Bread in China. An oxymoron? In fact, not at all. While Chinese steamed breads are well known around the world, there is another, much different type of bread that is little known outside China, yet has long formed an integral part of the Chinese diet: flatbreads.
First, the terminology. The generic Chinese word for these flatbreads is bing which, in the case of the spring onion bing, has usually been translated as spring onion cake or pancake. However, these are not a cake at all but rather a flatbread.
Why flatbreads? Ovens, at least as we know them in the West, are not used in China. The most ubiquitous way to cook a flatbread is using a large round griddle. The new griddles are electric, while traditional ones are a simple cast iron pan on top of a round drum in which there is a fire. Other breads are baked in a tandoori-like oven drum and in Dali, Yunnan Province, a baker uses a small transportable oven fired by wood.
Chinese flatbreads come in many varieties. Sesame bing are small round flatbreads approximately 10 centimeters in diameter and 1 to 2 centimeters high. A little sesame paste is added to a yeasted dough to give it a deep color then a small amount of the paste is spread between thinly rolled layers of dough. Sometimes a little brown sugar is added, while other times they are left savory. Sesame seeds are often sprinkled on top. These are then cooked about ten at a time in the griddle pan. In the city of Shaoxing, famous for its wine, a baker took a round of leavened dough, flattened it slightly, brushed it with a little sugar water and sprinkled black sesame seeds on top. He then baked it just a few minutes in a tandoori-like oven drum.
Another type is xian bing, a stuffed flatbread. A thin layer of plain yeasted dough is wrapped around a filling of whatever vegetable is in season and then these are cooked in a griddle like the sesame bing. During autumn the filling is fennel fronds and then in the winter it’s cabbage; with spring and summer come Chinese chives. Of course, pork is the usual meat option combined with the in-season vegetable. Zhejiang Province, south of Shanghai, yields yet another version of xian bing. A pork and preserved vegetable filling is wrapped in a thick layer of dough and cooked in a tandoori-like drum. The result is reminiscent of a calzone.
While the above-mentioned bing are all small, a laobing is a large round flatbread anywhere from 1 cm to 3 cm high and up to 40 cm in diameter. As with other bing, it is made from a yeasted dough that is rolled very thin, layered and then cooked in the griddlepan. Laobingcan be plain or sometimes the layers are sprinkled with salt. These bing are used to mop up the juices of a stew. In the early evenings Beijing neighborhoods are full of people carrying home large bags of laobing.
Regional variations in bing can be significant. For example, a spring onion bing in Beijing is usually a very thin griddled bread, while in Dali a spring onion bing will be cooked in the transportable oven and have the lightness of a ciabatta.
These are just a few of the many types of flatbreads in China. What is true about all of these is that they are street food usually eaten as snacks and/or taken home to eat. They can be found at food markets and also at small stalls along the street. What’s more, because the bing are made on the spot, usually just behind the display counter, buying a bing also includes a fine view of the bakers at work.
According to a Chinese food reference book, some types of bing can be traced as far back as the Han or Song Dynasty. However, how long we will be able to continue eating these flatbreads is questionable. In its race towards modernization, China risks pushing out these small individual stalls as more and more markets and living quarters are pulled down to make way for office buildings and high-rise apartment blocks. A bing stall that was there two weeks ago suddenly will have disappeared. Some supermarkets do sell these flatbreads but they taste about the same as a supermarket-bought loaf of bread in the West.
Travelers to China should be on the lookout for this culinary gem. Chances are, bing will change one’s perception of just what the Chinese eat.
Pamela Shookman is a qualified and experienced cook who lives in Beijing
Photo: Shao Bing