Scallion pancakes are a thing most of us have accepted as restaurant food, best enjoyed on Chinese porcelain or out of a take-away cardboard Oyster pail...not freshly fried up on the cast iron in your home kitchen. These folded little art forms are so intricately layered, only someone native to their cuisine could possibly hold the secrets to their perfect croissant-like composition.
My scallion pancake memories have been boxed up and tucked away, frozen in a childhood corner of my mind along with the woody smell of oolong tea, the sound of single-use chopsticks being snapped apart and rubbed together, and the pastel chalkiness of the little after-dinner sweets from the candy tray by the exit of our local Chinese restaurant. My dad has been fluent in Mandarin for as long as I can remember. With years of research trips to Beijing and Shanghai under his belt, he eventually could no longer politely avoid such delicacies as grilled scorpions and roasted dog and fried fish lips, and so by comparison he felt easily at ease at the friendly little Yangtze River restaurant near our house, which boasted, among other American Chinese food dishes, the best Lo Mein in town.
While I'd fumble with my chopsticks, peeling plump dumpling dough away from pork fillings and pushing aside the latter, and slathering sugary plum sauce onto Moo Shu pancakes, he would find a way to talk to the waiter in strange, undulating tones, but with a clear - even to me - sense of mutual understanding. I made sure the understanding was especially clear when it came to one thing: Con You Bing.
The literal translation from Chinese is 'onion oil pancake' and you can make them at home. As the name suggests, oil and onion - along with flour and water - are the main ingredients of this savory, unleavened pancake. Traditionally, Con You Bing is served alongside a hearty and saucy meat dish or as a street food-style snack served - often for breakfast - with dipping sauce. It's the Chinese take on the flatbread, and many cuisines across the world have their own versions. In India it's the Paratha, in Korea the Pajeon and with the the addition of a little leavening it's the Middle Eastern pita, the South Asian naan bread or the Italian pizza.
Word on the web is that the best scallion pancake in Shanghai comes from a small stall on Nanchang Road owned by a hunchbacked old man named Mr. Wu who, starting at 5am each day, turns out hours upon hours of individual fried cakes, each with the most perfect crisp to cloud ratio. His secret is finishing off the pancakes with a couple minutes in a high- heat kiln, achieving that ultimate combination of crunchy golden crisp on the outside, and soft airy cloud on the inside.
What I love about the scallion pancake is this tension between fresh and the opposite of fresh...rich, dense, heavy. It's fried to a brittle crisp, but it's also soft and tender. Salt dominates, but there's a lingering sweetness. It's a dough, but the fresh greens taste like spring. Scallions are a young form of the regular onion we're familiar with - they're just picked before they can fully develop a root bulb. Spring onions, green onions (what we use here), young leek and young shallots are all part of the Scallion family. The fresh bite of this baby vegetable is an important key to the complexity of the otherwise simple flavor profile in this dish. Note that we discard the dark green ends, as they can have a bitter flavor
Another key lies in the importance of the gluten development of the dough. Here we use hot water dough, which actually destroys the gluten composition, resulting in less of a stretchy, fluffy dough (for example, like a hole-filled loaf of bread) and instead more of a tender chew (similar to a dumpling dough). Both resting times - before and after creating the individual pancakes - are also critical to allow the little gluten that does exist to relax and to end up with that thin, flaky dough.
Finally, Mr. Wu-like patience in frying time is your ticket to that perfect crisp to cloud ratio. So, hunch yourself over that frying pan and get Con You Bing-ing!
MAPLE SOY DIPPING SAUCE
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons almond butter
1 tablespoon maple syurp
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili oil
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Start by making your dipping sauce. Simply whisk ingredients together until fully incorporated and you have a thick brown sauce. Allow to marinate while you make your pancakes.
ONION OIL PANCAKES
It can be challenging and take a few practice runs to get your dough right with scallion pancakes. Here is a video from chef Martin Yan showing his process. Kneading and resting is a critical step.
1 tablespoon red hot pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
3 scallions, thinly sliced with dark green ends discarded
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup toasted sesame oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 cup boiling water
2 scallions, thinly sliced with dark green ends discarded
vegetable oil for frying
Start by making the chili scallion brushing oil. In a large pot combine the red pepper flakes, garlic, scallions, ginger, and oils. Over medium-low heat and stirring occasionally, bring to a low, bubbly simmer. Cook gently for 15 minutes (the temperature shouldn't rise above 250 degrees). Set aside to cool.
Make the dough. Using your fingertips, mix together flour, salt and sugar at the base of a large mixing bowl. Slowly add boiling water, continuing to stir with your fingers as you go until a wet, shaggy ball of dough has formed. Knead the dough with the palm of your hand at the base of the bowl for 5 minutes, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough forms into a ball that stays together and doesn't stick to your hands. Return dough to mixing bowl, cover with a cloth and let it rest for at least 30 minutes to an hour.
After resting, take the dough and pull / roll it into a long rope. Divide the dough into 3 equal sections. Take each section and roll it into a flat rectangle, getting as thin as you can using a rolling pin. Brush the chili scallion oil onto the flattened dough, getting as close as you can to the edges. Sprinkle additional chopped scallions on top of the oil.
One by one, starting from the long edge, roll each piece of dough into a tube. Then starting at one end, roll into a coil, like a cinnamon roll, and tuck the opposite end under the roll. Allow to rest, covered with a cloth, for another 30 minutes.
Coat a frying pan with vegetable oil and heat over moderate heat. Using the palm of your hand (not the rolling pin), gently flatten each coil into a pancake. Cook pancakes about 6 minutes on each side, shaking the pan as you go to ensure even dispersement of oil and peeking underneath to check for burning.