mamster's grub shack - Scallion Pancakes

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Not Available at IHOP
by Matthew Amster-Burton

September 3, 1999

It's easy to conclude that Chinese food lacks bread. After all, the staple of China is, of course, rice, and only rarely does the Chinese chef make use of an oven. The crackly skin of the oven-baked Peking Duck is the exception that proves the rule.

But, of course, the Chinese do use wheat flour and they do make breads. Flour is used 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. Wheat is also the basis for the northern Chinese specialty that is one of my favorite foods of all: scallion pancakes. My two key sources of excellence in scallion pancakes are Ollie's at 116th and Broadway in Manhattan and the redoubtable Szechuan Chongqing Restaurant in Vancouver, BC. Since neither of these fine establishments is currently within walking distance of my home, I wanted to find a home recipe that would be just as crispy, chewy, and satisfying as any I could get in a restaurant.

My first taste of scallion pancakes was at Szechuan Chongqing, about ten years ago. As far as I've been able to determine, they're unique as flatbreads go, in that they're pan-fried but made from a dough (thick, kneaded, and shaped) rather than a batter (thin, stirred, and poured). A search of the encyclopedic Flatbreads and Flavors (Morrow), by peripatetic starch lovers Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, turned up nothing remotely similar. The closest I could come up with were sopaipillas or Navajo frybread, but these are leavened and puffy where scallion pancakes are staunchly thin. The point here is that a scallion pancake is a one-of-a-kind snacking opportunity. There's just nothing else that can satisfy the urge.

To my mind, the ideal scallion pancake is thin (1/8" to 1/4") but with identifiable layers of dough, golden-brown and crisp on the outside, and fairly chewy inside. It should burst with the flavor of fried scallions; if the scallions are inadequately cooked, it's distracting. A soy-based dipping sauce is customary; I thin some Kikkoman with rice wine or chicken broth and add a spoon of fiery sambal oelek, the Indonesian chile-garlic paste. Garnish the sauce with a scallion brush.

The pancakes are terribly simple in theory. Roll 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). My grandfather learned to cook Chinese from The Joyce Chen Cookbook (Lippincott, OP). Joyce was Helen's mother, so I figured Chinese Home Cooking was good enough for me. For Christmas last year, my grandparents gave me a Joyce Chen brand Chinese cleaver; I promptly cut my finger and set it aside (the knife, not my finger). I'll learn to use the Chinese knife someday soon, really, but for now I do my prep with an eight-inch Henckels chef's knife, honed to a deadly edge with the Chef's Choice 300 electric knife sharpener. Not that scallion pancakes require intricate knifework, but, you know, for future reference.

Mystery Bread

By the way, there's another Chinese fried bread that I adore. At Szechuan Chongqing, they call it the Fried Sliced Roll. It's a small loaf of bread, deep fried, with a smooth, white interior that breaks up in the center into wormlike rolls of dough. I'm making it sound awful, but it rivals steamed white rice as the ideal way to mop up sauces.

I've never seen the fried sliced roll at any other restaurant or in a cookbook. So I vowed that on our next visit to Szechuan, we'd ask them how they do it. Yesterday was my birthday, and we drove up to Vancouver for dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant. We ordered the fried sliced roll, which was as fluffy and crisp as ever, and asked the waiter how they make it.

"We buy it at the K&T," he replied, gesturing at a Chinese grocery across the street. "Then we fry it and slice it."

We'd envisioned a row of line cooks, tearing bread from the middle of a hot loaf and somehow rolling it into linguine strands and reinserting it. A commercial product? Impossible!

"What do they call it at the store?" we asked.


We would have checked it out, but the K&T was closed, which is probably just as well, because it averted the spectacle of a bunch of low faan bursting into the store, shouting, "Where's your bread?"

-MAB 8/29/99

A vague stab

The basic technique is the same in every recipe.

  1. Mix some amount of some type of wheat flour with boiling water and salt. (Actually, some recipes suggesting sprinkling the salt on along with the scallions, but I humbly disagree.)
  2. Knead into a ball. Let the dough rest, covered with a damp towel, for half an hour or so. The standard argument for resting dough is that it lets the flour and water mix completely and helps the gluten relax so you can roll it out thinner. By the way, I'm a big proponent of kneading dough in a food processor. It's almost as good as being able to yell, "Garçon! Knead this dough now!" Sigh. Someday I'll get that French lackey. Someday we all will.
  3. On a floured surface, roll the ball out into a snake and cut into sections. The number of sections you cut isn't all that important. If you like a wide pancake, cut fewer.
  4. Roll one section into a thin circle. Brush with sesame oil and sprinkle with minced scallions. (The more finely minced, the better--large pieces tend to cook inadequately and fall out when you roll the pancake the second time.) One bunch of scallions will do.
  5. Roll the circle into a cigar shape, jelly roll style. Then coil the cigar up into a cinnamon roll shape with the seam on the inside. The point here is to make layers of dough that will trap air bubbles, since the dough is unleavened, and to distribute the scallions evenly throughout the cake.
  6. Repeat for the rest of the dough balls and let them rest for another half-hour.
  7. Heat some peanut or canola oil over medium heat in a skillet (nonstick works great). Roll the pancakes flat again, being careful not to roll too hard and lose those tasty air bubbles, or you'll get scallion pucks, which are fairly tasty but not really the effect we're after.
  8. Fry the pancakes two or three at a time, depending on the size, three minutes on a side. Drain on paper towels or brown paper bags. Eat immediately.
Committing pancake adultery

Chen's recipe calls for bacon, which seems kind of silly to me. I'll probably try it at some point; hell, I'd probably try tarte Tatin with bacon. But the whole point of scallion pancakes is that they taste like scallions, dammit, so I forewent the bacon. With flapjacks, yes. With scallion pancakes, no. An adulteration I can recommend, however, is to add some toasted Szechuan peppercorns along with the scallions; they're commonly enjoyed this way in China.

Her proportions are 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup water, and 1 teaspoon salt. The pancakes cook up thick--too thick. Try as I might, I couldn't roll them thin enough. I considered breaking out the chicken pounder. I made the Chen recipe several times and could not work out this bug. They were certainly edible, but the interior was doughy and harbored undercooked scallions. Bad news. Something had to be done.

I turned next to Nina Simonds's new 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 QFC for a box of cake flour.

The Simonds formula departs in significant ways from Chen. She uses 3 cups cake flour, 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1-3/4 cups boiling water. In addition, she 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 me less as I tried to roll it flat. The corn oil would lubricate the strands of gluten and soften the dough further. This dough even had a higher ratio of water, and more resting periods during the process 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, including my arms, torso, and face, heavily. 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.

Victory at last

Now I knew what I had to do. First of all, I switched to a 50-50 mix of cake flour and all-purpose, 1-3/4 cups of each. 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 the water back to 1-1/4 cups; watch the dough carefully and use even less if necessary. Then I 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 than the sticky monster I'd created with Simonds's original recipe. I knew I was close. I rolled out some thin pancakes, let them rest for as long as I could bear, and tossed them hastily into a pan of sizzling fat. Three minutes on the first side, two on the second, and they were done. These were the best I've ever made, salty and crackling with oily, oniony goodness. At least, they were around the edges--the centers were still a bit doughy, but that's because I'd failed to sprinkle the scallions close enough to the edge. I'd also overdone it a touch on the sesame oil. The thinnest sheen you can manage will cut it--no need to go all Exxon Valdez. My next batch will lack nothing.

One last note: you can store uncooked pancakes for at least eighteen hours by stacking them between sheets of lightly-floured wax paper and putting the whole stack in a big Ziploc and refrigerating. Grocery stores could make them in the morning and sell them like this to take home. Perhaps they'll start doing so once this article has generated the requisite demand.

So there you have it: crusty, chewy scallion pancakes at home. Of course, the mind still wanders. I have just learned that Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, who is known as the Cantonese Julia Child, fills her pancakes with a paste made from scallions, salt, sugar, and Crisco. Yin-Fei Lo teaches hands-on classes at the China Institute in America on East 65th Street in New York. Briefly I consider maxing out the Visa on a last-minute flight. But I've had my fill of scallion pancakes for the moment. Now, who's for bacon-spiked tarte Tatin?[HOME]

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