My secret 5 best ethnic pancakes

“Die die must try!”

That’s the Malaysian or Singaporean way of describing food SO GOOD that one would take extreme measures to get it (eg by travelling long distances).

That phrase applies to my list of top 5 traditional Asian pancakes.  Maple syrup does not feature.

Chances are you’ve already tried a few.  Then again, perhaps you’ll find one that is completely novel and tempting enough to hunt down, or cook (some pancake recipes included).

As an added bonus, many of these are vegetarian, or can be made vegetarian with the smallest of tweaks.

So here is the list, in random order.

1.  Roti tisu (Paper-thin “bread”)

roti tisuIn Malay, “roti” means bread.  “Tisu” means tissue paper.  Literally: bread that is as thin as tissue paper.

Hails from?

Malaysia and Singapore.  Roti tisu is the sweet cousin of Malaysian roti canai or Singaporean roti paratha/prata, being made from the same dough.  But you eat roti tisu on its glorious own.  Do not dip in curry.

What does it taste like? 

A bit like Keira Knightley early in her career: thin, delicate and sweet.  The roti maker:

  • stretches the dough membrane-thin to occupy the entire hot griddle,
  • sprinkles sugar on it,
  • then shapes it into a cone to serve.

Why it rocks my world

What’s not to like about eating something that tastes as ethereal as a single, oversized croissant flake?

In a perverse way, roti tisu is special to me precisely because a well-executed version is as rare as a relaxed Bank of Cyprus customer these days.

Places selling roti canai/paratha don’t necessarily serve roti tisu, because it demands more time and skill of its maker.  Said maker could cook 5 roti prata in the time it takes to cook 1 roti tisu.

3 hallmarks of a well-executed roti tisu

#1. Judicious sprinkling of fine sugar.  Not too sweet.  We’re not eating a Krispy Kreme doughnut here.

#2. Uniformly wisp-thin.  Crisp from tip of cone to edge.  The edge should be flaky; definitely no thick, rubbery rim.

#3. Not oily.  No greasy sheen.  Definitely no pooling of oil on the dish.**
**This is what separates the men from the boys.  And the only man I know in this department owns a shop I call “Perfection”, for the perfect roti tisu he makes.  It’s located in my husband’s Malaysian hometown of Kota Bharu.

Armed with those insights, now carefully examine the following picture of Perfection’s roti tisu.  Hallmarks #2 (crisp, uniformly thin) and #3 (not greasy) will be immediately apparent.  As for Hallmark #1 (correct sweetness), just take my word for it.

roti tisuIf you live in Sydney and have found a roti tisu that looks like this, call meQuick!

Make it at home?

Nope.

2.  Cong you bing 葱油饼 (Green onion pancake / Scallion pancake)

Green onion pancakeHails from? Northern Chinese dumplings

China.

If you live in Sydney, you have a good chance of snagging a decent cong you bing at Chinese (often Shanghainese) restaurants that specialise in dumplings (jiao zi 饺子).

What does it taste like? 

Crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, punctuated by savoury morsels of green onions.

Why it rocks my world

That crisp-outside-chewy-inside formula is a fail-safe one.

There’s also sentimental value.  Our erstwhile Shanghainese grandmother-for-hire often greeted my kids after school with cong you bing freshly made by her husband that morning.  My children are card-carrying pancake fiends, and this one ranks high on their list.

3 hallmarks of a well-executed cong you bing

#1. Exterior must be sufficiently crisp and brown.  If you get a pallid cong you bing that is chewy outside and inside, send it back immediately.

#2. Exterior is crisp but dry.  Never oily.

#3. Seasoning is key – the cong you bing should be properly salted.

Make it at home?green onion pancake frozen

Sure, my neighbour makes it from scratch and says it’s dead easy.   Here’s a recipe.  Just remember to add enough salt!

As for me, I take the lazy way and raid the freezer section of my local Asian grocer.  It’s inexpensive, at about A$3 for a 5-pack.

The frozen ready-to-cook cong you bing comes up a treat with just a smidgin of oil in a non-stick pan.  Whatever you do, resist the urge to go all healthy and grill it in the oven – it’ll go hard instead of crisping up.  Trust me on this.

A lesser-known relative of cong you bing 

Xinjiang chive bun - Chinese foodJiu cai he zi (韭菜盒子) are pan-fried pockets stuffed with garlic chives, egg and glass noodles.

They’re not as common as cong you bing, but just as delicious.  The punchy garlic chives go mellow when cooked.

Impress your friends by ordering it if you spy it on a Chinese restaurant menu.

3.  Jian bing guo zi 煎饼果子 (Fried crepe encasing fried cracker – yippee ki yay)

Tianjin crepe

Hails from?Tianjin crepe making

Tianjin in China.  In China, Tianjin is renowned for its street food, and this double-fried goodness is a specialty Tianjin breakfast-on-the-run.

Jian bing guo zi is made to order.  In Sydney, you know a Chinese eatery serves it if you see the portable circular griddle (pictured).

Often in attention-grabbing turquoise, the griddle is commonly displayed at the front of the eatery, so that diners can have fun watching their jian bing guo zi being freshly made.  You can specify how spicy you want it.

What does it taste like? 

Chewy on the outside, crisp on the inside.  A reversal of that age-old formula!

The flavours are gutsy, thanks to smears of chilli sauce and fermented bean paste (tian mian jiang 甜面酱 – favourite ingredient of Iron Chef Chen Kenichi).  The fragrance of spring onions also helps.

Why it rocks my world

I’m big on textures.  And the textural contrast in jian bing guo zi is heaven in a chomp.

Besides, jian bing guo zi isn’t the grease-fest that the heading suggests.  The crepes that I’ve seen all start with a speckled, wholegrainy batter.  Not much oil is added to the griddle.  Eggs are added to the crepe – there’s your protein kick.  Isn’t it starting to sound like a nourishing, low-GI alternative to Nutrigrain?

But this will bring it up a notch on the list of Foods You Mustn’t Show Your Cardiologist.  A permutation of jian bing guo zi encases not crackers but deep-fried dough sticks (you tiao 油条) like these:

Fried dough sticks

4.  Buchujeon 부추전 (Garlic chive pancake)

Korean pancake with garlic chives

Hails from?

Korea.  If you live in Sydney, you have a fighting chance of locating buchujeon or its siblings at a Korean restaurant.

The spicy sibling is kimchijeon 김치전, made with (you guessed it) kimchi.  The chewy sibling is haemul pajeon 해물파전, made with seafood and scallions.

What does it taste like? 

Crisp on the outside and edges.  Chewy towards the centre.  Comes with a dipping sauce made with Korean hot pepper paste (gochujang 고추장), or soy sauce and vinegar.

No prizes for guessing which FITK food tour offers you a sample of buchujeon.  That’ll be the Korean Adventure.

Why it rocks my world

Those crisp edges are divine.  My children and I cross chopsticks over those bits.  And that tart vinegar dipping sauce is the perfect foil for the oil.

2 hallmarks of a well-executed buchujeon

#1. Properly browned and crisped.  I can’t decide which is better – the crisp edges, or a bit of caramelised chive.

#2. Not too thick in the middle, or it’ll taste stodgy.

Tips

  • Eat it piping hot.  Just like Bear Grylls in the Arctic Circle, buchujeon gets tough when it’s cold.
  • Buchujeon often contains squid, but it’s easy enough to ask the restaurant to omit squid to make it vegetarian.

Make it at home?

Most definitely.  Korean pancakes are very much a home-style food.

To our delight, our resident Korean student whipped up a batch of kimchi pancakes one rainy Sunday.  She craves pancakes on rainy days because the sizzle on the frying pan sounds like falling rain.

That kimchi pajeon Sunday was a milestone moment in my children’s lives.  It was their first taste of kimchi and they haven’t looked back.

Buchujeon is more like a Western pancake, in that you make up a batter to pour into the frying pan.  There’s no messy kneading of dough.  Here’s a recipe.

A lesser-known relative of buchujeon 

Savoury Korean pancakes at market.-001 Korean pancake stall at market. Savoury Korean pancakes at market.

These are bindaetteok 빈대떡 – savoury mung bean pancakes which are a common Korean street food.  There’s even a spinach version for the Popeyes out there.

5.  Okonomiyaki お好み焼き (Savoury Japanese pancake)

Okonomiyaki

As pancakes go, this belongs to the heavyweight division.  Dainty it is not.  It’s thick, hearty and can contain all the major food groups within a single striped disc.

Hails from?

Japan.  It’s the pride and joy of Osaka, but you’ll find it in many forms across Japan, at market stalls and eateries.

What does it taste like? Okonomiyaki making

  • Crisp outside.
  • Soft inside.
  • Nuggets of crunch, chewiness and warmth from (respectively) vegetables, meat and pickled ginger.
  • Sweet from the brown sauce brushed on top.
  • Rich from squirts of mayonnaise.

And that’s just one version of okonomiyaki.

Why it rocks my world

It’s the ultimate dining theatre.  Specialty okonomiyaki restaurants in Japan have hotplates on the table.  Food doesn’t get more cooked-to-order than this.  Toppings of seaweed and bonito flakes curl and dance in the heat.  Mesmerising.

There are as many types of okonomiyaki as there are shades of Dulux beige.  In Japan, you can really knock yourself out with the myriad funky versions.

Anyone for pork belly, squid, prawn and mochi rice cakes, all in one okonomiyaki, topped with an egg?  It’s like the Super Supreme Pizza, except so much tastier.

Okonomiyaki in Osaka market Eating okonomiyaki

Make it at home?

Sure.  Here’s a recipe that has basic, healthy and advanced-skills variations.

For people more inclined to dine out, that recipe link even has a handy “Restaurants” tab, listing restaurants outside Japan that serve okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki’s Tokyo cousin: Monjayaki もんじゃ焼き 

Below: Cooking okonomiyaki (left) and monjayaki (right)

Okonomiyaki vs monjayaki

Monjayaki is a Tokyo specialty.  It’s softer and more gooey than okonomiyaki.  It’s really fun to eat, because you use a mini spatula to scrape off small portions, brown them to your liking, and gobble up.

Spatulas for okonomiyaki and monjayaki Okonomiyaki and monjayaki mixes Dining theatre Okonomiyaki   Monjayaki bubbling Monjayaki

Things to do

  1. Can you guess which of these pancakes you’ll encounter at the Burwood Grazing Adventure: Asian Thrills?  Click here for bookings.
  2. Do your friends a favour – send them this article and share the pancake love.
  3. Do you have a favourite pancake to add to this list?  Send me a comment and tell me all about it.  Is the South Indian dosa your Kryptonite?  Or maybe you have a loving close-up of the Vietnamese bánh xèo to share…

3 thoughts on “My secret 5 best ethnic pancakes

  1. Pingback: Your outdoor apple store – apple picking | Feasting in the Know

  2. Great article! Banh Xeo is one of my favorite dishes. It predates French colonialism in Viet Nam and is traditionally made with rice flour, mung bean, turmeric, and coconut milk, it is the savory cousin of the South Indian Dosa.

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