When we set out to create a foodie “holiday” this past April for jianbing, one of China’s most-loved street snacks, we didn’t know quite what to expect. Our aim with World Jianbing Day, which included giveaways and a social media campaign encouraging people to add their favorite jianbing spots in China and abroad to a crowd-sourced map, was to build awareness outside the typical jianbing consumer base.
Locals who grew up with and already love the snack don’t need much reminding about the virtues of the perfectly balanced crepe from northern China. But everyone else? They need to know about the sweet, crunchy, pickled, spicy and salty elements all wrapped up in one convenient burrito-crepe-style to-go snack.
For the uninitiated, the jianbing base is made from a blend of millet, wheat, corn, and soy or mung beans mixed with water, and is altered based on vendor preference and regional customs, making the recipe for each one something of a proprietary secret. The base is evenly spread on a flat, round griddle, and the vendor then cracks and scrambles an egg (or two). In Shanghai, green onions, cilantro and pickled mustard tubers (zhacai 榨菜) top the eggs, bringing out a fresh crunch and herby taste that balances out the sweetness from the soybean paste and the heat of the chile paste that’s spread on at the end. The bing is folded, and then either a deep-fried wonton skin or a puffy fried dough stick (youtiao 油条) is added to give heft or crunch.
As delicious and beloved as the jianbing is, the news around street food in China lately has been less rosy, with authorities getting stricter regarding street vending. As Justin Bergman writes in a recent article on the crackdowns for Roads & Kingdoms, “Stinky tofu, like other street food across China, is caught in the crosshairs as Chinese authorities strengthen the country’s food safety laws. What’s under threat is more than just affordable snacks. It’s also the livelihoods of countless street-food chefs across the country – and an invaluable part of China’s culinary heritage.”
Even though most of the street carts are gone and many mom-and-pop vendors have been forced to shutter and return to their home provinces, there’s still a contingent of street vendors in Shanghai that have managed to secure a stable space to sell jianbing. By partnering with licensed restaurants that don’t open until lunchtime, they can maintain a part-time streetside presence without the full costs of kitchen licensing and sky-high rents.
The shared space model is the situation at one of our all-time favorite vendors near Xiangyang Park in the former French Concession area. For years, the husband-wife team of Mr. Wang and Mrs. Li worked a small space perched in the front of a soup noodle store that opened only for lunch and dinner. They recently took over the full space, making a combo jianbing/dumpling stall that runs all day.
Jianbing carts in Shanghai traditionally closed by 10 a.m., so today it is mostly considered a breakfast treat, popular in the morning hours between 5:30-10 a.m. When the jianbing crowd fades, the couple now shifts to serving dumplings to keep revenue flowing throughout the day. With the dedicated space, they also don’t have to worry about getting chased away by chengguan城管 – officials with wide authority to shut down and confiscate illegal businesses operating on sidewalks and in public zones.
Beyond publicizing our favorite spots in Shanghai, we were also excited to truly put the “world” in World Jianbing Day. An outpouring of love and tributes came in on social media for the street snack, encouraged in part by tastings from the jianbing diaspora around the world. Part of this diaspora clearly aims to serve the wave of Chinese immigration worldwide, but it’s also about bringing it to new audiences who haven’t traveled to China and been exposed to jianbing.
We talked to a number of jianbing shop owners located abroad; many voiced their passion for the street food and spoke of the challenges of running such a niche business outside of China. Andrew Robertson and his wife, Miya Wu, opened Little Wu Jianbing in Canberra, Australia, after falling in love with the dish during their time living in Beijing.
They now operate two locations in Canberra and commented that in order to appeal to local Australians and keep them returning regularly, you have to offer lots of “extras and ingredients that you don’t often see on jianbing in China.” Little Wu’s menu now includes items like stewed pork belly and five-spice fried chicken fillings to wrap up in the bing.
The original jianbing is simultaneously becoming an endangered item of cultural heritage on the mainland, while also enjoying greater fame and popularity abroad.
NYC-based Jianbing Company operates out of the increasingly popular food halls around the city and via its catering services. Co-founder Tadesh Inagki says, “Looking at what the press has looked like in the past four or five years, and the increasing popularity of jianbing here, we believe jianbing is on the cusp of going mainstream very soon.”
Mr. Bing, another NYC-based purveyor, has the largest reach of any brand in the U.S., with shops and stalls around town, including on Wall Street, in office lobbies and a soon-to-be-opened Whole Foods. Founder Brian Goldberg also spoke to the challenges of translating the beloved street food to a wider audience. Goldberg noted that in order to keep customers coming back regularly for something new, they’ve expanded their menu since opening to include “bings, bowls and baos.”
For all the fusion flavors and extra ingredients that pop up when jianbing moves abroad, many of these innovations (or bastardizations, depending on your viewpoint), which were borne of economic necessity, are also becoming trendy back on the mainland. As running a jianbing stall locally has become more capital intensive, more mini-chains have invested in dedicated commercial space and vastly expanded their menus in an attempt to reach a greater audience.
One such spot is JianBing Huang, a popular, more commercial option for the Jing’An district office crowd: the expansive menu of truly meal-sized jianbing goes well beyond the standards. Add anything from dried pork floss to cucumber to beef up your bing. The mix-and-match method is clearly an effective way to satisfy a range of customers as well as to get a few extra RMB from every transaction.
Another, even more ‘corporatized’ mini-chain is 煎饼当家, which roughly translates to “Jianbing Is My Home.” They offer different bases for the crepe such as corn or spinach as well as add-ons, including higher-end options like Peking duck with hoisin sauce. We find them hit or miss, and very dependent on personal taste, but are ultimately happy the option exists (with extended hours for late-night cravings).
For another take on jianbing that falls more towards traditional street stall than commercialized operation, we recommend Fatty’s Jianbing (小胖子煎饼). It is Shanghai’s number-one rated jianbing spot on Dianping, China’s version of Yelp. The couple who run the place are from Huai’an in northern Jiangsu and have been making jianbing in Shanghai for 15 years. There’s almost always a line of 10-15 people waiting to get their hands on the goods, so budget some extra time.
When you reach the front of the line, there’s a sign announcing a three-jianbing limit per customer, and usually most people are hitting this limit. The mere suggestion of an upper limit coupled with the wait time actually prompted us to order two more than we originally planned, making it a totally genius profit-maximizer.
Toppings here range from the traditional (egg, highly processed mini sausage, which resembles a hot dog in color and shape, and lettuce) to the more unusual – albeit still local – ingredients (salted egg, pickled green beans, and grilled sausage) and Western-inspired elements (bacon, cheese, and hamburger patty). Our sampling found that cheese and bacon are surprisingly tasty additions.
For now, it seems like the original jianbing is simultaneously becoming an endangered item of cultural heritage on the mainland, while also enjoying greater fame and popularity abroad. The tastes and flavor profiles are evolving and becoming more broad and accessible, especially via delivery apps both in China and abroad, while fewer vendors hawking “authentic” versions are able to make a living.
We’re not sure what the future holds, but we hope that awareness of and nostalgia for jianbing increase to the point where diners around the world can easily access this classic snack. In the meantime, no trip to Shanghai or Beijing is complete without devouring several.
If you’d like to contribute to the World Jianbing Day project – the next one is April 30, 2020 – you can always contribute your local vendor to the map to help others find their nearest jianbing at www.jianbingmap.com or tag your photos on Instagram with #worldjianbingday.