Shandong jianbing, a “fried cake,” is one of my favorite street food snacks to eat here in China. When I was doing fieldwork in Beijing on Kentucky Fried Chicken in the mid 1990s, I would often fortify myself with jianbing before heading over to the KFC restaurant where I was doing my fieldwork. Back then, it only cost 5 mao, or half an RMB (in the 1990s, less than 6 cents US); in 2006 Shanghai, it now costs 2 RMB, which with today’s exchange rate is about 25 cents. Despite the inflation, it still tastes good!
A jianbing is cooked on a large flat circular griddle surface, as you can see above. The batter is slapped on the griddle, and a cooking trowel is used to wipe off the excess batter; an egg is then cracked on the cooking batter, the yolk broken, and spread around the cooking batter. Spices are then added – usually scallion, maybe cilantro, and then a brown sauce is spread on the top. The brown sauce is then laced with red peppers (they usually ask if you want it spicy, which I do), and then a piece of fried dough is added. The cake is then folded up, cut in half for easy eating, and put into a plastic bag.
This kind of street food can be found all around universities and other places where students are looking for cheap food. Jianbing is one of my favorite street food staples, as are other easily found foods like shengjian bao, xiaolong bao, and yangrou chuan. This kind of street food, despite its low price, competes with other kinds of Chinese fast foods — my usual meal when I’m on my own (since my Chinese colleagues look down on such cheap eating!) costs 5 or 6 RMB (less than 75 cents), and has a full plate of rice with a particular dish piled on top, and usually some kind of soup. Still, I grab a jianbing whenever I’m on my way back to my apartment or if I’m haven’t eaten and am on my way to class or a meeting.
When I was in Shanghai in 2001 with a group of Butler students, they loved eating this kind of street food and had dreams of opening up such a stand in Indianapolis. One student, unnamed since he is now a PhD candidate in political science looking at Chinese politics, thought he could make a killing by opening up a stand by the fraternities for late-night snacks! I would surely have been one of his steady customers.