To call this a grilled piece of dough is rather like saying The Taj Mahal is big.
Crisp, hot, flakey cong you bing – scallion pancake – is a culinary work of art. And it’s deceptively hard to make. From creating the stretchy hot-water dough and incorporating the filling to the mesmerising multi-step dance of cooking, it takes years of accumulated skill create a truly great one. There can be up to 10 steps involved.
But the results are so tasty, so mouth-fillingly hot, crunchy and bursting with little hits of green onion, that fans of this traditional Shanghai street food will line up for hours to get one of the best.
Case in point: “Mr Wu”, Wu Gencheng, at Ah Da, who has been making his version for more than 30 years. TimeOut Shanghai dubbed his cong you bing “second to none”, tipping their hat to the extra crisping he gives the pancakes after the initial grilling.
Fans will line up before 6am to make sure they grab a pancake (there are, apparently, even pancake scalpers, charging more than 10 times the usual rate for this wide-spread snack).
It was enough to make Rick Stein stop by to try one when filming Rick Stein’s Taste of Shanghai (Thursday April 19 on SBS then on SBS On Demand).
Not long after Stein’s visit, it looked like an end of an era. Mr Wu was ordered to shut up shop, after complaints he was operating without a licence. Hungry locals and tourists spent a month mourning the loss of the breakfast delight.
But good news for pancake lovers: Mr Wu reopened late last year in a new – licenced – location.
There are still queues.
While Mr Wu’s exact recipe remains a secret, there a couple of keys to making a great scallion pancake – the right dough, and plenty of fat or oil (lard is traditional).
If you want to nerd out on how the crisp flakiness happens, check out J. Kenji López-Alt ‘s essay on why hot-water dough gives a tender pancake with just the right amount of tug and chew, and how the rolling, folding and frying makes a difference too.
For step-by-step photos and a how-to video, nip over to Maggie Zhu's blog.
And if you want to try your hand at a simplified version, try our recipe.
Watch Rick Stein's taste of Shanghai 8.30pm on SBS, Thursday April 20 and then on SBS On Demand.