China: Cong You Bing (Scallion Pancakes)
A few months ago my friend told us she was bringing scallion pancakes for us to try. I was so excited because I had small spring onions growing in my garden that I had no idea what to do with. But when she turned up, she had Korean-style pajeon, which are made with large whole scallions bound together with a thin batter and fried. Delicious, but there was no way I could recreate them with the thin, reedy variety of spring onions growing in my garden.
Fast forward a few months, and another friend shows up with scallion pancakes. This time, Chinese cong you bing, made with chopped slivers of scallions. This is it! Something that I can make to use up my garden bounty! I asked her to show me how to make it, but she said it was an involved process that only her mom knew all the secrets to. Given there’s a pandemic on, I didn’t think it wise to ask a stranger to come to my kitchen and teach me how to make scallion pancakes, so I turned to the Internet.
Flatbreads exist in most culture’s cuisines, and the cong you bing is one of many styles of it. If you are familiar with naan or parathas from Indian restaurants, the cong you bing may remind you of those. This unleavened version of the scallion pancake is made with a dough rather than a batter, so it’s more like a bread than an American-style pancake. Cong you bing has been around for many, many centuries. There is even an urban legend that says it was the precursor to pizza. Marco Polo allegedly missed scallion pancakes so much when he returned to Italy, he begged chefs to help him recreate them. Disappointed with a lack of success, Polo suggested they put the toppings on top of the dough rather than inside. Thus was born the pizza. A lovely story, that is likely untrue, since the first mention of the word “pizza” comes from hundreds of years before Polo was born.
Still, these things are addictive. And like whomever invented that tall tale, I took a few liberties when making mine. For example, I did not have Chinese five spice on hand when I went to make them, so I made my own bastardized concoction. I did a little research on what five spice is made of, and made some alterations. Since it usually consists of Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, clove, anise, and fennel, I did some calculated switching. I used black peppercorns instead of Sichuan; used allspice for the cinnamon and clove; and just used fennel seed since it has a similar flavor profile to anise, and I don’t particularly enjoy that flavor profile. Why have double when I can have half? Though I don’t really like anise-type flavorings (think licorice), it worked really well in harmony with the other spices. To finish it off, I threw in a dash of cayenne pepper to make up for the lack of Sichuan heat.
Since I was kind of going in to this blind, I followed another recipe fairly closely. I have linked that recipe in the notes of mine – one of the beautiful things about the Internet is that so much information exists, and we must be grateful to those that share it. I will also note that I don’t claim this recipe to be the most authentic version, as I learned it secondhand and this is not my culture. If you grew up with a different version or make it a different way, please let me know in the comments! I always want to learn about the food of different cultures, which is why I started my #GentGoesGlobal series in the first place. Unfortunately I don’t always have an Italian sister-in-law to learn from first-hand, so I have to rely on the lovely people of the Internet to teach me your recipes. So thank you for being patient while I learn!
Do you have a country you’d like to see me research a dish from? Where should I go next? Let me know in the comments below, or shoot me a message on Instagram or Twitter. I’m excited to share my next destination with you! Until then, here’s to good drinking, great eating, and even better living.
Scallion Pancakes (Cong You Bing)
For the pancakes
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 cups scallions (soft green parts only, reserve the white parts for the dipping sauce)
- 3 tsp Chinese five spice (see below for my own faux replacement blend)
- vegetable oil (for brushing and frying)
For the replacement Chinese five spice
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- dash cayenne pepper
For the dipping sauce
- 1 cup white scallion parts
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp soy sauce
- 4 tsp honey
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp chili oil
- First, whisk the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl to combine. Make a well in the middle, then pour the water and oil into it. Mix the dough with your hands until all flour is moistened and it comes together in a shaggy ball. Turn it out on the counter and knead for about 5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Put it back in the bowl and cover with a damp towel for 20-30 minutes.
- In the meantime, make the replacement Chinese five spice if needed by grinding the peppercorns and fennel seeds in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Add the allspice and cayenne, stir together, and set aside.
- Warm a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Chop the scallions and separate white and green parts. Chop your garlic and add it with the whites of the scallions into the pan. Sauté about 3-5 minutes, until the whites are soft. Add the soy sauce and honey, and let the sauce reduce at a simmer until slightly thickened (you don't want it watery or syrupy, just thick enough to stand up to the pancakes when you dip them). Remove from the heat and let cool before adding the sesame and chili oils. Stir to combine.
- When your dough has rested, divide it into four portions. Roll each portion out into a rough fairly thin circle, and brush with vegetable oil. Sprinkle with green scallion tops and a little five spice or replacement blend, then roll it up. Curl the roll onto itself in a snail shape and set aside. When all four are done, cover with a damp towel and rest 10 more minutes.
- When you are ready to fry, heat a skillet with a thin layer of oil over medium high. Take your snail rolls and using your fingers, gently squish from the center and knead out into a circular pancake. Add the pancake to the hot skillet and fry on each side about 3 minutes, until some places are golden brown and none of the dough is translucent. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Serve with the dipping sauce and garnished with any leftover onions. Enjoy!
- The recipe I used comes from Chinese Sichuan Food, a great blog that has so many resources for those looking to learn more about Chinese food!
- To have healthier but blonder pancakes, use less oil. They will still cook in the hot skillet but not “fry.” I did some both ways and preferred the ones fried with more oil, but the ones cooked in a mostly dry skillet were tasty too if you’re really concerned about your oil intake.
- Having said that, the oil inside the pancake is necessary to help give it a light texture and is not skippable. So the frying step is the only place to cut the fat content.