I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with jiucai, variously known in English as garlic chives, Chinese leek, Asian chives, etc., or in some Asian/Japanese stores as nira. Well, by love-hate, I meant more “10% love and 90% hate” throughout my childhood. It was pungent, stinky, stringy, squishy, chewy, and always got stuck in my teeth. You know how they say you shouldn’t kiss anyone after eating garlic? Well, the same applies to garlic chives, as you might have gathered from the name. I couldn’t stand jiucai jiaozi (garlic chive-and-pork dumplings, possibly one of the standard fillings along side napa cabbage-and-pork, which I did like immensely; more on those in a later entry), I would only eat the scrambled eggs in jiucai chao jidan, and I never quite understood the point of jiucai chao yacai (stir-fried with mung bean sprouts), either.
But one dish (more specifically, one type of dish) accounted for that 10% love: jiucai bing. Bing can mean anything from pancakes, to crepes, to flat breads, to even leaven baked goods similar to English muffins, often stuffed. I will talk specifically about one kind of jiucai bing today: the kind that’s most similar to crepes, made by a middle-aged woman who owned a little stall on the streets near my house, who called me “Yalei!” every time she saw me (for more on that, see the previous post).
She made jiucai bing in a way that I’ve never seen before. At home, we would make jiucai bing by making a watery batter with flour, water, salt, and maybe eggs, throw inch-long strips of garlic chives into the batter, and make big, thin, round pancakes with it – it’s like the Korean pajeon, if you’ve had that before. It was good on its own, or with congee (which I also refused to eat – yes, I know, I was a picky kid).
But what she did was different: she would make a much thinner, much bigger pancake on a flat top grill, like a big crepe, and as the batter solidifies, she would crack an egg into the middle, beat it slightly with a crepe spreader, and sprinkle inch-long strips of garlic chives all around the egg. Then, she would fold the edges of the crepe over the garlic chives, toward the center, to make a square. After a few seconds, she’d flip that over, and, as the egg and garlic chives sizzle on the grill, she’d take a jar of chili paste and brush a generous dollop on the cooked side. As the sizzling dies down, she’d fold the square bing in half, throw it into a plastic bag (everything came in plastic bags; health, safety, and environment be damned), and hand it over for one or two kuai (colloquial for yuan; at the time, 1 dollar = 8.3 yuan). Savory, crispy, balanced between the heat and spice of the chili paste, the richness of the egg, and the light, vegetal nature of garlic chives (pungency and stink offset by the chili paste, I’m grateful to note), it was all you could ask for in a quick and cheap snack.
It was a popular dinner choice (dinner is always lighter than lunch, which is the big meal of the day) for my mom and I on our walk home from work and school. We’d get two and munch away as we walked, past the dirty lake in the park on our left, past all the elderly on the public exercise machines on our right, past the little grocery store where I’d run to get bottles of black vinegar or soy sauce in a pinch, talking about our day. And then, it was homework time. But I had a jiucai bing, and it was a good day.
Speaking of garlic chive-and-mung bean sprout stir fries, there was a little ditty in my region that, if I remember correctly, went something like this:
Jiucai chao yacai,
Very non-poetically translated,
Garlic chive stir-fried with mung bean sprouts,
If you want some, bring your bowl over,
If you don’t want any, get the @#%* over here!
Yeah, that one got me scratching my head, too. Rhymes well, though (at least in Chinese)!