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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
You can add minced cilantro and/or garlic chives to the scallions in the pancakes.
Light soy sauce
Optional add ins:
chile garlic paste
ground sichuan peppercorn
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.
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