The Chinese scallion pancake speaks for itself. Any attempt to describe it inevitably falls short, but I’ll try… Shiny crisp sheets lush with the pungent aroma of scallions, appropriate for all meals and snacks except for breakfast, really – and this latter point is puzzling, because what kind of pancake isn’t a breakfast pancake? Let’s reconcile the two.
(I’ve already answered my own question, and the simple truth is that not everyone likes to start their day with scallions perfuming their breath. So this better be worth it…. and it is. Or maybe, after too many trials during the ever-dimming morning hours before I head to work, I’ve just become used to assertive tastes at the start of the day.)
My scallion pancake brunch burger is similar to niu rou juan bing, where the pancake is rolled up burrito-style with chopped cilantro, cucumber, and hoisin sauce. The last time I had NRJB was back in San Francisco at a greasy little Chinese restaurant called Dong Bei Mama, which translates to “northeast/Manchurian mom”. And just like your own mother’s cooking, Dong Bei Mama’s food is something to thoroughly binge on until you’re hovering at the border of comfortably full and slightly repentant. Unfortunately, when it comes to cheap Chinese eats, I’ve never been able to see that line coming until I’ve barreled straight through it. My friend and I ordered NRJB, beef noodle soup, mapo tofu, and stir-fried green beans with pork – enough to feed an athletic family of four, and certainly enough to nearly annihilate the two of us. I walked away from that dinner with my lips and face actually swollen from the amount of sodium I had consumed, feeling heavy enough to draw smaller, more portion-conscientious humans into orbit around me. Dong Bei Mama knows NRJB (and everything else); can’t say I recommend this approach, but near-death experience aside, it was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It certainly was one of the most memorable.
Thankfully, this time around I’ve tamed things a bit (and not just in serving size): a little less oil, for starters. I’ve written about how I think a flour-fat roux is a more effective separator than fat alone, and I kept this as the base of my scallion pancake recipe through all the trials. In my tests, I experimented with rest times for the dough, water temperature, hydration levels, and heat of the pan; ultimately, though, the one variable I couldn’t control for was practice. My first attempts came out nicely layered, but gummy and hard. Later I was able to maintain layers even with softer, more hydrated dough. I’m very pleased with – and just a little addicted to – the final recipe I’ve settled on, but I’ll probably mess with it more and attempt a burrito-rollable version so I can replicate traditional NRJB in all its glory. This time, self-control will have to be on the menu.
Scallion Pancake Brunch Burgers Recipe (serves 3)
Ingredients: braised beef
- 1 lb of fatty beef chuck
- 3 cups water
- 3 tbsp light soy sauce
- 3 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns
- 1 star anise
- 1 scallion, chopped roughly
- 1 small white onion, sliced in half
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1/2 in ginger, sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 strips of tangerine peel
- 1 sugar cane
- 2 cloves
Ingredients: scallion pancakes
- 3 cups flour
- 5-6 scallions, chopped finely
- 3/4 cups just boiled water
- 3/4 cups room temperature water
- 1 1/2 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 1/2 tbsp canola oil
- 2 tbsp of flour, plus more for dusting surfaces
- 1/2 tbsp salt
Ingredients: to serve
- 3 eggs, cooked sunny side up
- 1 cucumber, sliced
- Hoisin sauce
Prepare the beef: This can be done a day or two in advance. Cut the beef chuck into large slabs (two or three) to fit into your pot. Sear each piece until well browned on all sides over high heat, using an oil with a high smoke point. Deglaze with the water; add soy sauces, rice wine, vinegar, and the remainder of the spices and aromatics. Bring to a boil, then lower to a gentle simmer (low / medium-low heat). Cover and let simmer for 4 hours, skimming the scum off the surface every 20 minutes for the first hour or so. The beef is ready when it is almost fall-apart tender. Remove from braising liquid and when cool enough to handle, slice in rounds, against the grain.
Prepare the dough: Combine the boiled water with the room temperature water and add to the flour, stirring with chopsticks or a wooden spoon. The dough should come together fairly quickly and easily compared to a cool water dough. (This will make gauging how long to knead for a little more difficult since traditionally you knead dough until it pulls away very easily from the side of the bowl.) Knead until you have the consistency and smoothness of a stress ball, about 10-12 minutes. Cover with a damp paper towel, and set aside to rest for at least an hour and up to three at room temperature, or overnight in the fridge.
Prepare the roux: combine the oils, two tbsp of flour, and salt together in a small bowl.
Shaping the dough: Divide the dough into six pieces. For each piece - knead gently for a minute or two. Then, on a floured surface, roll out into a large circle, as thin as you can get it. Brush generously with the roux, making sure that if the flour has settled at the bottom of your bowl you stir to keep the ratio consistent. Sprinkle scallions on top of the roux. Roll into a cylinder, and flip so that the seam is facing you. Stretch the cylinder lightly to thin it out a bit, and roll jelly-roll style (the seam facing you should double the layers you get on the top). Gently, using a floured rolling pin, roll out the jelly roll, using a light but firm hand. Press from the center of the jelly roll to the edge and rotate so that you flatten the shape evenly, don't oversquish the layers, and maintain a circular shape.
Pan-fry: Add a small amount of canola oil to a pan, heated at medium-high heat, and swirl to coat evenly. When the oil is very hot, add each pancake to the pan - should sizzle as it hits the pan. Cook for around two minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of your pancake. Remove from heat when the pancake is essentially completely opaque and well-browned, sounds very crispy when you tap it, and shifts dryly and easily across the pan when you shake it. Undercooking will result in a soggy interior.
The pancakes are best within a few minutes out of the pan, but can be frozen and reheated in the pan later.
To assemble: brush each pancake with hoisin sauce and top with cucumbers, beef, and sunny side up egg.