Half-Chinese, half-American London girl, Melissa, has never tasted a true jian bing before, nor even set foot in China. Yet incredibly, with the help of her elder sister and some handy how-to videos, she has authentically recreated this popular Beijing street food. Rather than altering the recipe to cater to the British palette, Melissa stays true to Authentic Chinese ingredients for a true experience of Northern Chinese cuisine.
I lived in Beijing for the duration of my high-school years and have eaten many a jian bing in my time (mostly at 3 in the morning after a few too many vodkas). Never did I imagine that this humble street snack would find a place in the UK food scene. Melissa’s pop-up restaurant/street cart, Mei Mei (which means little sister in Chinese), is based in London’s Albert’s Square but has been touring the UK at various shopping centres, markets and food festivals, such as FEAST and Urban Food Fest. Melissa and Co. have currently set up shop at Manchester Food and Drink Festival, ending on the 28th.
So what is a jian bing? It is essentially a Chinese version of the crepe, but made with soy milk and wheat flour. Once the crepe has set, a fresh egg is cracked and spread across the surface, then sprinkled with spring onion and a generous amount of fresh coriander. For a final touch, the crepe is brushed with hoisin sauce and Guilin chilli sauce, then folded up with a crispy fried wonton cracker. Melissa has added a touch of creativity to the classic jian bing; you can add meat to the mix with choices such as duck with spiced plum sauce (the most popular), char siew-style pork and fried chicken with siracha mayo. There is also a veggie option with Chinese mushrooms and of course, you can always keep things simple with the original version. All the sauces are made from scratch to traditional recipes.
The jian bing cooking at Mei Mei’s smelt exactly like I remember from Beijing. Waiting in the queue engulfed in the mouthwatering scent was agony. The young chefs were not quite as smooth as the wise old men cooking jian bing day and night in Beijing, but the technique was the same; a wooden t-shaped stick (I know, not the best explanation) is used to spread the crepe batter thinly around the piping hot stone and to break up and distribute the egg. I went for the char siew pork version. The pork was succulent and richly flavoured with sweet and spiced char siew flavours – it is cooked in the sauce for 24 hours allowing all the flavours to develop and seep into the meat. In Beijing, jian bing are served in a plastic bag – I always found this a little strange, but put it down to being a much cheaper option for the sellers. However, I am now thinking that the plastic bags were ingenious! Trying to eat the jian bing folded up in paper was rather tricky; I either ended up eating the paper along with the crepe, or the crepe fell apart when I tried folding the paper down! The trouble was most definitely worth it – absolutely delicious.
Alongside Mei Mei’s signature jian bing, you can also order Chinese comfort foods, such as Piggy Ribs, smothered in a peanut-chilli sauce and fiery Szechuan aubergine, served with crispy onions and a fried egg.