Familiar flavors: Chinese crepes

A couple of weeks ago I was musing about all the different kinds of food I miss about China. She said I should make a cookbook, collecting the recipes of these refined and less refined dishes to educate the Dutch. I am not sure about that, but since nostalgia is a powerful thing, I am only remembering these dishes more fondly.

I am not a great cook. I am an okay cook, generally more interested in the eating than preparing. That is why Asia is such a great place to be, all this wonderful food at your fingertips for a fraction of the price you pay in the West. So let me make your mouth water by the impossibility of finding these things elsewhere.

Chinese crepes

What is it?
A thin pancake batter is spread out with a stick on a heated plate. Crack an egg on top of it so it fully merges with the batter, add some sesame seeds if available, and flip it. Add a dark, salty sauce on top, some chili and any toppings of your liking, at least scallions, cilantro and pickles. After adding a sheet of fried crispy rice, fold it closed and hack it a few times with your spatula before elegantly shoving it into a plastic bag and in one go give it to your hungry customer.

When to eat them?
Any time of the day. It can be a breakfast, lunch, dinner or anytime-of-day-snack. I preferred to eat jianbing either for breakfast or dinner, or as an after-lunch snack, or as a pre-lunch snack. Depending on the toppings (lettuce is nice, tofu as well) or the amount of eggs (double or triple eggs!) it probably encompasses everything that you need for a healthy meal.

Anything bad?
Often, jianbing sauce can be a bit clumpy and the hygiene at most of these stalls is probably less than even the average restaurant in China. Also, I am heavily biased but Shanghai/southern jianbing are vastly inferior to the ones in Beijing or northern cities. And I once had a jianbing with a friend at a stall where the crepes were pre-made and just needed to be heated up. We added a sausage in the middle for some extra bite and texture, but it still tasted awfully rubbery and bad.

Where to get it?
In Beijing, there was a great stall next to the Liangmaqiao subway station. It was a family (or so it seemed) with parents, a son and a daughter all in the business. They did not only sell jianbing, but they could all make them. Over time, I knew whose jianbing were the best (the father and son’s) and who would skimp a bit on the toppings (mostly the younger generation). It was wonderful, so obviously they disappeared one day suddenly. The other place I remember very distinctly is at 798, it even had its own Dianping page! They were well-known for adding tofu in their jianbing, and all was good again. A pity 798 was quite far away, but I am now even further away so I should not have complained.

How much do I miss it?
About 9.5/10 I think. Especially since breakfast stalls are not really a thing in the Netherlands. I eat my dry cruesli in the morning without complaints, but it is not the same at all. I have had a jianbing here as takeaway, which means it was pretty cold at the time I had a first bite. It was not the same at all. I guess I just have to indulge myself once I get to China again!

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How much is in this?

Ready-made meals. In the Netherlands I could take pride in the fact I most often cooked myself. Now that I am too lazy, I can still say most food is sort of home-made. Or at least prepared in a kitchen?

This is of course not the whole story. I have recently started reading a book which does give more of an idea of the whole story. Of course most people with a marginal interest in food, would only deem it natural about half of the time. Especially if you see what is dished up on this side of the world.

China is a country with a long culinary history, like many Asian countries. However, the fact that there are really well-prepared, exquisitely flavored and beautifully presented dishes, does not mean you see them daily. In fact, it is quite funny that most restaurants use menus with pictures in them. The food is bound to disappoint in one way or another.

Balance is a delicate thing, and something that a lot of the things you might order in China are devoid of. Especially the Northeast region is famous for its large, heavily flavored dishes. Too salty, too sour, too sweet and too much. Order a drink in any cafe (whose service might vary, as described earlier) and it will be heavy on the sugar. Although I love my hot morning breakfasts, they are definitely not light. Fried, with a few heavy sweeps of soy sauce marinade and spicy peppers.

So the disbalance that I sometimes experience daily here, is definitely one of the reasons for doing a bit more sports. It is kind of paradoxical that on the one hand I eat more varied here, since I could not be bothered to make many of the dishes I eat myself, but not necessarily healthier. Whereas in the Netherlands you can feel a bit more controlled over your sugar intake for instance, that is almost impossible here. I have even heard people complaining that the toothpaste is too sweet. Sweet tooth would be the perfect brand name for that one!