A cong you bing or green onion pancake is a savoury, non-leavened flatbread folded with oil and minced scallions(green onions). It is crispy and doughy, with layers of fragrant spring onion that are at once salty and sweetly caramelised. The trick to cooking this is in the creation of paper-thin layers, sprinkled with finely sliced spring onion and salt. Whilst the outside crisps and browns from its contact with the oil, the layers fill with steam and cook the bing from the inside out, giving it that perfect consistency of crunch, chew and moisture.
The Chinese Legend
There is a legend in China that pizza is an evolution of green onion pancake, brought back to Italy by Marco Polo. Here is one version of the legend:
Marco Polo missed green onion pancakes so much that when he was back in Italy, he tried to find chefs willing to make the pancake for him. One day, he managed to meet a chef from Naples at a friend’s dinner party and persuaded him to try recreating the dish. After half a day without success, Marco Polo suggested the filling be put at the top rather than inside the dough. The change, by chance, created a dish praised by everyone at the party. The chefs returned to Naples and improvised by adding cheese and other ingredients and formed today’s pizza.
Follow the Smell
At the corner of Maoming road Nanchang road in Shanghai, there is a famous street food stall, locally known as the A Da Congyoubing. Each congyoubing cost RMB3, it is actually the most expensive bing in Shanghai, usually it only cost RMB1 or 2. I guess quality comes with a price.
A Da, the congyoubing master only makes 300 bings every day and it takes 20 minutes to make 10 each time. So you will need to learn to be patient to wait for at least 1 hour as the line is just so long.
My special hunting trip for congyoubing was really funny. Since I am so lazy and slow in the morning, I have to camp at my friend’s place nearby the market to make sure I could arrive there by 7:30am, and then I promised my mom that I will bring home 10 bings for her as she did wonder why it is so special. Actually, I have been planning this for weeks, everyone around me has been waiting for their share of the best cong you bing.
When the finally time arrives, the funny thing happened, A Da decided to have his day off on Wed…..so my effort went in vain and I had to find something else for my empty stomach – bad luck!!!
C’est la vie ~ life sometimes feels like a joke.
A Da is his nick name – in Chinese it means big brother. He is really a strange looking guy, when he was young, he hurt his back and that’s how he become a hunchback. Since he is disabled, he could not find good job and so he spent RMB20 which was a lot of money at the old time to learn how to make congyoubing. Later he has been selling congyoubing to make a living for over 30 years. Now at the age of almost 60, he has provided his son a good life and bought 3 downtown apartments in Shanghai’s French concession.
In short, he is a millionare now and does not need to work hard and make congyoubing any more. So what makes him get up everyday at 4am and finish by 2pm? A passion for his food, I guess.
At his spare time, he love to sing songs and smoke 😉 After 10 years, he said that he will retire and travel around the world. But he is worried that no body will make congyoubing like he does any more.
The Afterwards Story
After my failed attempt, I have been receiving reports from friends about their experience with the congyoubing:
Nat – the chef: I went to the cong you bing place the other day. Waited 1.5hrs! They are certainly very good, but not worth waiting so long. I bought six and can report that they heat up pretty well for breakfast the next day.
Bobbie – my friend: It is so so so good! His cash register is an honor system, self pay and make your own change system. Amazing thing to contemplate is that his stove looks like a half barrel. It looks like he has gas tanks that run into the barrel. He knows his stove perfectly – how to regulate the heat, which are the hotter and cooler parts, how long to keep each congyoubing in which part of the grill. He measures nothing, but each congyoubing is perfectly shaped with a uniform size. He puts the first ones in the middle and knows how long each side gets and how hard and how often to press them. After the ones in the middle are just right, he moves them over to the edge to finish and puts new ones in the middle. The kitchen he cooks in is his kitchen. When you go up to take his picture, he smiles and says “ni hao”… He does not like for people to buy and then resell. He only makes 10-20 at a time. Many people who wait in line buy all 20 to take to family or colleagues in the offices they work in.