Mark your calendars: April 30 is World Jianbing Day, an international celebration of one of China’s most beloved breakfast foods.
Granted, World Jianbing Day was never officially a thing before 2019 (although we guarantee 99% of anyone who’s tried jianbing will agree this holiday is long overdue).
But Shanghai-based food tour company UnTour is looking to change that. They’ve launched a Worldwide Jianbing Map to try and link up vendors selling authentic jianbing worldwide. “We want to make sure the surviving vendors have all the support they can get from diners that might not know how to find them,” says UnTour CEO Jamie Barys. “The world needs more jianbing enthusiasts!”
Jianbing is essentially a flour- and egg-based, savory crepe consumed as breakfast food in China. After cooking the pancake fresh on a flat skillet, jianbing chefs will slap on a variety of fillings at diners’ requests — like gooey bean paste, green onions, and crunchy youtiao (Chinese fried dough).
A Shanghai vendor making a typical jianbing
The downside is that outside of China, authentic jianbing vendors are few and far between. “It is still pretty slim pickings,” admits UnTour CFO Kyle Long. He says many of these restaurants are situated in major cities, like London and New York City, and unlike their Chinese counterparts most serve jianbing as an “afterthought” or have pivoted to include other items like baozi and bubble tea to keep a regular flow of business going.
A few have emerged out of markets and food festivals, growing enough of an audience to merit opening a brick-and-mortar shop. That’s what happened with Little Wu Jianbing in Canberra, Australia, opened by a husband-and-wife team after the wife, Miya Wu, fell in love with evangelizing about Chinese food to international diners while living in Beijing.
Little Wu Jianbing’s Miya Wu
“Back in the market days, [Little Wu Jianbing] would attract a wide range of consumers,” says Long. “But now they have a very strong following amongst ethnically Chinese locals at their permanent store, so it’s exciting to see that there is an appetite for jianbing across the board.”
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Part of the appeal of a food like jianbing is that it’s fast, easy to make, and importantly, adaptable to different palettes. In restaurants abroad, says Long, “there’s definitely more of an inclination to add other ingredients on the customer’s part, perhaps because jianbing is seen as something exotic for non-Chinese palates.”
He says that Mr. Bing in New York City advertises a ketogenic option — “double the eggs, half the batter” — and still more have been known to throw in fusion-y fillings such as cheese, maple-glazed bacon, and Korean bulgogi.
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Yet as jianbing steadily creeps onto breakfast plates abroad, in China shops that sell them could soon become something of a rarity. Street food vendors have faced widespread closures, a fact that’s inexorably tied to the fast-paced development of cities like Shanghai and Beijing — though not in the way some might think.
Says Long: “There is a top-down push to preserve some of the existing historical buildings,” such as facades in Shanghai’s Former French Concession neighborhood and Beijing’s hutong alleyways. He goes on to say that this rezoning has affected ground-floor, mixed-use spaces often in residential areas that these vendors usually occupy. Those that have survived the crush are forced to link up with restaurants who aren’t using their sidewalk frontage during morning hours, so they can have a stable place (and kitchen license) to use.
But whether it’s over an authentic, crunchy crepe or a maple-cheese-bulgogi fusion, any effort to unite jianbing lovers of the world — and convert new ones — is very welcome in our books.
All photos: UnTour Food Tours
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