Today’s Hungry Still dish is one of the few things authentic to Taiwan nights that, despite having grown up in the Midwest, I can readily eat. Like most of the best memory foods, scallion pancakes are made on an economy of means with the raw basics—flour, water, oil and scallions — making it instantaneous, accessible, transportive and timeless. A thin layer of caramelized spirals on the outside—crunch—opens up to steamy, soft layers on the inside. Cut it up like a pizza or tear it open with your fingers.
I know this flavor in an intuitive way; how its simplicity persevered despite the odds against it in the late 90s in our suburban household: the lack of internet and recipes ready for consumers to share and reshare, a community completely unfamiliar with this type of “ethnic” foods (though that would quickly change in the following years as Asian cuisine skyrocketed in popularity beyond Chinese take-outs and buffets) and, most notably, the sparseness of where we lived on one side of a countryside highway across from which land primed for development lay empty of people. There is so much meaning packed in a single bite that, even twenty some years later, it still reminds me, as some faded photographs do, of resilience and happiness present in a time of limitation and constraint.
My new Midwest home was so different from what was across the great Pacific—that is, Taiwan’s now-famous cultural scene—Instagrammable, YouTube-viral and filled with urban energy. Growing up, when I told others where I moved from, people asked, “Where? You mean Thailand?” Nobody would ask me that today, a time in which nearly everybody has heard of the little island that is not only efficiently handling the pandemic on its soil but also producing enough masks for a global supply, all the while holding dearly onto its democratic independence from the red dragon looming a short 110 miles across the Taiwan Strait. And especially these days, this cultural food item that can be found in nearly every night market across Taiwan has taken on a new and powerful dimension.
After I left home, the first time I made scallion pancakes on my own was in my third year of college. I was sharing a small studio flat with a classmate in the third arrondissement of Paris, on a street where there were many Chinese-Parisians selling handbags and even pulled noodles. They weren’t fresh immigrants, I mean, certainly not travelers like me; they were real Parisians. But seeing them made me feel inexplicably nostalgic. A few staircases up, there I was, making my version of a make-do scallion pancake with a wine bottle for a rolling pin. Do what you can with limited means when in a foreign place—I learned that firsthand.
There are many versions to the recipe, and I present just one today. Some Taiwanese countryside oba-sans with memories from the Japanese occupation would tell you to roll it one way; the vendor at the night market might fry it another way. Some use the hot dough method; others swear by yeast. Mainlanders may enjoy it with an additional sprinkle of five spice; the Taiwanese prefer it without. You’ll know with a simple Google search just how versatile and cross-cultural this kind of flaky flatbread is. When done right, this dish has transcended place and time for me. Whether eaten piping hot while wandering the streets or as a midnight snack for a family of four who just don’t feel like sleeping by bedtime, its simplicity makes for a deeply embedded and almost thoughtless memory that signals as much resilience as it does comfort food.
Recipe (6 large or 12 small pancakes)
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
~ 3/4 -1 cup boiling water
5 tbsp sesame oil
5 tbsp sesame oil (canola also works)
½ tsp salt
5 green onions (scallions)
2 tbsp all purpose flour
- In a mixing bowl, pour in the flour. Stir in boiling hot water into the flour slowly with a wooden spoon until a shaggy dough forms. Add 1-2 tbsp of water if flour doesn’t all come together.
- Knead about 5-8 minutes into a soft, smooth ball. It should be slightly tacky.
- Rest covered in oiled bowl for 30-45 min.
- Meanwhile make scallion filling by combining salt, scallion, sesame oil and flour – mix to form a paste.
- Flatten dough, and roll out into large rectangle as thin as possible
- Brush mixture evenly and sparsely, covering the dough surface entirely
- Fold the long way by bringing one side in, then the other side, like a letter.
- Fold the short way by bring one side in, then the other side, to make a package.
- Rest for 10 min
- Roll out evenly one more time as thin as possible in a large rectangle
- Roll tightly into one long jelly roll using the long side
- Cut roll into 1 inch disks.
- On floured surface, flatten each disk to about ¼ inch thick.
- Prepare pan with hot canola oil for frying. Pan fry scallion pancake on one side til golden brown (should be 2-3 minutes). Then flip it and cook with lid on for 3-5 minutes, the steam will cook the inside.
- When ready, cut like a pizza into triangles, or tear with your fingers. Enjoy. You might want to try it with a common sauce for dipping composed of chopped garlic, black vinegar, soy sauce, sugar.