Remember awhile ago- before I left Taiwan, actually- I noticed spring green onions stacked en masse at my favorite vendor’s stand at the wet market?
Green onions, or scallions, are a year-round staple around here, but vary from season to season in their size, shape, onion flavor and even green-ness. There are usually a few varieties of scallions out on display, ranging from small wispy mild miniature scallion onions to larger, tougher and leafier ones more akin to a leek than scallion. Spring and summer has brought about piles of greener and more fragrant scallions. Unable to resist, I needed to find something to do with such a lovely ingredient.
I’m starting to realize the popularity of most Chinese dishes stems not simply from good taste and generations of kitchen tricks, but also from available resources. The Chinese have great knowledge of what their different regions are capable of producing, and no better way can it be seen than on a menu. So, in line with tradition and tastiness, what better way to feature scallions than in the form of a savory, springy fried pancake! These pancakes are always a crowd pleaser, and most certainly among my American friends, come tied in first along with Chiarsu (roast pork) buns and fried noodles. Though a tasty and globally appealing appetizer today, the scallion pancake has humble roots. After all, flour, water, salt and scallions is not exactly food for the gods. My gods, maybe- but not all gods.
By doing a bit of research, I came to find that what I originally assumed to be a painstakingly difficult process couldn’t be any easier. And with so few ingredients, it was hard to get wrong. Granted, Kenji over at Serious Eats had already paved the way and tested the waters (literally) with this article, so all I had to do was use his advice and his basic recipe to get a tasty result.
So what ancient Chinese secret did I learn? I’d say that would be using hot, boiling water in the dough. The varied temperature of the water does something very scientific within the proteins of the dough- something that I’m unable to completely understand. What I did understand was the drastic difference in this dough versus a, say, bagel or pizza dough. This pancake dough was a firmer, denser, and smoother ball of dough, easy to knead and roll. Though the springiness of other yeasty doughs was missing, it did still had a decent level of firm elasticity that was quite pliable. This dough also came together in just a few short minutes- no need to spend 15 grueling minutes kneading like you do with bagels. The Chinese are genius!
I thought back to all the best scallion pancakes I have eaten, which were always crispy on the outside- golden brown and fried in a nutty vegetable oil, and flaky and chewy in the middle. Scallion pancakes have the unnatural ability to be dense yet fluffy at the same time- and if you’ve ever eaten one you’ll know exactly what I mean.
And that was exactly the reason I assumed it would be difficult to create the scallion pancake. How could something have layers, be dense and chewy and flaky all at once? Was the golden pan fried crispiness really that easy? I was nervous. What if this white pasty ball of non-elastic dough sitting in front of me was a total flop?
But, as with any other bread or cake or pastry, I reminded myself that all I had to do was follow directions. Scanning the recipe from beginning to end a few times, I realized it was a simple process masked in a confusion of scallions and flaky layers. All this recipe required was a simple attention to certain detail. Unlike all other layered pastries, there wasn’t too much of an emphasis on the temperature of the fat particles rolled in nor the amount of layers (like cold butter in pie crusts), nor the counting and reiteration of layer upon layer. After all, you’re creating a flat pancake, not a puffed croissant. And although I imagine the scallion pancake would indeed be dreamy with dozens thin and flaky layers straddled in between the golden fried outside, it’s been proven the dough doesn’t lend itself well to that process.
Remembering that I was working with a warm dough on my hands, I got to work. One recipe’s amount makes two pancakes, so after dividing the dough in half, each is rolled into a perfect ball and flattened out into a thin pizza-like disc. After spreading a generous drizzle of toasted sesame oil, the dough gets rolled up into a log, then curled up in the shape of a snail. Tuck the end of the log firmly in place to the bottom, and flatten the snail-shaped curl. Here is where you create your first layers. This gets rolled out, again, into a thin pizza-like patty. Success! My first scallion pancake-making adventure was blossoming before my eyes.
In an attempt to squeeze more green onions into the pancake than I thought the original recipe did, I pre-mixed double the green onions along with salt and sesame oil in a separate bowl, to form the filling for the next layer. In my head, this bright green, salty, oily macerated paste would fare better in flavor than simply a scattering of scallions.
I realized why recipes were needed, as soon as I began to roll up the pancake. The premixed green onions and salt mixture had already started to generate far more water than I knew scallions were able to retain. As I rolled the pancake up, the green filling began to ooze out and the oily mixture made it difficult for my dough to stick to itself. As you can see below, my pancake turned out to be more of an O than a solid flat pancake.
I tried it again, this time applying the sesame oil, green onions, and salt individually. It was still slippery and messy, but much easier to control. Hm, recipe directions work- who would’ve thought.
This recipe, through a bit of trial and error, turns out to be something I’m loving in my back pocket. I can’t imagine of a simpler, tastier fare that highlights such a simple ingredient. Something that is year-round, at that.
- 1 cup AP flour (plus more for dusting)
- 1/2 cup Boiling Water
- up to 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
- 1 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions- greens only
- 4 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/8 cup veg oil, to cook
- Put flour in a large bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon as you add 3/4 of the boiling water. Assess how it is coming together, making sure the dough is not sticky, and add the remaining water slowly.
- Turn the flour and water onto a floured surface. Knead for about 5 minutes, or until satiny and smooth.
- Transfer to a clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes in an oven that is off.
- Divide the dough into half, and roll each into a smooth ball. Cover one ball with a towel or plastic wrap. Working with the other ball, roll into a disc approximately 8 or 9 inches in diameter on a floured surface. Brush a thin layer of sesame oil on top.
- Roll up into a cigar-like log, then twist into a snail-like spiral. Tuck the end of the spiral tightly underneath, pinching slightly if necessary. Flatten this snail gently with the palm of your hand. Then re-roll into a thin 8 or 9 inch disc again.
- Brush another layer of sesame oil onto the disc. Sprinkly 3/4 cups scallion greens and about 2 tsp. salt, leaving about a 1/2 inch rim free around the edges. Roll up again, using slightly more caution this time to make sure not too much of the scallions splurt out of the edges. The scallions will want to poke out of the roll, as long as they don’t tear too much it should be all right. Twist into a spiral, tucking the ends underneath as you did before.
- Very carefully, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough with the scallions into a thin 7-inch disc. The scallions will want to poke out again, but simply pat them back in with your fingers. It will be rather oily, so there is no need for a floured surface.
- (repeat with your other ball of dough)
- In a nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Set the pancake in the oil to cook, shaking the pan periodically until the one side is golden brown- about two minutes. Carefully flip, using tongs or a spatula if you need help. There will still be some oil in the pan, so take caution. Cook on the other side the same way, for about another 2 minutes or until golden brown as well.
- Transfer to a cooling rack lined with a paper towel to cool.
- After a couple of minutes (not too long, just enough for the oil to dry a little), cut into 6 wedges. Serve immediately.