Jian Bing in Hebei Province
I’ve never been one for breakfast, so pre-baby, I usually skipped it. A month after giving birth and returning to work, I didn’t think twice about resuming my usual routine of preparing my husband’s breakfast and rushing off to catch the bus to work. However, I’d neglected to realize how much my appetite had increased because of breastfeeding.
By the mid-morning break on my first day back teaching English to nursing students at the local college in Renqiu, China, my stomach was growing uncontrollably. Luckily, outside the sprawling campus was a street filled with vendors preparing all sorts of delicious street foods for students who were unsatisfied by the cafeteria fare and hungry teachers like myself.
I needed to make a selection quickly so I got in a short line to buy a food that I’d never seen before: jian bing. A helpful student who was in front of me called it a pancake, but the only way it resembled the ones I grew up eating in the United States was that it started out round.
The woman who made it, probably no older than my student, poured a butter-colored batter on a large, round griddle and swiftly cracked an egg on top of it. When the egg was partially cooked, she used her hands to flip it over. Then she started asking me questions in rapid-fire sequence as she worked with impeccable precision and great speed.
“Can you eat spicy foods?”
“Just a little.”
“Do you want scallions and cilantro?”
“Yes, extra scallions, please.”
As she added a liberal amount of green atop the fiery red chili paste she asked, “Do you want crispy fried crackers or fried dough sticks?”
“Crackers, please,” I said, having just noticed the two options sitting on a shelf over her mobile makeshift kitchen that sat atop her three-wheeled cart. The crackers resembled a thin, rectangular tortilla chip, while the fried dough stick was just what it sounded like: a long piece of dough fried until the outside was crispy.
“Cut or uncut?” was her next question.
I wanted the huge burrito-like food cut in half, so I replied with a simple, “cut it.”
In less than three minutes, start to finish, my first jian bing was in my hands. It was piping hot and savory, and both soft and crispy. Thus began my daily jian bing habit, which lasted for the next two years.
It’s been several years since my first taste of jian bing, and while I’d like to eat it daily, my jeans tell me otherwise. So it remains a special treat that transports me to a past season of life.