The Nine Commandments of Jian Bing
and other fun stories about food bikes, street food, and bing tasting
by Jian Bing Johnny
I am Jian Bing Johnny, and these are my opinions on how jian bing should be made and served, which are almost entirely based on the best jian bings I had in Beijing. I am a bing snob, but I'm still an amateur bing maker. I have never made the food at scale (i.e. running a full-time operation). I have had the convenience of a niche following, cooking mostly small batches. Additionally, in the wake of the Bon Appetit pho scandal, I realize that I am a white man telling you all (Chinese and otherwise) how to make and eat jian bing. I also realize, I have appropriated Chinese culture by throwing Johnny at the end of my jian bing business name. Still, I have eaten and made a lot of jian bings, and I am trying to write a definitive guide that --again-- mimics the best of Beijing bings. Here are my "secrets", stolen from China, from all of the wonderful Chinese men and women I ate bings off the street from for three and a half years. All said, you are of course entitled to your own opinions about jian bing, and you are welcome to make jian bing however you want. Leave comments on Twitter @JianBingJohnnys, and I'm happy to have a conversation about this.
1. All the gluten.
With all due respect to folks with gluten intolerance or sensitivities, I use white flour in my bings, and I put crispy fried dough (contains gluten) in the middle of my bings. I also use other flours in the batter, including soybean flour and mungbean flour which have really great flavors and make the bing more tasty. I tried non-gluten (rice and rice flour-based) substitutes for the crispy fried dough, and they had way too much crisp and not enough crunch. So since I wasn't going to make the crispy part gluten-free, I gave up on making a gluten-free batter too. White, all-purpose flour cooks really well, and holds the bing together extraordinarily well.
2. Bing architecture, please.
Hey, can we talk about bing architecture? If you've been to my cart, you have not walked away without having heard this sequence: "soft crispy soft soft crispy soft soft crispy soft." I construct my bing such that there are nine complementary layers of soft and crispy. Listen, jian bing is a comfort food because of the flavors *and* because of the texture. If you are neglecting texture, you are fucking up. I place three square fried wonton skins down the middle of my bing once the bing is near finished. I fold the left side towards the middle, fold the right side towards the middle, fold up, and fold down. This makes a neat square-sized jian bing, that is thick and filling. The added benefit with this many layers is that all of the nine ingredients (batter, egg, cilantro, green onion, black sesame, hoisin, fermented tofu, chili paste, bao cui) are in nearly every bite you take. There's a reason why nine is such a pivotal number here: everything is in nine's at the Forbidden City (heights of things, sets of stairs, etc.) and nine (jiu 九) is a homophone with the word for long-lasting (jiu 久). I know that when I had my bing in the morning in Beijing, it was very long-lasting and I didn't go hungry until 2pm or so. The emperor knew what he was doing, and you better too. (There I go again, appropriating Chinese culture for my own explanations.)
3. Flip the bing.
So apparently, in Shandong style jian bing (which is the main style they make in Shanghai), they don't flip the bing. The egg still cooks, mostly. But it just tastes (and looks) off to me. When I flip my bing, it allows the egg to fully fry up and also cooks the green onion a bit. The egg on the outside, fully cooked, also adds to the texture of the bing, and looks gorgeous. Additionally, flipping the bing is the funnest part of making it. And people love to watch this part!
4. Don't skimp on the greens.
I had to tell the lady who made my jian bing every morning in Beijing that I wanted extra cilantro. I would offer her an additional 1 yuan for her to just load it up with this scrumptious green. And with all due respect to those with the "soapy" cilantro gene, cilantro and green onion are both incredibly fragrant and really add a lot to the flavor of a jian bing. Load 'em up!
5. Hoisin > tian mian jiang
So I put three different sauces on my jian bing: one sweet, one salty, and one spicy. Many jian bing afficionados prefer to use "tian mian jiang" (甜面酱) or sweet bean paste. I find that this sauce is not true to its name. It is actually quite salty, with little evidence of any sweetness. Hoisin sauce (海鲜酱) is mostly sweet and slightly savory. I've seen both tian mian and hoisin used in Beijing, but I highly recommend using hoisin sauce to give just a little sweetness to the jian bing and to complement the salty and spicy sauces.
6. Fermented tofu, yo.
Fermented tofu (腐乳 or "fu ru") provides a salty, and almost slightly stinky, flavor to the jian bing. To me, this sauce really makes the jian bing. It combines with and complements the other flavors. I wouldn't recommend eating it with a spoon straight out of the jar (though some people do this), but I highly recommend putting a bit on your bing. Since the flavor is very strong, I add less relative to the hoisin sauce. Plus, fermented foods are so hot right now right?
7. Bao cui, not you tiao.
Listen, Tianjin, your long doughnuts (油条 or "you tiao" )...they are delicious but they were made for dunking in soy milk, not putting in jian bing. In Beijing, the filling is almost always a thin, crispy piece of fried dough (薄脆 or "bao cui") as opposed to the soft doughnut. This creates the essential soft/crispy contrast. People from Tianjin have long put the you tiao in their jian bing, and they can have it there way: soft, soft, soft, soft, soft...
8. Be conscious of your "protein".
If you ask me if I want to add a protein to my bing, I'm gonna be like "bitch please" and roll my eyes into the back of my skull. The only protein beyond egg added to any bing in Beijing was the mystery meat, shrink-wrapped hot dog. This is really not my thing, and so I never added it to my menu. Now, as jian bing becomes popularized across America... here comes the "protein": Peking duck, the hoisin-lime beef, the fried chicken... Ok, if you put fried chicken in your bing and still call it "jian bing", well just be comfortable with the fact that you are trying to attract the customer with a Chinese concept but appease them with an American food. Fuck that, IMHO.
9. Packaging is key.
RIP, flimsy plastic bag. This classic Beijing jian bing packaging method has yet to be adopted in the states and for good reason. However, some other interesting packaging methods have been seen across America. Throw it in a styrofoam container, throw it on a bamboo compostable plate, throw it in a french fry tray and then hand 'em a set of plastic wrapped knife, fork, and napkin. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In the spirit of the 2nd commandment of bing architecture, you need to serve it so the customer can hold it in their hands and stuff their face in it. I have found that the best packaging is a two or three-sided wax paper bag, with a napkin around it for extra insulation since the bing will be fresh off the griddle. Originally, I was using aluminum foil which also worked well, but the wax paper bag is less energy intensive, creates less waste, and looks better.
Jian Bing across America: find a jian bing near you
Jian Bing is taking the country by storm. We've read about them in the New York Times and in articles like "Jian bing: China's answer to the breakfast sandwich", because of course China needed an answer to the breakfast sandwich... Below, you can find my reviews for the ones that I have tried, and my reviews are all in light of the Nine Commandments of Jian Bing. I made a google map of the bings too. If you click on a location, their info and website should pop up. The Chicago and Seattle locations are no longer operational to my knowledge. If you'd like to add a location to the bing map, tweet me @JianBingJohnnys.
Tai Chi Jian Bing - San Francisco, CA
Excellent ingredients, good price point, double egg. Chinese-owned, owner operated. The best bing I have had in the U.S., not including yours truly of course :) Packaging/serving style could be worked on a little, though the presentation was beautiful. I'd also think about layering and bing architecture, since all the crispy was in the middle, as opposed to dispersed throughout.
Millet - Oakland, CA
Not a traditional jian bing. Uses a lot of potato and rice-based flours, making it very starchy, almost like a potato latke with Chinese characteristics. Also, contained kale. Still, it was rather delicious and paired well with the beer where he's serving at Temescal Brewery. Extra points for bike cart.
Tianjin Dumpling - Oakland, CA
Tianjin Dumpling is unfortunately no longer serving dumplings. Jian bing is still on the menu to my knowledge. It is made in the Tianjin style, so it's got a you tiao filling. As such, it's already at a disadvantage for my pallet. Seemed to be somewhat bland in terms of sauce and greens, but it's very inexpensive and still a good snack.
Bing Mi - Portland, OR
So jealous of Portland and their food pods. An amazing experience, as close to street food as you can really get in the U.S. Bing Mi's bing was very delicious. I found the batter a little uninspiring, but the sauces and overall texture made it a delicious bing. Bing me!
Szechuan Dim Sum - Philadelphia, PA
I was recently in Philly and looked up "jian bing" on Yelp, and this spot came up. It's a full Chinese restaurant, but they have jian bing on the menu. I ordered one to go, and it was quite delicious and filling. Good sauces though nothing to knock your socks off. Could use a little work on the bing architecture.
Jian Bing Company - Brooklyn, NY
Made in the Shandong/Shanghai style, this bing don't flip. They're gonna ask you what protein you want on it. The green onions are raw. It's kinda cut in half and so the layering leaves something to be desired. I wasn't satisfied. If you've never had jian bing before, you might like it, but this bing just isn't my thing.
Bing Kitchen - New York, NY
I may have to revisit this location, because the bing was so god-awful that I have to give them the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't flipped, the egg was runny, there was romaine lettuce, it was soggy, and there wasn't much flavor. The staff was cute but were clearly noobs when it came to jian bing. The 拍黄瓜 (smashed Chinese cucumber salad) had soy sauce for some reason, and no evidence of garlic or vinegar flavors as it does in China. This place needs work.
Mr. Bing - New York, NY
Mr. Bing has been at the bing business for many years now, first in HK now in NYC. The bing had all the elements of a great bing... flavors and sauces were on point, made in the Beijing style, and very filling. The crispy wonton crackers were all cracked up into little pieces, so I thought bing architecture and presentation were the main points to work on (similar to Tai Chi Jian Bing).
Jian Bing Johnny's: more about the bike than the bing
My whole experience with Jian Bing Johnny's has been amazing. Since experimenting with the recipe in early 2012, to buying my first griddle, to building my first cart (Bing Force One), to launching a full business and new cart (Bing Force Two), to experimenting with a full business concept called The Food Bikery... it has been quite the journey.
I started learning how to make jian bing because I couldn't really find it anywhere in the U.S. and was really hankering to eat one. Once I learned how to make it, my friends encouraged me to take it to the streets. Seeing how many food trucks had been launched recently and being an environmentalist, I thought it would be great to launch a food bike and mimic the way in which street food is made in Beijing, Bangkok, and beyond -- by cart and bicycle, on a hot surface right in front of the customer.
What ensued was a slow discovery of the reasons why food bikes work in Beijing but not in the Bay: 1) cities in Asia and Latin America are really dense, 2) they have little or no regulation, 3) people make and sell food in small to medium batches just to make a living. Unfortunately in Oakland, none of these conditions are present. The urban fabric is not dense at all. There is a lot of regulation (read my report with the Sustainable Economies Law Center). Finally, most folks who start food businesses want to scale to brick and mortar as quickly as possible and only look to mobile food (trucks, carts, bikes) as either a stepping stone or a marketing tool rather than their bread and butter.
Needless to say, there's been a lot of barriers to the food bike dream, but one platform called Josephine has allowed me to serve my meals on a part-time basis to my fan base out of my home. Folks pre-order, and then come pick up their bing which is made to order fresh right in front of them. Josephine is a great startup, focused on what is best for cooks in a time when most food platforms (Munchery, Sprig, Caviar, Spoon Rocket, Eat24, Seamless, Grubhub, DoorDash, etc.) are focused on the customer, low prices, and on-demand delivery. The business models of those startups go against most principles of an economically and environmentally sustainable food system. I hope those startups of the "anonymous economy" whither away, and leave room for the ones who care about economic justice in our food system.