Crispy-Chewy-Oniony Goodness: Scallion Pancakes

Scallion pancakes.

Mmmm. Scallion pancakes.

Such is the power of the pancake, that last night when Zak and Dan were sitting around the kitchen, keeping me company, and I was rolling the dough out into flat rounds, Zak looked up and said, “What are you doing?”

“Making scallion pancakes.”

His eyes lit up and he smiled. “Oooh. Scallion pancakes. I didn’t know you were making scallion pancakes.” He paused and looked lustily up at the dough as I sprinkled chopped scallion and cilantro over it before rolling it up like a cigar. “I love you,” he said.

Dan settled his shoulders and said, “I knew she was making scallion pancakes. She told me in email.”

Sometimes, the husband is the last to know what is for dinner, but he accepts this with good grace and eats every last bite of whatever it is that is put before him.

Like the scallion pancakes.

Now that I have said “scallion pancakes” about a million times in the past couple of paragraphs, let’s talk about what the heck they are.

They are a pan fried bread of Chinese origin, that are constructed very similarly to the Indian parathas, and they are eaten typically as a snack in China. I am told on good authority that they are often sold by street vendors in Beijing, in some of the night marketplaces–essentially urban markets set up after the sun goes down where vendors sell snacks and quick homey meals. I have been told by none other than Grace Young, author of Breath of a Wok and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, that these markets are an endangered species in China; public health officials seem bent upon closing them down.

Hopefully, scallion pancakes, or green onion cakes as they are sometimes called, will remain.

I do not know the origin of these delightful rounds of crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside fried dough. I have read that they are a speciality of Beijing, which makes sense; wheat, not rice, is the staple grain of the cold northern provinces and many wheat flour specialties call the capital city home. Bao, or steamed buns, are said to have come from Beijing, and boiled wheat dumplings and potstickers, can also be traced to the Imperial City.

But, on the other hand, I have also heard that Shanghai is where scallion pancakes originated.

Unfortunately, this also makes sense; Shanghai also is the birthplace of many wheat flour creations by virtue of it having been a city where many “farang”–foreigners–lived while they conducted trade business, missionary activities and attempted to create of China a full-scale European colony. (Which, with the exceptions of Hong Kong, Kowloon and Macau, was a failure–thankfully.) French, British, and Portuguese people lived in Shanghai, and because of this European influence, a lot of baked pastries and breads came about as specialties of the city. These pastries and breads had the look of European baked goods, but because of using bean paste, sesame seeds and lotus seed paste, retained a distinctly Chinese flavor.

In addition to the Europeans, Shanghai had a significant Indian population who had come along with the British.

I mention this because of the fact that the way in which scallion pancakes are put together is so very reminiscent of the Indian filled and fried flatbreads called paratha. It is possible that paratha were the inspiration for this soul-satisfying Chinese snack, and the origins are now lost in the mists of time and legend.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter where green onion cakes came from, what matters is where you can get them now.

And if you live in the US, there aren’t too many places to get them, which is why I bothered to learn how to make them.

I first ate them in Athens, at our favorite Chinese restaurant, China Fortune. Neither Zak nor I had seen them on a menu before, but we were urged to get them by friends, and they came out crispy and golden, cut into petal shaped wedges, with a soy and ginger based dipping sauce. After one bite, we were hooked, and for years, we would go out for Chinese food just to get scallion pancakes.

But then, we moved away. And though we went to a bigger city (Providence, Rhode Island), it took us a long time to find any evidence of any scallion pancakes anywhere on any menu. One restaurant had them–and they made a variation of them that was delectable–they made the scallion pancakes as usual, then used a cooked minced pork and dried shrimp filling, which they sprinkled on one pancake, and then topped with another, rolling them together to seal the edges of the dough.

Then, they were pan-fried to crunchy, chewy perfection and served with a spicy soy dipping sauce.

And then, my friends, this restaurant went out of business. They hooked us on the filled pancakes and then left us high and dry.

We found one other restaurant that offered them.

But what they served bore no relation to a real scallion cake. They served two flour tortillas filled with slivered scallion tops glued together with water and fried to a dry, crumbly texture. It was like eating fried cardstock–flavorless and messy. I remember trying to choke them down, and wanting to cry. I looked up at Zak and I could tell he felt the same.

There was nothing for it.

I had to learn how to make them.

I discovered, as I read cookbooks and experimented with the dough, that the pancakes really aren’t hard, just involved. You cannot rush making them, but you can make them ahead of time and wrap them carefully and either refrigerate and freeze them. Then, you can take them out, thaw them and fry them at the last minute, and look like a big genius when you serve them to your guests.

Though you can do that, I still like to make them fresh. The crust cooks up more crispy that way.

They are also best served right away, before the crust begins to steam and become softer. The best thing to do is to serve them right after they have come from the oil and cooled slightly on paper towels. Cut them into wedges and send them out on a plate to your guests who will be standing around like vultures in the kitchen, waiting to dive upon each golden morsel of goodness that you pass around.

When I serve it that way, I always make sure that the last cake or two are saved for the cook and the cook’s assistant, because those who stand over the hot oil need to be looked after. Once you start serving these addictive packets of flavor, you cannot trust your friends to look after the cooks. They will eat so long as you put scallion pancakes before them.

And who can blame them, really.

They really are that good.

You can serve them as an appetizer, as part of a dim sum party menu, or with soup as a main meal. Florence Lin suggests egg drop soup, but I like them with hot and sour soup, personally, but that may be because I prefer hot and sour soup.

Last night, I went ahead and served them with the entree–a pork dish that I made with some special Guilin chile sauce and fermented black beans. I held the pancakes in a heated oven–they did soften up a bit, but not so much that they stopped Zak, Dan and I from gobbling them up along with our rice and pork and vegetables.

I made certain to have Dan and Morganna take a lot of photographs of the making of the cakes because I have found that verbal description without physical demonstration leads to confused people when it comes to making scallion pancakes. They look harder than they are, really–once you have made a couple of them, they become simple, and you can make them quite quickly and easily.

My mother is a great fan of them; the only experience in Chinese food she has had was the dim sum party at a great Chinese restaurant in Providence we had when I graduated from Johnson & Wales, and the foods I have cooked for her. From the first taste, she took to scallion pancakes like a duck to water, and she loves to watch me make them. If you make enough of them, your hands know the tricks of it and move along seemingly without direction from you, while you chatter along and keep up a good lengthy gossip about the cousins, aunts and uncles, while a stack of rolled out, filled cakes grows higher and higher.

Another note before I give you the recipe–follow the pictures, and remember that the ratio of flour to water is 3:1. That way, if you only want to make a few pancakes, you can reduce the flour to one cup and use one third cup water, and all will be well. The procedure of mixing and shaping is exactly the same.

Scallion Pancakes

Ingredients:

3 cups flour
1 cup hot water
1/2 bunch scallion tops, sliced thinly
2 teaspoons sesame oil
salt and ground pepper mixed together
peanut oil for frying

Other stuff you will need:

canola oil spray
waxed paper

Method:

Put flour in a medium sized mixing bowl, and add water all at once. The traditional way is to stir it all in the same direction with one or two chopsticks, but you can use a silicone spatula or a bamboo or wooden spoon. Use whatever is comfortable for you.

Mix until most of the flour is mixed in, though the dough will seem quite dry.

At this point, lightly flour or oil your hands and turn dough out onto a silpat or a lightly floured surface and knead for about ten minutes until a very nice, smooth dough is formed. Wash out your bowl, dry it carefully, and put the dough ball back into the bowl and cover it tightly and allow it to rest for at least thirty minutes.

Put your sesame oil in a small bowl, and your salt and pepper together in another small bowl and your scallions in a third small bowl and set them in a row, left to right: oil, salt/pepper, scallions.

When your dough has finished resting, take it out and roll out into a long snake shape, about one inch or so thick. Cut the snake in half, then cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces–I like to use a bench knife for this, but a knife or a cleaver work fine, too.

Roll each lump of dough into a round and flatten slightly. Put all of them back into the bowl and cover, except for the one you work with.

Take your flattened disk of dough and using a rolling pin, roll it into a circle, about 1/8 of an inch thick. (I like to use a rolling pin without handles–it is more nimble for this purpose.)

Dip two fingers into the sesame oil, smear the surface of your rolled out dough with it. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper over the surface of it, and then take up a scan’t 1/2 teaspoon of scallion slices and scatter over it.

Then, lift up the edge of the dough circle closest to you and roll it up like a cigar. Pinch the seam down the long side closed, and pinch the ends closed.

Then, take the rolled up dough, and make a snail-shaped disk out of it by coiling it on itself. Pinch the seams closed, then flatten it with the heel of your hand into a disk.

Then, take up the rolling pin and roll it into a flat pancake.

Spray a piece of waxed paper with the canola oil spray and set the pancake down on it. Spray the top of the pancake and lay another piece of waxed paper over it.

Repeat until all of your lumps of dough are used up.

At this point, you can wrap your stack of pancakes tightly in plastic wrap then put it in a freezer bag and freeze it.

Or, you can cook them.

Heat the peanut oil in a shallow frying pan until it bubbles when you put a bamboo chopstick’s tip in it. Slide in as many pancakes as the pan will hold and fry about a minute or so, or until golden brown on the bottom, then flip it over and cook until done on the other side–about forty-five seconds or so. When done, drain on paper towels.

Repeat as necessary.

Serve hot.

Note:

You can add minced cilantro and/or garlic chives to the scallions in the pancakes.

Dipping Sauce:

Ingredients:

Light soy sauce
rice vinegar
sugar

Optional add ins:

sesame oil
minced garlic
minced ginger
minced cilantro
white pepper
chile garlic paste
ground sichuan peppercorn

Method:

This is all to taste–you mix together roughly equal parts soy sauce, vinegar and sugar, until you have a tangy-sweet-salty flavor that you like. (Some people also use some chicken broth in this recipe–I do sometimes, but more often I do it that way for steamed dumplings. For the pancakes, I like a stronger flavor.)

Then, you mix in some or all of the optional ingredients to taste. Sesame oil is used in small amounts–like a few drops–because it is very strongly flavored. Everything else is up to you.

You can make several different sauces–that way the folks who like chile fire are happy and the folks who like ginger tang are saved from having their tongues burned off in a chile inferno.

32 Comments

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  1. Oh, scallion pancake goodness. I’ve seen so many variations in the dough and shaping. Actually, in a very well-known dim sum restaurant here in Brooklyn that closed down recently, they use very thin batter and pour it into a hot frying pan. They’re cracker-thin and toasty.

    For the more ubiquitous thicker ones, your shaping method is new to me. I thought the aim of the pancakes were flakey-ness, in which case the dough would be folded upon itself. I haven’t actually tried any scallion pancake recipe solely because I keep running out of scallions. Also, it’s pretty heaty, being fried and having seasame.

    How many pancakes did your dough yield? Two tablespoons a really a lot of seasame oil. Whenever I use seasame oil, a two drops is good enough for a dish meant to serve 6-8 people.

    Allen

    Comment by Allen Wong — July 21, 2005 #

  2. The recipe makes something along the lines of twenty pancakes–you can make more or less out of it if you make them larger or smaller–the size that mine get made is about four to six inches in diameter.

    The rolling up like a cigar is what accomplishes the folding–and when you smear it with the sesame oil, it separates the layers a bit–like butter does with pie crusts. But that is how the flaky layers get made.

    And you are right about the sesame oil–that is a typo. It should be two teaspoons–not tablespoons. I will go and fix that now. And even at two teaspoons–you end up with some left over–which I usually use in the dipping sauces.

    I have never had ones made with a batter–it sounds like a variant on crepes, which sounds interesting. I might have to try and figure out how to make those.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 22, 2005 #

  3. Oh, they look good but to be honest, I have never tried them here before. Not sure why but places here don’t seem to serve them except Taiwanese restaurants.

    Comment by boo_licious — July 22, 2005 #

  4. Oooh, scallion pancakes are great! I too first had them at China Fortune. Our professor decided the class should practice their chinese at a restaurant, and she ordered a plate of them for us to try. Now I’m hungry for them… I might have to drag somebody to dinner there soon. I’d try your recipe, but knowing how me and cooking get along – especially anything remotely breadlike – they’d be a disaster. lol *wipes the drool off her desk*

    Comment by Karyl — July 22, 2005 #

  5. I have read in one or two places that it is a Taiwanese specialty, Boo, but have read in more places that it is a northern Chinese snack or a Shanghaiese specialty. The most logical explanation I have seen is from Florence Lin who says that the dish originated in the north and then was adopted all over China, most often as a street food.

    Karyl–China Fortune is the first place we ever had them, too. Mine are patterned off the ones that they make there–unless I make the ones with the minced pork and dried shrimp filling–in which case, it starts out like the ones at China Fortune and then moves on into a few more steps and a more complex flavor.

    BTW–China Fortune moved–did you know? They are now on Stimson, and as far as I know they haven’t reopened yet. They are remodelling the old Tomatillos restaurant site.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 22, 2005 #

  6. I can’t eat onions. They don’t agree with me. Same goes with scallions. What could I use for filling instead?

    Alternately….do you think that the pancakes would be OK to fry after the first rolling or do they need the second rolling for texture?

    Comment by Kitarra — July 22, 2005 #

  7. Cilantro would work, or garlic chives, or even minced garlic, if you can eat that.

    The second rolling, when you roll it around the filling is what gives the flaky layers to the pancakes–without it, they aren’t as interesting.

    They really don’t take too long to make once you get the knack of rolling up the pancake after the first rollout around the filling. Roll it up tight like a cigar to make layers, and then pinch all the seams tightly, then coil like a cinnamon bun, and pinch seams then roll it out a second time.

    That is it. Once you have done a few of them, your movements will become more assured and quick.

    You just have to remember to let the dough rest after you knead it for the gluten to relax. If you try and roll it out and shape it right away, it snaps back and is unruly as all get-out and fights every step of the process.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 22, 2005 #

  8. Thanks. I am going to try that. They look wonderfull.

    Comment by Kitarra — July 22, 2005 #

  9. Mom, we are gong to make more this weekend, right?
    Please?
    Because you love me so much?
    Morganna

    Comment by Anonymous — July 22, 2005 #

  10. Yes, we are making some this weekend, dear one.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 23, 2005 #

  11. Mmmm…scallion pancakes, simple, easy, and fast Chinese “pizzas”. The Cantonese have also taken quite strongly to them and have their own stamp on them, not surprisingly considering their relative simplicity and great effect in highlighting the clean taste of scallions or garlic chives.

    You can get really good frozen ones in better supermarkets here too, so all you have to do is heat them back up in which case you need NO oil in the pan. For that matter, very very little oil is needed to fry even if you’re making them from scratch. They’re just as good and will also take on the lovely brown crispiness, but may take a little bit longer.

    Comment by etherbish — July 23, 2005 #

  12. Mmmmmmm! I too adore scallion pancakes!

    And you’re making them this weekend again?? What time should we be there? Can we bring anything?

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — July 23, 2005 #

  13. I should have mentioned, and I will edit the recipe to mention, that you only need to barely cover the bottom of your pan with oil, and heat it up so that when you put in the pancakes, they don’t soak up the oil. Duh.

    The frozen ones I have gotten in the states aren’t so good, Ladi–but you are in land of good frozen things right now, so I figure stuff is different there. ;-)

    Elizabeth–we’ll be having some tonight with our fried rice made with leftover pork and tofu and five fires beef.

    You can bring some strawberries, as I believe they are in season where you are….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 23, 2005 #

  14. Yup, I just found out about China Fortune today. Which means I now cannot go there without the aid of somebody who’s got a car. They’re putting apartments up where it used to be. Hopefully my friend is wrong in assuming it won’t last long on Stimson – he said a lot of places that move there just can’t get the amount of business they need to stay open.

    Even when I do get people with cars to drive me over, if it’s not open yet, that means I have noplace to go to satisfy my craving! Hm… wonder if the buffet uptown might make them on request?

    Comment by Karyl — July 23, 2005 #

  15. The strawberries are pretty much done now. Will wild blueberries do?

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — July 24, 2005 #

  16. There is a China Fortune in Nelsonville, owned by the same folks. But that’s an even LONGER trip.

    The Athens location is moving to where Tomatillo’s used to be. I hope they do well there and will go whenever I can, (Heather’s pretty grumpy about the move as well. That’s about the only place she’ll eat lunch during the quarter. Only decent food uptown.) But no, a great place gets booted out so the owner can chop it up into Student Slums…There are times when I hate this town.

    Anyway…Oh yes…This IS a food blog, isn’t it?

    Scallion pancakes are a favorite of mine. I think I FIRST had them in a little place in Parkersburg, (along with crab rangoon.) I really liked them then, but China Fortune is what caused the addiction.

    When Barbara and I worked together at a copy shop two doors down from China Fortune, I’d typically make the lunch-run up to their old location. The standard was scallion pancakes and either hot and sour soup or wonton soup for Barb, Amy always got scallion pancakes, (But I can’t remember what else,) and crab rangoon and steamed rice for me. We’d sometimes trade a pancake for a creamy-cheesy-crabby wonton.

    Barbara doesn’t help my addiction these days, either as I ate a good number of the pancakes in that top picture (bloody enabler!)

    Because of all the China Fortune Nostalgia, I’d like to put in a request for a crab rangoon entry on the blog. Crab rangoon is a highpoint memory for my early friendship with Barbara, (as crab rangoon was the almost daily brief respite from the pain we shared working together at that copy shop!) and Barbara also made crab rangoon for Heather and my wedding. Consequently, I remember it only as a blur, but it was a good blur.

    (plus, if she does an entry on crab rangoon, she has to make it, which means the odds of me getting to eat the results are pretty darn high.)

    Comment by Dan — July 24, 2005 #

  17. Well, now, Karyl, you know, you could likely get a ride over here the next time I am making the pancakes. It could happen.

    Blueberries are fine, Elizabeth! I have some just now in my fridge, along with blackberries. I believe I shall have to make a pie. Mmm. Pie.

    Dan–of course I will make us some crab rangoon. How about after Morganna is here and Heather is back and we can have us a regular old crab rangoon shindig. Maybe we can call up Brother Thomas and have him come round, and I might could be convinced to throw another dim sum party.

    That is, if you volunteer to take the pictures for the thing. I probably won’t be able to do it what with all the folding, pleating, rolling, frying, steaming and whatnot that goes on at such an event.

    But it would be right fun to have such a celebration.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 25, 2005 #

  18. The first time I had scallion cakes was at a Chinese restaurant (they also served the best crispy beef) in Edmonton. I can’t think why I haven’t made them myself (well, I can… it’s all that oil) but I really must.

    We were thinking along the lines of pie for the blueberries as well. I can never decide. Are blueberries or Santa Rosa plums the best fruit for pie. Pie with a lattice top… and creme fraiche….

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — July 25, 2005 #

  19. You can use fairly small amounts of oil to fry them in, Elizabeth, so long as you keep it hot enough and use a nonstick pan to do it in.

    I vote blueberries as better for pie than plums, but I like blueberries better than plums for most applications.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 25, 2005 #

  20. I just came across your recipe and i’d like to thank you for the detailed description and the wonderful pictures. Out of all the recipes i’ve seen for scallion pancakes you actually make sense of the procedure.

    Comment by Will — May 3, 2007 #

  21. You are welcome, Will. I do try very hard to give detailed instructions for procedures that might be confusing or unfamiliar to most readers.

    As a cooking teacher, I find that the more detailed I am in my writing, the better able a student/reader will be in replicating the recipe.

    If you ever have any questions, feel free to email me.

    Blessings and good cooking!

    Comment by Barbara — May 3, 2007 #

  22. Wonderful and simple recipe! Made these tonight – the kids loved them.

    Comment by Steamy Kitchen — November 28, 2007 #

  23. My mom always made these for me when I was little .. I am so excited to try and make them at home for my husband! Thanks for your great directions.

    Comment by Carmen — February 6, 2008 #

  24. Carmen, these are great to make for anyone. My mother never ate Chinese food until I started cooking it for her–and these are her absolute favorites.

    Comment by Barbara — February 11, 2008 #

  25. [...] Here is what I did: green onion cakes based on a Barbara Fisher’s recipe for Scallion Pancakes [...]

    Pingback by blog from OUR kitchen » green onion cake (bbd#07: flatbread) — March 1, 2008 #

  26. Does this recipe use plain or self rising flour?

    Comment by Trisha — July 12, 2009 #

  27. Plain, all purpose flour.

    Comment by Barbara — July 12, 2009 #

  28. Thank you for the recipe ! I was looking for another kind of pancake that a Buddhis monk made. Half of dough was made with boiling water, and half with cool water. He cooked diced long beans, spiced, and placed it on rolled-out pancakes, and pleated them around like a drawstring bag. They were rolled out in that position to be about 1/3 inch thick, and fried until crispy. The hole in the middle from the ‘drawstring bag’ technique allowed for vinegar to be added at table. What are they called, and do you have a recipe? They were divine. Thanks !

    Comment by Anne — February 1, 2010 #

  29. The type in Beijing tend to be not as oily or crispy, more like a flatbread. Beijing ren also make a larger version without scallions that can be cut into strips and used in stir fries (just like you would use noodles in a lo mein dish). “Chaobing” (stir-fried pancake) is a carb lovers delight!

    Comment by Nikki — February 13, 2011 #

  30. [...] Tigers & Strawberries » Crispy-Chewy-Oniony Goodness: Scallion23 Responses to Scallion Pancakes with Ginger Dipping Sauce … I love scallion pancakes! Never considered making them myself, til now Added this to my to-do list… thanks! … i love scallion pancakes. i prefer to dip them in straight up srirachi sauce love the spicy with the salty! [...]

    Pingback by Scallion pancakes | WinordieShop — March 4, 2011 #

  31. [...] good idea as to how to make the breads flaky my own self–because I knew how to make flaky Chinese scallion pancakes, and was going to use the same technique [...]

    Pingback by Tigers & Strawberries » Making Flaky, Tender, Delicious Chapati — August 9, 2011 #

  32. [...] Tigers & Strawberries » Crispy-Chewy-Oniony Goodness: Scallion23 Responses to Scallion Pancakes with Ginger Dipping Sauce … I love scallion pancakes! Never considered making them myself, til now Added this to my to-do list… thanks! … i love scallion pancakes. i prefer to dip them in straight up srirachi sauce love the spicy with the salty! [...]

    Pingback by Scallion pancakes | Michaelcramton — November 3, 2011 #

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