James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Let He Who Has Turned Down a Delicious Jianbing First Call Me Fatty

Photo by: Haha169/Commons

Let He Who Has Turned Down a Delicious Jianbing First Call Me Fatty

Jianbing in Beijing

While studying abroad in Beijing this past summer, I gained 18 pounds in a little more than two months. Jianbing, Beijing’s street food of choice, was almost single-handedly responsible for this.

My favorite place in this breakfast-obsessed city was an unassuming cart in a narrow Dongcheng alleyway, Da Hua Jianbing. I visited so frequently that the elderly vendor, Mr. Niu, nicknamed me Fàntǒng—Chinese slang for “fatty.”

Jianbing, a dish that comes from northeastern China, has a history stretching back nearly 2,000 years, though no one is sure of its exact origins. Mr. Niu liked to tell me his own personal spin on the story of Beijing’s beloved snack. He said it was rooted in the Three Kingdoms Period, when one of China’s greatest dynasties descended into chaos. Zhuge Liang, a military commander, had to grapple with the immense task of feeding an army of soldiers who had lost their woks in battle. Liang urged his soldiers to mix water with flour, then cook the batter on their shields over an open flame.

Everyone customizes jianbing to their own liking, but the process begins the same way each time—with a liberally oiled cast-iron skillet and a thin layer of starchy mung-bean batter, applied as soon as the skillet is hot enough.

Mr. Niu always ensured that the batter was spread evenly, with sweeping circular motions. Then, he would crack an egg in the center. Next, at my insistence, he would add a variety of leafy greens and herbs; I especially enjoyed the delicate balance between fresh, citrusy cilantro and zhàcài—pungent, pickled mustard greens. If I was feeling extra bold, I would ask him to add a fatty, smoky pork sausage. Then he would fold the crepe in half and smear it with rich hoisin sauce and a sweet, fermented bean-curd paste. After he tucked a flaky, deep-fried cracker into the crepe, it was ready.

Mistaking me for a hardcore spice enthusiast, Mr. Niu was always slightly too generous in applying chili sauce and pepper flakes. Then he would hand me the gut-busting package, beautifully wrapped in the previous night’s copy of the Beijing Evening News.

Filling, crispy, savory, oily, and delicious, I couldn’t help but feel guilty while indulging. “I’ll go vegan tomorrow,” I would tell myself. But I would backtrack and order another jianbing, a little less heavy on the heat the second time around.

Wanting to make the most of my last day in Beijing, I returned home to drop off my bags before going for a run. Instead of exploring or venturing outdoors, I ended up in a jianbing-induced food coma and took an accidental nap. It was worth it.

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