Making Scallion Pancakes—via FaceTime—With My Shanghainese Mother

Lucie Zhang

Sure, freshly-baked banana bread and sourdough are divine, but if you ask me what my favorite carb-y treat is, scallion pancakes (or “cong you bing” in Chinese) top the list. As a first-generation Shanghainese-American kid, I would eat these flaky, layered, pan-fried round “flatbreads” slowly, peeling apart each layer as it unraveled more and more savory scallions. The best ones, in my humble opinion, hit that perfect balance of crispy on the outside, but soft and chewy on the inside, and are loaded to the brim with scallions without being too thick or greasy.

These are my ultimate comfort food; and in today’s anxious times, it appears a little bit of comfort is what a lot of people are craving. Mentions of #scallionpancake on Instagram in April and May so far are five times greater than their average monthly mentions between January 2019 to March 2020, according to a hashtag monitor in Dash Hudson. When asked why she thinks that’s the case, and why now, chef Diane Chang, who founded the New York catering company Po-Po’s and the Mexico City restaurant An-An MX, says, “It’s something that’s accessible if you can get your hands on flour. It’s just so affordable to make. And it’s comforting. Everyone is looking towards things that are comforting but also sort of foreign, so they can spice things up a little bit at home. I think scallion pancakes fit the bill.”

For me, the taste of scallion pancakes will always conjure the joy of seeing a plate of my favorite treats waiting for me in my mom’s warm kitchen–and the love and thoughtfulness of the woman who made them. I have always preferred my mom’s homemade scallion pancakes over restaurant versions, likely due to the fact that her recipe has been A/B tested over the years, using me–an only child–as the sole test subject. Though she is a great cook, my mom, who grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution and moved to America in her late 20s, honed her skills in the kitchen mostly out of necessity. Through years of making us homemade meals, she can intuitively feel out what is needed for each dish. Which is to say, she never wrote down a recipe for her scallion pancakes. But after a couple weeks of craving them while in quarantine in New York City, I decided to call her up to teach me how to make them over Facetime—and in doing so, realized I should have been learning how to cook her recipes this way all along.

“I do think it’s so important, this legacy of recreation,” notes Chang, who named Po-Po’s after the grandmother from whom she learned traditional Chinese recipes. “Even if your grandparents aren’t around, you should really go back into the treasure trove of recipes that you grew up with or ideas of those foods and try to do it because only you know what exactly that dish is going to taste like. It’s pretty powerful.”

She fondly remembers learning how to make scallion pancakes from her grandmother. “It’s not easy,” laughs Chang, who adds that they were one of the first dishes her grandma taught her, but that she found the recipe to be far from intuitive. “Because people get it as takeout or they just treat it as a bread, it seems really simple. But it’s actually really time-intensive. I think when I make it I really think about the sacrifice of our parents and grandparents, and they make it so available and easy, but what you don’t see is the work. And I think that’s the epitome of generational sacrifice.”

My first attempt at making scallion pancakes, with mom on Facetime from Indiana, yielded a similar realization. I was pleasantly surprised at how uncomplicated the ingredient list was—essentially just scallions, flour, water, oil, and salt/seasoning of your choice. (As a bonus, my mom also taught me that you can put the discarded scallion heads into a cup of water to regrow them. Resourceful!) But I was moved at how complex, and how precise, each step needed to be.

In Shanghai dialect, my mom patiently walked me through each part of the process, demonstrating how to roll them one way and then the other with a napkin. She scrutinized the thickness of each rolled-out piece of dough and laughed when I got too ambitious trying to stuff in more scallions than the flat pancake wanted to hold. I accidentally burned the first one, but after making three more, I finally got the stamp of approval: “They look like mine!” she exclaimed. The whole process had taken around two hours and my arms were sore from kneading. I was shocked that this was what my mom had been doing every time I had asked her for handmade scallion pancakes, how she had always made them fresh and never mentioned before how much effort they took.

The art of perfecting the scallion pancake is something Chang is well familiar with, having once made up to 200 handmade ones a day for her pop-up in Brooklyn. “I think the perfect scallion pancake is three things,” says Chang. “Balance of flavor: Sometimes you can over-salt it, you can over-sesame oil it. [If you chop] scallion pieces too big, then it’s all complicated when you’re rolling it out. The layers: That’s a personal preference thing. It’s just like laminating croissant dough, where the more layers of oil you get into it, the more layers you get when you ultimately fry it. Frying technique: The amount of oil you have. Some people like to deep fry theirs. I don’t like to deep fry, I kind of like a lot of oil but not so much that the whole thing is ultra-crispy. I need a little soft center.”

To bring some comfort food into your kitchen, below is my mom’s scallion pancake recipe, as transcribed from our call, as well as Chang’s favorite scallion pancake pairings, including a filling (if you want to eat the scallion pancake like a wrap) and dipping sauce.

Mom’s Scallion Pancakes

(Makes 4)

Ingredients:

1.5 cups boiled water
2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for surface
2 bunches of scallions
Oil (preferably sesame oil)
Salt and pepper as needed
Optional ground Sichuan peppercorns if you prefer spice




Directions:

  1. First, boil the 1.5 cups of water. Place 2 cups of flour into a large bowl, then pour the boiled water gradually into the bowl as you mix it with the flour, forming a dough. Knead the dough until it makes a large ball. (If it’s too sticky, you can add more flour.) Cover the dough inside the bowl and set it aside. Let it sit for 30 minutes.

  2. While the dough sits, chop the scallions as small as possible.

  3. After 30 minutes, take the dough back out. Line the surface and pat the dough with flour so that it doesn't stick to the surface, then knead the dough for 10 minutes until it feels smooth.

  4. Separate the large dough ball into 4 evenly distributed balls. Take out one to continue kneading; and put the rest back into the bowl covered (so that they don't dry out).

  5. Knead the smaller dough ball for another 5 minutes or so, tucking the dough from the outside in. Then use a rolling pin to roll the ball out as thin as you can get it.

  6. Put 1-2 spoonfuls of oil in the center and spread it around the entire pancake, making sure to cover the edges as well. Add salt and rub it around to evenly distribute. Add as many scallions as desired, then add pepper to taste.

  7. Roll up the pancake in one direction (like a burrito), then seal the ends. Flip it and roll it the other way. With the dough standing up, you should see a spiral. Then take the rolled up pancake and flatten down using your hands or a rolling pin. Set this pancake aside, covered, while you make the other 3 pancakes (repeating steps 5-7).

  8. Heat oil in a pan on medium-high heat until the oil is hot. Once it's hot, add the pancakes, then immediately reduce to low heat. Cook for about 5-10 minutes per side (until brown), then flip. Make sure both sides are cooked evenly.

Diane Chang’s Baked 5-Spice Tofu (to be used as filling for wrap)

Chang notes: “For a scallion pancake wrap, you can make smaller, thinner discs, and make sure not to fry in too much oil or on too high of heat so that it remains soft and bendy.”

Ingredients:

1 14-ounce/pack extra firm tofu
2 Tbs olive oil
1⁄2 tsp Chinese five spice blend
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbs minced ginger
1 scallion, white part only - minced
1 Tbs soy sauce
1 tsp brown sugar
1 Tbs corn starch
Green part of scallion, thinly-sliced for garnish
Cilantro for garnish









Directions:

  1. Preheat oven 400 degrees F.

  2. Drain excess liquid from tofu by pressing block between towel-(or paper towel)-lined heavy surfaces, like one cutting board and a pot. Let sit for 10-15 minutes.

  3. Meanwhile, whisk remaining ingredients except the cornstarch in a bowl until blended. Set aside.

  4. Once tofu finishes draining, slice into 1-inch cubes. Gently toss in marinade. Once coated, sprinkle with corn starch until evenly coated.

  5. On parchment-lined baking sheet, arrange an even layer of tofu, with space in between each piece.

  6. Bake for 10. Flip tofu so each side is evenly cooked. Bake 15 minutes more or until crispy. Remove and serve.

  7. Garnish with remaining scallions and cilantro

Diane Chang’s Cucumber-Radish Salad

Ingredients:

2 cucumbers (preferably Japanese or Persian variety), thinly sliced into rounds
3 red radishes, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbs rice vinegar
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar (or coconut sugar)
1 Tbs sesame oil





Garnish

sesame seeds
chili oil

Directions:

  1. Mix cucumbers with salt and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain the liquid excess liquid.

  2. Add remaining ingredients and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt.

  3. Garnish and serve.

Diane Chang’s Dipping Sauce

Chang notes: “I make this dipping sauce–it’s more or less the same dipping sauce that my grandma used to make for fried dumplings, or gyoza. It’s a soy-based, sesame-based dipping sauce."

Ingredients:

3 Tbs Chinese black vinegar
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp sugar (or coconut sugar)
2 tsp minced cilantro
2 tsp minced scallions
Optional 1⁄2 tsp toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns if you prefer spice Optional chili oil





Directions:

Mix all to combine. Serve alongside scallion pancakes.

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Originally Appeared on Vogue