Is this Chinese snack the next big Asian street food in the West?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 April, 2017, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 April, 2017, 11:21pm

Western foodies have sunk their teeth into Vietnamese banh-mi and Hong Kong egg waffles, plus gobbled down bowl after bowl of Japanese ramen.

But could the next Asian food trend to take the West by a storm be a humble Chinese breakfast favourite - the jianbing?

Reuben Shorser, the co-founder of one of the first companies to bring the food to New York, Jianbing Company, certainly hopes so.

The jianbing is a kind of Chinese crepe - without the pretensions.

Every morning in mainland Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, jianbing makers pull their tiny carts to street corners and whip up the pancake-like food before their customers’ eyes, which are sold for about 10 yuan (US$1.45) or less.

The breakfast favourite, which usually contains spring onion, coriander, egg and a crispy cracker, is now being sold by companies in London, Sydney and a handful of American cities, and has been highlighted as one of the hottest new food trends by New York food website Taste Talks.

Chinese fast food for the WeChat generation

Business appears to be going well for New York’s jianbing vendors - the founder of former Hong Kong-based company Mr Bing, Brian Goldberg, plans to open two bricks-and-mortar shops in New York in the coming months.

“Some chefs are trying to make it as familiar and essential a part of the city’s food scene as tacos and falafel,” The New York Times noted in March.

Shorser’s jianbing starts at US$8 - well over five times the price in China. Customers can pay extra to add free-range lemon-garlic chicken, pasture-raised hoisin-lime beef, 13 spice pork or organic honey-ginger tofu, a dramatic upgrade on the processed sausage on offer at your typical Chinese street vendor.

New York native Shorser first got a taste for the Chinese pancake while he was studying Putonghua at Beijing Normal University six years ago.

“I thought it was amazing, I’d never had anything like it,” he told the South China Morning Post over the phone from New York. He began mastering his own jianbing technique while working for a consulting company in Shanghai, learning tricks from a man who sold them near his office, before buying a griddle and testing his recipe out on his co-workers.

“They thought I was crazy. They were like, ‘why is he making jianbing, he works at a consulting company’.”

Last April, Shorser and his long-time friend and Princeton University roommate Tadesh Inagaki launched their company at Smorgasburg, a food market in Brooklyn, New York.

They sell hundreds on Saturday and Sunday and the company is growing. They are launching their permanent shop in June and adding other treats like fried egg pancake to the menu.

Long term, Shorser hopes to have locations in multiple cities.

A crêpe escape in our own backyard

Very few people had heard of the Chinese street food and many of their customers are still first time eaters, Shorser said.

“When they’re just looking at it, they’re really amazed by it.”

Shorser makes the Shandong province style of jianbing where the thick dough has to be spread by a paddle, rather than the Tianjin style where the more-liquid batter is poured with a ladle onto the griddle before being spread with a wooden stick.

There has been a mixed response to the idea of a Westerner setting up a Chinese jianbing shop, with his friends in China largely supporting the idea while Chinese-Americans are sometimes less impressed.

“When we first started, there were some Chinese-Americans questioning whether we could make an authentic jianbing,” he said.

He got around the issue by describing his jianbing as “Shanghai-inspired street food”, striking a balance between staying true to the original and appealing to his American customers, many of whom are eating for lunch not breakfast.

Ask the Foodie: Brian Goldberg

It’s not the first Asian food to get picked up by trendy foodies in the West and given a fusion treatment.

While Shorser struggled to answer why this might be happening, beyond New Yorkers being always on the hunt for the next cool thing, he says the way the food is created before the customer’s eyes is part of the appeal.

“That’s a very important part of the experience. We’re trying to preserve that feeling from China.”

Shorser sees a bright future for jianbing - even if it’s a few years off being as popular as the banh mi sandwich is in New York.

“I think there’s some momentum that’s developing around a trend here. At least that’s what I’m hoping for,” he quipped.

“We’re watching the very beginning right now.”