blend of millet, wheat, corn, and mung or soybeans, mixed with water. The ingredients used in the batter differs from region to region across China, but the process of making the crêpe is the same. The batter is evenly spread on a flat, round griddle. As it cooks, an egg (or two) is cracked and spread on it. The crêpe is then topped with chopped spring onions and other herbs to balance out the sweetness from the soybean paste and the heat from the chilli paste. Toppings are based on the customer’s choice and added before the crêpe is finally folded and served.
Chinese social media users and travellers often share videos of street vendors making Jianbing.
Fatty Jianbing is run by a couple who have been making the crêpe in Shanghai for over 15 years, said Zhong An. Apparently, the stall is so popular that a sign on the stall says that each customer cannot order more than three Jianbings.
“For only four or five yuan (around Dh2), it’s the perfect hot, delicious breakfast on the go,” she added.
Written as 煎餅／煎饼 in Mandarin, the word jiānbǐng translates to “fried pancake”. It turns out that this breakfast recipe is quite ancient.
According to an article on TheWorldofChinese.com, legend has it that Jianbing was invented nearly 2,000 years ago. “Chancellor Zhuge Liang (a Chinese statesman and military strategist, who was the former Imperial Chancellor of Shu Han) was faced with feeding an army of soldiers who'd lost their woks,” according to the article.
Zhuge apparently ordered cooks to mix water with flour and spread the dough onto a griddle suspended over a fire. "The dish lifted his soldiers' morale and they fought their way out of an ambush," the article says.
A thin yet spongy wrap holds everything together
One of the reasons why the crêpe is so popular is because it can be eaten on the go. It doesn’t get messy and remains intact until the last bite, even as you crunch through the wafers and the crispy lettuce that are neatly layered and rolled with fillings.
In fact, according to Bob Wang, a Chinese expat based in Dubai, Jianbing is as common as noodles in China. He said: “I have always eaten Jianbing since my childhood, and I would eat it every morning for breakfast before I went to school. If I didn’t eat it at home, then I would buy some from small stalls or kiosks that would be next to the bus station on my way to school. It is one of my favourite dishes in Chinese cuisine and anyone can have it, including toddlers and elderly people.”
When it comes to eating Jianbing as a street food in China, you’re spoilt for choice, as there are many different flavours to choose from.
“I remember, when I would stop by a stall selling Jianbing, the cook would ask me if I wanted spring onions, noodles, chilies or sausages inside the wrap. Eggs are the most important stuffing. Most people eat Jianbing alongside other dishes like fried chicken, beef, or fried potatoes. These sides can also be stuffed inside the wrap. I find it very easy to make it and I have prepared it at home. If the Jianbing has a lot of stuffing, it takes about half an hour to prepare it,” says Wang.
For some, nostalgia is another ingredient in Jianbing
For 36-year-old Chinese expat XiangMei Tang and homemaker, based in Dubai, Jianbing has helped her overcome homesickness. Although she’s never tried it at a restaurant in the UAE, she makes the dish at home while recalling her carefree days as a student in China.
“I was unable to go back to China to visit my family in 2019 due to the pandemic. At that time, I decided to make Jianbing at home. It greatly reduced my homesickness.”
Eating Jianbing reminds Tang of her family and friends in China. She added: “When I was in Beijing, it used to be my favourite dish for breakfast and also for dinner, because it’s so quick and easy to make. When I was a university student, my parents used to send me money for my living expenses. My classmates and I would spend almost all the money very fast. When we’d be short of funds, I would depend on Jianbing to satisfy my hunger, as it was tasty and affordable.”
I was unable to go back to China to visit my family in 2019 due to the pandemic. At that time, I decided to make Jianbing at home. It greatly reduced my homesickness.
Tang explained that there are two ways of making Jianbing. “One is in the Tianjin style (from the northern Chinese city of Tianjin), which is also called Jian Bin Goo Zip and another is made in the Shandong style (from the Shandong province in east China).”
She explained that the difference between the two is that in the Tianjin way, the egg is on the outside, while in the Shandong style everything is inside the wrap.
“I tried to make it in the Tianjin style, which needs a specific type of flour for the crêpe. Usually people use green (mung) bean flour, but I was just too lazy and I used all-purpose flour instead.
“It takes me less than 10 minutes to cook Jianbing and since the dish is simple, it’s an easy snack to eat when I’m in a hurry,” she added.
Tang shared a recipe for homemade Jianbing made with wonton wrappers that can be bought at most supermarkets.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
5 to 6 wonton wrappers
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 to 2 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 bunch of finely chopped coriander leaves
1 to 2 sprigs of finely chopped spring onions
1 to 2 lettuce leaves, roughly chopped
Deep fry wonton wrappers until they become golden.
Cook the Bing or crêpe, which will be the base to add all the stuffing in it.
Combine all-purpose flour and water into a thin batter.
Put some cooking oil on a frying pan and pour the batter.
Spread it out to make a thin Bing (or crêpe).
Crack an egg on top of the Bing then spread it and sprinkle some sesame seeds on it.
Flip over when the Bing firms up.
Brush the crêpe with sauces of your choice. Add spring onion, coriander and chopped lettuce leaves.
Then add the fried crispy crackers.
Fold the Bing with the stuffing inside and enjoy.
Chinese chef shares video guide to making the perfect Jianbing at home
We also spoke to Linda Ouyang, a Chinese expat who is the owner and Head Chef at Ouyang’s Home Cuisine Café. She shared a version of the recipe with chicken sausage and lettuce.
For the crêpe:
250 gms mung bean flour
1tbsp Chinese Thirteen Spices Powder (store bought)
1 tsp salt
550 ml water
For the sauce:
1 tbsp sweet soybean paste (store bought)
1 tbsp salty soybean paste (store bought)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp preserved tofu (store bought)
2 tbsp water
Chilli oil (if you want to make it spicy)
For the filling:
10 pieces of dumpling wrappers (store bought)
1 medium sized egg
2 to 3 stalks of spring onion chopped
3 to 4 sprigs of coriander chopped
½ tsp roasted black sesame seeds
10 leaves of lettuce
2 to 3 chicken sausages (store bought)
Preparing the filling
1. Mix all the ingredients to make the sauce, you can use a blender to get a fine mixture. Pour out the mixture into a small pan, bring it to a boil, and set it aside.
2. Prepare the dumpling wrappers by cutting two slits on the center of each wrapper, so that it does not puff up too much when frying. Put some frying oil in a deep pan or wok, heat the oil, check the temperature of the oil with one piece of bamboo stick, if there are bulbs surrounding the stick, then the oil has heated up to the desired temperature. You can also put one small piece of dumpling wrapper to check if it instantly fries.
3. When the oil is hot enough, drop the dumpling wrappers into it. When the wrapper floats and the colour of it changes to golden brown, which will take about 30 seconds to 1 minute, take it out. Keep the wrappers aside to cool down.
4. Slice the sausages and keep aside.
Making the crêpe
1. Add all the ingredients to make the crêpe into a blender or food mixer, to get a very fine batter.
2. Heat a nonstick pan and brush it with a little oil, then remove the extra oil with a kitchen towel.
3. Use a ladle to add the crêpe batter onto the pan, rotate the pan to get a round shape, put the pan on a medium flame until the crêpe is cooked. The edges will curl up a little and the center will be firm once it is cooked.
4. On the lowest flame, break the egg on top of the crêpe and spread it evenly.
5. Sprinkle the chopped spring onions and coriander, black sesame seeds and watch until the egg cooks to your liking.
6. Flip over the crêpe, brush the sauce and chilli oil on the crêpe.
7. Transfer the crêpe onto a plate, put the fried dumpling wrappers, sausages, lettuce, fold the crêpe into half, and cut it. Serve.
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