It had barely been a week since I moved to Beijing and I was already in love.
It was unexpected, really. It was my fifth night there—in a city that was to be my home for at least a year—and I was trudging home to the temporary company lodgings, shivering in a winter I had entirely underestimated. It had been a long day of apartment hunting, I had gotten lost twice, and now I was tired, homesick, and starving. It was still another ten minutes to the nearest affordable noodle-shop but then I turned a corner. And it happened.
A little way down the lane (Beijing’s alleys are notoriously badly lit) was a warm light. It was a food-cart, with a queue of three people. The first in line looked expectantly on as the cook spread a generous helping of batter on a sizzling griddle, making what looked like a huge dosa. She then cracked an egg over it and gently broke the yolk, spreading it over the entire crepe. Sweet and spicy chilli and hoisin sauces were then slathered on, followed by a jumble of chopped spring onion, sesame seeds, tangy pickles and lettuce. Then came the pièce de résistance: a square of what appeared to be fried wonton. The whole thing was then half-folded, flipped over and then folded again so it looked like a big, delicious envelope. “Ni hao!” grinned the cashier, who stood next to the cook, craning his neck over the top of the queue at me.“Ni hao! Um, zhege?” This? I ventured tentatively, pointing to the wrapped parcel that was being handed to the customer, still unsure of my ability to pronounce the maddening Mandarin tones just right.
“Ni xihuan la ma? (Do you like spicy?)” asked the cook, waving her spatula at the container of crushed Sichuan peppers. “Dui dui dui! Wo ai chi la de (Yep, I love spicy food),” I grinned back.
A few minutes after, I dropped a fiver into the money-tin, took the piping-hot parcel across the street, and settled down on a ledge overlooking the river. And there I ate what I’d soon learn was called the “jianbing”, China’s most popular street snack. It was perfect and as with all great loves, I knew I was in for trouble.
“Wo ai chi la de,” I’d repeat, a few nights later, to a Chinese-American Tinder date as we dug into our pizzas up in swanky Sanlitun shopping district. “That’s what I said. Did I get that right?”
“Ah, well,” he shook his head, laughing. “That’s a… bit excessive, right? I mean, ‘ai’ means love, you can’t really use it for food! No one’s that passionate about it.”
I told him I sure as hell was.
It’s rather easy to be passionate, or even mildly obsessed like I was, with jianbing. Look and you’ll find it everywhere, made in the ubiquitous street carts that dot all of Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities.
Around six in the morning, the vendors start arriving with their supplies: the heavy cast-iron griddle, bags of ingredients, and dozens of eggs precariously stacked in cardboard boxes in a van, the back of a motorbike or on a bicycle. They set up in unused pockets of the city, like a nook inside a bylane, a street corner, a shuttered shop-front. Within minutes, a little queue has formed. It might have construction workers, it might have students, it might have nattily dressed office-goers. They’ll all wait, no matter how much of a hurry they are in, because jianbing (translating to “fried pancake”) is always made-to-order. The crunchy wonton square (bao cui) can’t go soggy, and the wheat and mung bean pancake has to be hot enough to warm your hands as you carry the packet, especially in Beijing’s freezing winters. As winds start to blow in from Siberia, jianbing sales spike. Vendors across the city add their own variations—pickled radish, shredded carrot, fried chicken or sausage. In Shanghai down south, there’s a hankering for crisp-fried bacon and you tiao (deep-fried Chinese breadsticks) as fillings.
“Jianbing!” the office room had chorused the day after I ate that first one and was excitedly trying to describe this amazing snack to them. By the end of that conversation, I had four recommendations for where to get the “best” jianbing and had almost driven a wedge between two workmates over that debate.
I ended up visiting all four places and decided the clear winner was the one sold in the lane right outside my office. I was rather proud of myself when after multiple visits, the vendor stopped asking me whether I wanted it to be “la” (spicy) and would liberally slather the chilli sauce on, with an approving nod.
It was filling as well as affordable. Jianbing prices hover around 5 rmb (about ₹50), though in the more touristy neighbourhoods like Houhai, I had one that cost 13 rmb. It was strictly okay, as most food in such areas is, and I noted sniffily that my usual vendor was so much better at spreading the batter and folding it just right. There was also the vendor at 798 Art District who sold an even pricier jianbing, but that dear man added two squares of bao cui with extra lettuce, which elevated it to a Whole Other Level of Deliciousness. I had to skip dinner that night and believe me, I never skip dinner.
The origins of jianbing are said to be over 2,000 years old, and belong to Shandong, a coastal province in the north-east, through which the Yellow River flows. Legend has it that jianbing was invented during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD), when military strategist Zhuge Liang encountered a rather unexpected problem. He had to figure out how to feed his soldiers after the contingent had lost their woks. A brainwave had him ask the cooks to mix flour and water, spread the batter on the soldiers’ shields and then let it cook over a flame. The dish is said to have pumped up the soldiers’ morale, enough to have them win the battle. Jianbing was then passed down through generations and travelled to different parts of China, acquiring a distinct identity in each.
“My husband is from Tianjin and he says the jianbing made there is the only true jianbing,” my colleague Xue tells me, as we dig into our lunchtime bowls of beef noodles. “When he comes to Beijing, he says, ‘No, this is not right, this is not right,’” laughs Xue, imitating him while dismissively waving her chopsticks around. I don’t blame him. The north-eastern city of Tianjin, nestled close to Shandong was where jianbing first gained in popularity. Locals call it a jianbing guozi, with “guozi” referring to the breadsticks that Beijingers know as you tiao. That’s the Tianjin residents’ filling of choice. Even the kind of batter used changes across China, with some regions preferring black bean flour, others green mung.
I empathise. It’s hard not to have strong, and pretty quickly formed, opinions on the snack, especially when you’re eating one at least five days a week. A fortnight into moving to Beijing and I had already sampled the jianbing at eight different locations. It was everywhere: In the mornings, the paper-and-plastic wrapped pancake was a common sight on the subway. And in the chilly evenings, it competed with the chuan’r (skewers of meat) and the sweet-sour tanghulu (candied fruit on a stick). It was also, I happily discovered, brilliant hangover food. Especially when coupled with the shou zhua bing, a flaky pancake akin to the Kerala Malabar parotta, wrapped around fried egg, lettuce and maybe some sausage. For mornings following extra-debaucherous times, I’d top the pancake with Mumbai’s finest lasun (garlic) chutney.
But I digress. My loyalties, it must be firmly stated, lie with the head-cheerleader of the bing family: the jianbing. It seems so simple really—spread, flip, wrap, voila—but newbie cooks need to devote many hours to tutelage under a veteran jianbing-maker to master the craft. Over the past couple of years, some bright young Chinese entrepreneurs, who grew up eating the snack, took it abroad to countries like the U.S. and the U.K. A bunch of Western entrepreneurs, who had eaten it when they lived in China, set up food trucks dedicated to it. Culinary websites and newspapers like the New York Times have been closely tracking the cross-cultural fillings in jianbings, such as cheese, hot dogs and barbecue pulled pork.
I tend to be a little wary of how good these new-fangled fillings are though, especially after an incident at the jianbing cart outside my office that still induces shudders. Having begun regarding me as a regular customer, my sweet vendor decided she wanted to do something special for the laowai (foreigner). As I innocently scrolled through my phone one morning, after our usual talk about the Beijing smog, she picked up one of those red restaurant-style ketchup bottles, and proceeded to liberally douse my beautiful jianbing with it. “What! No, no!” I yelped, a second too late, as she grinned back with an “Eeeeenglish!” vigorously shaking the infernal bottle to tell me she had added a familiar ingredient just for me. My look of horror soon registered and looking most distressed, she started to make another one. “No, no, it’s fine! It looks fine,” I said, smiling bravely as I accepted the parcel.
Taste fine, it did not though, and Panbi, bless her heart, insisted on making me a non-ketchupy jianbing on the house the next morning. “Zhege piao liang (This is beautiful),” I sighed, going over-the-top with my jianbing compliment yet another time. It was gone within twenty steps. All was right with the world again.
Mithila Phadke is a journalist from Mumbai, recently transplanted into Beijing. Her writing covers remote valleys in North East India and crowded bylanes of Old Bombay. She treks occasionally, eats constantly and tweets as @PhadkeTai