Breakfast was often an on-the-streets affair for my mom and me. School starts at 7:50, and we would get up around 7, head out the door around 7:10, and walk down Longhe Road, which connects our residential complex, “Xiyuan” (“West Garden”), past the gates of Anhui University, my mom’s Alma Mater, to Anhui Medical University, my dad’s Alma Mater, of which my elementary school was a subsidiary.

Longhe Road was not a main thoroughfare – a narrow two-lane road lined with street vendors who set up little stalls to sell goods of all sorts, from fruits to clothing to books to bootleg DVDs. In the morning, though, the only stalls that are open are clustered around the gates of Anhui University, not selling goods, but a wide range of breakfast items. One of the most popular, and certainly one of the most portable (an important attribute if I couldn’t get out of bed that morning), was jianbing from this one middle-aged woman who usually sets up just in front of the bookstore next to the main university gates.

Jianbing, though literally meaning “pancake”, much more closely resembles a crepe. They are made similarly, too: she would pour a ladleful of thin batter, usually made with just flour, water, and salt, onto a round flat-top grill, and, spinning a wooden crepe spreader from the center, create a perfect circle. Like the jiucai bing that I talked about in the last entry, she would crack an egg into the center, beat it lightly with the crepe spreader, and sprinkle on a small handful of chopped-up zhacai (pickled mustard stems that originated in Sichuan) and scallions. As the egg slightly solidifies, she would flip over the jianbing, and, with a brush, generously lather on a layer of sweet-and-hot sauce (a mystery sauce that I’ve had much trouble replicating later, though it was probably a combination of chili paste and hoisin sauce). Voila! A freshly cooked jianbing, all under a minute.

Here’s where you can make a choice: you could have just the jianbing, which, delicious as it is, is perhaps not filling enough, and may be texturally monotonous; more commonly, you would choose to upgrade it with youtiao, also called Chinese crullers or Chinese donuts, which are long strips of deep-fried dough. This combination of jianbing wrapped around a couple long strips of youtiao, known as jianbing guozi, apparently originated in the northern city of Tianjin and swept across the nation. It’s hard not to fall for it after the first bite: the contrast of the soft and tender jianbing with the crispy youtiao, a flavor profile balanced between the salty zhacai, the rich egg, and the sweet and spicy sauce, complemented by the lightness of the scallions – it was the perfect meal at a cost of merely one or two kuai (less than a quarter at the time), and it fueled me for countless morning school sessions. I would gobble it up the second it came off the grill and was handed to me inside the ubiquitous plastic bag, and run off to school – if I wanted to savor it, well, I can always get another one tomorrow, that is, if I can get up early enough…

Since I moved to the US over a dozen years ago, I’ve encountered a version of jianbing guozi in which deep-fried wonton wrappers called baocui (literally “thin and crispy”) are used instead of youtiao. I’ve also seen cilantro used, either with or instead of the chopped scallions. Though both are undeniably delicious in their own right, in my personal opinion, neither can hold a candle to the version I’ve had in my childhood, on those morning walks to school on Longhe Road.

As an aside, the debate between the Tianjin school of jianbing (usually with the youtiao filling) vs. the Shandong school of jianbing (usually with the baocui filling) continues to rage to this day in China. Though Shandong, a province just south of Tianjin, is supposedly the birthplace of jianbing, I think I’m pretty clear which side I’m on…


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