Home | Breaking News | Sinosphere: Jianbing, a Chinese Crepe, Migrates to Manhattan
The Flying Pig Jianbing’s food truck in Manhattan is a converted French crepe maker that now turns out jianbing, the savory Chinese pancakes. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Sinosphere: Jianbing, a Chinese Crepe, Migrates to Manhattan

Fresh from China, they came ashore in the San Francisco Bay Area. They stormed Seattle. They descended on Portland, Ore.

Now, they are sweeping across Manhattan, with sightings near Washington Square Park, Midtown and Columbia University.

Resistance is futile.

Jianbing, a street-food crepe from northern China made with eggs, chili and sweet sauce, cilantro, scallions and a crunchy deep-fried dough wafer, is Beijing’s latest culinary flexing of soft power.

Made in the ubiquitous street carts that dot Beijing, Tianjin and other northern Chinese cities, jianbing can be eaten on the go, doubling as a hand-warmer on those frigid days when the wind invades from Siberia. The going price in the more upscale sections of the Chinese capital now is about 5 renminbi, or 77 cents.

Despite its humble origins, making jianbing is an art. Mess up the secret sauce — generally some combination of sweet sauce and bean paste — and it could overpower the crepe, dominating the chili, humbling the cilantro, running roughshod over the scallions.

That is why Yolanda Lee and Dolkar Tsering, friends from Pace University in New York, spent months in northern China in late 2014 going from city to city. They sampled more than 100 kinds of jianbing, learning from the street-side masters, who, more often than not, were happy to offer advice.

“We both gained 20 pounds after that,” Ms. Lee said. “No joke.’’

Ms. Lee, 25, a Beijing native who studied marketing and art history, and Ms. Tsering, 26, an ethnic Tibetan from Sichuan Province who studied finance, wanted to recreate the classic jianbing in New York, with a few modifications.

In October, their bright-yellow food truck, the Flying Pig Jianbing, hit Manhattan’s streets, serving students near New York University’s business school, capturing some of the Midtown lunch crowd and, on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, setting up on Broadway outside Columbia. The truck came jianbing-ready, Ms. Lee says, having served as a French crepe maker in an earlier incarnation.

“We initially wanted a very, very small restaurant, but obviously the rent in New York City is outrageous,” Ms. Lee said. “But then I realized that a truck was a better idea, because jianbing was supposed to be sold on the street.”

The truck’s Beijing Original jianbing now costs $8 — about 10 times the price in Beijing.

The travels of Ms. Lee and Ms. Tsering in northern China appear to have paid off. Their jianbing captures most of the flavors of their native land, and the crispy fritter shell, known as bao cui, is superior to many found in Beijing. It’s crispier.

The Flying Pig variety adds elements rarely found in China. For one, my two-egg version came with fresh lettuce. It takes a brave soul in Beijing to countenance having a food vendor on a dusty alleyway slip a raw vegetable of unknown origins inside a breakfast jianbing, regardless of intestinal fortitude, though that option is available from longtime Beijing jianbing-makers like Guo Xueping, who draws a crowd of regulars to her bike-powered cart in the Dongzhimen neighborhood.

And, this being America, the Flying Pig jianbing is supersize. Forget eating this monster on the go. This is the S.U.V. of jianbing. It comes in a small box. You are even given a knife and fork. Eat one for lunch and give your stomach a rest for the remainder of the day. You won’t be hungry come sundown.

For this, Ms. Lee and Ms. Tsering say they are prisoners of the French crepe. The skillets that came with their truck were designed to make much bigger wrappings than the Beijing variety such as those made by Ms. Guo, though for an additional cost, she can throw in another egg or two.

Ms. Lee and Ms. Tsering have also included a few specialty items on their menu. If the Beijing Original does not satisfy you, add pork belly, their specialty. A tuna-melt variety is $9.50. They even have a gluten-free jianbing.

Business, they say, has been a success, with around 150 jianbing sold on an average workday. The two entrepreneurs are also not the first to offer the Chinese crepe in the United States. For a time, a street cart called Bing of Fire sold jianbing in Seattle. There is Jian Bing Johnny’s in the Bay Area, whose owner adds a layer of authenticity by cooking his crepes from a pedal-powered cart. Portland has Bing Mi!

Others are serving up jianbing to New Yorkers, the local Grub Street blog reported last month. The jianbing has also landed in Europe. In London and Manchester, there is Mei Mei’s Street Cart.

In a sign of the times, Ms. Lee said that she and Ms. Tsering had attracted Chinese investment. They plan to expand in the homeland with the Flying Pig’s version in jianbing ground zero: Beijing. They will be able to market a crepe that has passed the rigors of New York City’s Health Department. That is a selling point in China, where customers can never be sure of a street food’s provenance.

“We’re focusing on food safety, making the entire production line transparent,” Ms. Lee said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*