If Beijing is your first stop in China you might think there’s some kind of French franchise for local street food. That’s because one of the most popular snacks to go here is the jianbing, a Chinese twin of the French crepe.
Jiān bǐng (煎饼) literally means ‘shallow-fried thin bread’ which is the very definition of crepe, and in fact the preparation method is pretty much identical. The difference lies in the ingredients and flavor. While in the west crepes are usually a sweet treat for dessert , the jianbing is a salty-spicy breakfast snack. Jianbing is especially common in the northeast of China where flour is more prevalent than rice. In Beijing you’ll find a stand in many street corners and next to almost every subway station.
So what’s in your average jianbing?
- The crepe base – usually made from wheat flour.
- An egg – if you are really hungry you can ask for an extra egg, usually one or two kuai more.
- Chopped green onion and coriander – if you don’t like coriander this card will help you.
- Thick soy sauce – dark and salty
- Hot sauce – that’s optional and they usually ask whether to put some or not. If you want to specify exactly how spicy you want it to be use this card.
- Báocuì – A kind of a crispy fritter like cracker made of potato dough.
A regular jianbing cost about 4 yuan. Some jianbing stands offer extra stuff like pickled radish, salted seaweed or ham sausage but they usually cost extra. In some regions it’s more common to use corn flour, potato flour or rice flour. The big jianbing joints offer more than one kind which is cool because they have different colors.
Clearly jianbing has a certain charm over foreigners. It might be the French Connection that appeals to the western taste buds or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but jianbing is one of the most popular street food among the laowai community, second maybe only to yangrou chuanrs. Other than the morning rush hour, the second busiest time of the day for many vendors is actually late at night, on weekends in particular. You know how it is, people go out, people drink, people have fun and people get the munchies. That’s why you’ll find jianbing stands running even as late as 04:00 AM if it’s next to clubs and bars where foreigners hang out.
The Origin of Jianbing
Jianbing is most definitely not a Chinese knock-off of the crepe. It can be traced back to as early as the days of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (316-420 AD), Almost 1,000 years before Marco Polo has ever set foot in China. There are two tales which claim to unfold the jianbing and tell us its origin.
The more common one is about a famous Chinese hero called Zhugeliang and you can read about him in this excellent article also about jianbing. I like the other story better. It’s about a weaver woman called Qiao Zhen (巧珍). One day Zhen’s husband Tian Zhuang (田壮) was unjustly imprisoned by corrupted officials. Apparently Zhen’s husband taught himself to read and write and helped everyone in need to form official letters of complaint targeting the local ministry. The cruel officials told Zhen she was not allowed to bring her husband food to prison, only writing supplies because “obviously” writing letters was more important to him than anything else. Tian Zhuang was starving but there was nothing desperate Zhen could do. Worried herself she also didn’t eat nor slept for three days, but when she finally did get some rest a mysterious woman came to her in her dream with a solution: Make a paste out of wheat and cook it flat and thin like paper, disguise soy sauce and scallions as ink and paintbrushes, and pass it all through the guards. When she woke up she did exactly that, it fooled Tian Zhuang captors and he was saved.
Whether the story is true or not, technology has much changed since the first jianbing came to light, making one more link between the the art of weaving and the art of jianbing making – the spinning wheel:
As cool as it is, most jianbing sellers don’t use that wheel. They do it the old fashioned way. Anyway it’s made it’s delicious, so be sure not to miss this one when your in China.