I love watching the flurry of activity on the streets of Toronto’s Chinatown. The dumpling makers, curb-side herb sellers, the many hands selecting their choice fruits and veggies… oh and roasted duck.
This shop front is always filled with roasted goodies: Duck, pork, goose, chicken and interesting bits of offal. Today, another woman was watching as the spit-roasted ducks were hung, she explained to me how the bright orange cuttlefish was prepared and that siu mei is the collective term for roasted meats in Cantonese.
All of this talk about food made realize, I was hungry. I recalled a time where I watched a crepe vendor from outside the street car window as I passed the corner of Spadina and Dundas, so I set foot in that direction, I’m always game for trying something new.
There she was in her tiny umbrella’d stand with a steady stream of people in line for what seemed to be a popular grab and go snack. It was my turn and I simply said one, and ma la (spicy). When I said ma la I got a laugh out of the lady, she happily prepared my crepe, explaining what she was putting into it as she cooked. It began with a delicate swoop of batter spread out over the surface of her round cast-iron griddle. She cracked in a few eggs, added lettuce, scallions, cilantro, crispy fried wonton crackers, and a sweet and spicy (extra for me) layer of hoisin and chili sauces. She rolled it up, folded it in half and proudly handed it to me for an exchange of $5 in a brown paper bag. Perfection.I later learned that this delicious stuffed crepe is a popular street food breakfast in China, known as jianbing (gin-bing). Jianbing are cooked to order to preserve the crispness of the pancake and fried wonton cracker, so waiting for your turn (and there is always a line) is just part of the pleasure.
Every good food dish has a story and jianbing is no exception. Legend has it that jianbing was invented roughly 2,000 years ago in Northeast China during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280AD)… and with every good story there is also a hero, this one happens to be chancellor Zhuge Liang, who was faced with a dire problem of feeding his soldiers after they had lost their woks. With a bit of creativity he ordered the cooks to mix water with wheat flour to prepare a batter which was then spread onto the underside of their shields and raised over a flame to cook. They say it was this dish, jianbing which boosted the soldiers’ morale and lead them to victoriously win the battle. Ever since then, jianbing has been passed down through generations of families in the Shandong province and eventually spread throughout different parts of China.
Take my word for it, if you ever catch a whiff of the mouth-watering scent of pan-fried dough and egg that defines jianbing, wait in line.