“You have to wait at least 35 minutes sir,” said the lady at the counter.
I’m sorry, what? 35 minutes is an eternity when it comes to waiting for food, let alone for a bloody snack that takes an experienced hand roughly two minutes to make (More on my expertise on this particular matter later… Though trust me, I know). I quickly glanced outside; other than a few waiting customers and nosy onlookers, there was not much of a queue – due of course, to the fact that it was 5pm on a Thursday; and it was raining. So why would it take so long, I pipped back.
“Oh, customers usually drop their orders in and leave their phone numbers behind so that we can call them once it’s done,” she replied, almost nonchalantly; like someone who has answered this particular question a million times.
Gritting my teeth, I made my order and trudged outside to wait for 35 minutes in the rain…
Reading this, you might think I am ridiculous, and I don’t blame you at all. Looking back, even I am surprised that I waited 35 minutes for a common Chinese snack found all over the streets of Shanghai. Yes, I have waited over 5 hours for chicken at a crowded, stuffy hawker centre in Singapore – without air conditioning, mind you, in flipping Singapore – but that particular stall was just recently rewarded a coveted star by a particular French guidebook with a fat little white man on the cover (I partially detailed the experience here). The store I am currently queuing for has not received any accolades, nor will it ever be the recipient of a star by the Michelin guide. In fact, it has just been opened for less than a month. But still I wait. Why? Because of nostalgia; and when it comes to 煎餅 (jianbing – Chinese Crepe/Pancakes), I will happily wait an eternity for the damn thing.
You see, the best foods conjure up fond memories for the diner. A bite of ice cream will evoke memories of one’s childhood; while a particular meal will conjure up memories of a particular person or moment in time. More and more chefs are utilising the power of memories and imagination to enhance the dining experience for their guests. Thomas Keller spoke about how his little ice cream cone with a Salmon tartare was designed to make the meal fun – an adult snack designed to make the diner relive their childhood days. For me, just hearing the phrase jian bing takes me back to Shanghai, where my mother would take me and my sister downstairs to the jian bing vendor just round the corner of our apartment. Jian Bing was special not because it was expensive or extravagant, but because you really had to make an effort in order to get it. Firstly, jian bing is only served in the morning. After 10am, the vendors wills simply pack shop and return home (or in our case, our jian bing vendor was a full time milk salesman; so when he made enough for the day, he would simply pack away the griddle and return to selling milk and eggs). Secondly, these little buggers sell out quickly. Locals buy them by the half-dozens, and you do have to wrestle your way around hordes of waiting customers just to make an order. Thirdly, you really have to wait for your jian bing. Each individual crepe is made to order, so you had to stand there and watch as the vendor spreads the wheat-based batter on a hot griddle before adding in a variety of toppings. For an impatient teenager, it was torture, an exercise of restraint. But trust me, it is all worth the wait. Unlike its rowdier breakfast menu cousins 蔥油餅 (Deep fried scallion pancakes) and 油條 (deep fried dough croutons), jian bing is a refined and delicate breakfast item. You have the tang from the coriander balancing out the salt from the pickled radishes; while the deep fried wonton skins at the centre adds a much needed crunchy contrast to the soft, paper-thin pancake. It is also a flexible, adaptable dish. You want some meat in your pancake? Add an extra 3 dollars and your order would come with a Chinese sausage in the middle. Craving for some spice? Holler your request to the chef and he will add an extra dollop of fiery chilli sauce to your pancake. It is essentially what a Western pancake or crepe dreams to be, just simple and utterly delicious. Unfortunately, the chance to eat jian bing here in Hong Kong disappeared when Mr. Bing, a little deli opened by an American who fell in love with the dish during his stay in Beijing, decided to close shop and relocate back to the States. That was, until I found out about a store selling jian bing in Ho Man Tin called 煎餅廚房 (Literally translates to jian bing kitchen).
This brings us back to my current situation. After a long and arduous wait, I finally received my jianbing. For nostalgia’s sake, and simply because I am a glutton, I ordered two – the Peking Duck bing (HK$33) and the original (HK$28) – despite being rather full. After I took a big bite out of both pastries, a phrase my father muttered flashed in my mind. Unfortunately that phrase was ‘the higher your expectations, the bigger the disappointment’. And indeed, I was bitterly disappointed. Both bings were served in a paper bag that was sealed tighter than Pandora’s Box, making the delicate pancakes extremely soggy and flaccid due to the amount of steam that had accumulated inside the bag. Then there was the issue regarding to taste – It tasted of cooked flour and nothing at all. There was not enough of that savoury, salty sauce; nor was there any form of the thirst-inducing pickles that are vital to the entire pancake. The Peking duck was dry and overcooked, and needed more of that Hoisin kick. Round discs of cucumber also somehow lodged its way in one’s throat, and it would have been much better if they simply followed what Peking duck restaurants do in China and julienned the vegetable instead. Most infuriating of all was the addition of you tiao (deep fried dough fritters) in the original bing instead of the original deep fried wonton skins, especially when the you tiao was stale and stodgy, and provided no texture or crunch of any sort. If it was not for the generous addition of coriander – something that I absolutely adore – I would be writing about how I waited 35 minutes just for bland, soggy pancakes.
But here’s the thing – nostalgia is a damn powerful thing. Despite my disappointing meal, a week later, I returned to 煎餅廚房. Why? Because I really wanted some jianbing, and like it or not, right now this restaurant is the only place that can satisfy my craves. This time, it was a well mannered young man at the counter. I asked how long it would take for my order to me done.
“Two hours,” he said, with a deadpan, serious face.
I left my phone number at the counter and decided to wander in the vicinity until the crepes were ready.
煎餅廚房, 83 Wuhu Street, Hung hom