Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then Sunday Punch


WRITTEN BY MATTHEW AMSTER-BURTON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BETTY UDESEN

Pancakes, the Chinese Way
Scattered with scallions, these crispy little rounds offer a one-of-a-kind snacking opportunity


Scallion pancakes are pan-fried for serving as an appetizer or side dish. A soy-based sauce for dipping is practically a must.

On a long-ago family vacation to Vancouver, B.C., my parents let me choose a restaurant for dinner. It was my 12th birthday. From our guidebook I selected Szechuan Chongqing Restaurant, a small Chinese joint far east of downtown. I no longer remember why I chose this place over so many other possibilities, but I do remember the meal: honey-garlic spareribs, orange-peel beef, sizzling rice soup, a spicy prawn dish, dandan noodles, an unusual fried roll and scallion pancakes.

It was the kind of meal that makes you re-evaluate everything you had believed about Chinese food, or food at all. And while everything was good — better than good — the scallion pancakes stood out. Served cut in quarters and piled in a stack, these highly fragrant fried cakes were scattered with bits of fresh scallion, crusty on the outside, chewy and just a bit doughy on the inside. I'd never seen anything like them.

Before my encounter with scallion pancakes, I hadn't known that Chinese food had any sort of bread. But China is the world's largest wheat producer, so of course they do make breads. Wheat flour is used not only in scallion pancakes but also in the mandarin pancakes that envelop mu shu and in the almost foamy breading that holds the meat inside char siu bao, the steamed pork buns without which no dim sum would be complete.

Makes 12
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons corn, peanut or canola oil, plus more for frying
1 1/4 cups boiling water
Sesame oil for brushing
3 bunches scallions (green onions), white and light green parts, minced


1. Measure the flour by scooping it into a measuring cup, then leveling it off. Mix the flours and salt together in a bowl or food processor. Add the oil and then stir in the water gradually to form a cohesive dough. Knead into a ball - or, if using a food processor, process until the mixture comes together into a ball - then turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead two minutes by hand. Cover with a moist dish towel and let rest for half an hour.

2. Roll the dough into the shape of a snake and cut this into 12 segments, rolling each of these into a ball. Cover them with a moist towel until needed.

3. Take one ball, roll it out into a circle, brush it thinly with sesame oil, and sprinkle it liberally with scallions.

4. Carefully roll the circle up into a cigar shape as if making a jelly roll. This distributes the scallions evenly throughout and creates layers of dough in which air bubbles are trapped. These will expand from the heat of frying and leaven the pancake.

5. Coil the cigar into the shape of a cinnamon roll, with the seam on the inside.

6. Repeat steps 3 to 5 for each of the remaining balls of dough. Cover these coils with a moist dish towel and let rest for half an hour.

7. Roll each pancake flat. They should be about 5 inches wide and 1/4-inch thick. But be careful not to roll too hard. If you lose those air bubbles, you'll get scallion hockey pucks.

8. Heat 1/8 inch of oil over a medium flame in a 12-inch skillet (nonstick works great). When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes three or four at a time (don't crowd them), giving them 3 minutes on the first side and 2 minutes on the second or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels or brown paper bags. Serve and eat immediately.

Makes 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sambal oelek (hot chile sauce)
1/4 cup chicken broth


Before making the pancakes, blend all ingredients and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Print friendly version.

Scallion pancakes are unique among flatbreads in that they're pan-fried but made from a dough (thick, kneaded and shaped) rather than a batter (thin, stirred and poured), and are hand-leavened rather than leavened with baking powder or yeast. (What does hand-leavened mean? Read on.)

When I was old enough to prowl Chinese restaurants on my own, I tried a series of disappointing versions: greasy, overdone, too doughy, not enough scallions. It would be up to me, it seemed, to make a passable pancake at home.

To my mind, the ideal scallion pancake is thin (an eighth to a fourth of an inch), with identifiable layers of dough, golden-brown and crisp on the outside, chewy inside. It should burst with the flavor of fried scallions; if they're inadequately cooked, it's distracting. The scallions are not cooked separately, which is why a thin pancake and well-chopped scallions are vital.

Making the pancakes is simple — in theory. Roll finely chopped scallions and sesame oil up in an unleavened dough of flour, salt and water, then flatten and fry. Tiny alterations in the formula, however, make for major differences when the sizzling finished product emerges from the pan.

I began with a recipe from Helen Chen's reliable "Chinese Home Cooking" (Hearst). Chen's recipe calls for bacon, which seems kind of silly. I'll probably try it at some point — hey, I'd probably try tarte tatin with bacon. But the whole point of scallion pancakes is that they taste like scallions, so I forewent the bacon. An adulteration I can recommend, however, is to add some toasted Szechuan peppercorns along with the scallions; the pancakes are commonly enjoyed this way in China.

Chen's recipe makes pancakes that cook up thick — too thick for my taste. Try as I might, I couldn't roll them thin enough. I made the recipe several times and couldn't work out this bug. They were certainly edible, but the interior was doughy and harbored undercooked scallions. Not there yet.

Next I turned to Nina Simonds' "A Spoonful of Ginger" (Knopf), which is ostensibly about the practice of food-as-medicine in Asia, but is really just another great collection of recipes from the author of the indispensable "Asian Noodles." I spotted my quarry on page 241, a Pulitzer-worthy photo of a stack of crunchy, glistening scallion pancakes. Here was the flatbread that made me sweat! I knew I was on the right track and decamped forthwith to the grocery store for a box of Softasilk cake flour.

The Simonds formula departs in significant ways from Chen's. Simonds uses mostly cake flour instead of all-purpose wheat flour, and adds 2 tablespoons of corn oil to the dough (I didn't have corn oil handy, so I substituted canola). Cake flour is lower in gluten than all-purpose, which meant it would fight less as I rolled it flat. The corn oil would lubricate the strands of gluten and soften the dough further. This dough had a higher ratio of water, and more resting periods to let the gluten relax. All signs pointed to a flatter, lighter pancake. Unfortunately, the pendulum had swung too far. The dough was so moist it was like trying to knead Jell-O, and I had to overcompensate by flouring all surfaces heavily, including my arms, torso and face. On the other hand, I was clearly onto something: The resulting cakes were tough and the layers had cohered, but they were fully cooked and the flavor was right on. They also looked exactly like the picture, so I guess Simonds likes her pancakes thin and crispy.

Now I knew what I had to do. First, I switched to a 50-50 mix of cake flour and all-purpose. The gluten had been more than mollified last time around; it was dead, and it needed at least a partial reanimation if I wanted to retain those thin layers of dough. I cut back the water, then chopped up some more scallions, looked over what I had done, and began to cry. I always cry when I chop onions.

This dough was still moist and pliable but easier to handle. I rolled out some thin pancakes, let them rest for as long as I could bear, and tossed them into a pan of sizzling oil. Three minutes on the first side, two on the second, and they were done. These were the best I'd ever made, salty and crackling with oily, oniony goodness. I didn't sprinkle the scallions quite close enough to the edge of the circle, and I'd overdone it a touch on the sesame oil. The thinnest sheen you can manage will cut it — no need to go all Exxon Valdez.

By the time I made my next batch — well, what can I say? I'd finally turned out about as perfect a pile of pancakes as can be.

Szechuan Chongqing Restaurant still operates in East Vancouver, by the way. Since my first meal there, they've moved into larger quarters on Commercial Street, but the scallion pancakes are still good enough to impress a 12-year-old.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle free-lance writer. His e-mail address is mamster@mamster.net.


Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then Sunday Punch

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