Xian'r Bing (Juicy, Meaty Chinese Griddled Pancakes)


Let me introduce you to my new best friend: Ayi Wang. She's 50-something years old, bossy, loud, and a tough old nut, and I adore her.

I was moved northwards, without my two cooks, to a temporary kitchen in the midst of new ownership; therefore, a gutted-out, dusty, rusty, under-equipped and desolate little place. It did, however, come with an ayi -- a Chinese term for an older woman employed to help with household, janitorial maintenance. She has been seeing to it that I eat some lunch every day and learn a bit of simple Chinese cooking from her, in between my food-creating work.

Ayi Wang helped me clean out the old fridges, clear up clutter and make me chuckle with her brash, stubborn, almighty way of speaking; I can see some similarities between the way southern Italian nonnas are and how older Chinese women are. They know what they're doing, they've roughed it out before, and their not about to take any crap from kids with newfangled ideas. She is such a force that even her small white dog has taken up her air of authority, by barking like he breathes air, just to create some ripples in his air.

She's a tough old nut and she knows how to cook, often making griddled flatbreads and dumplings. An unfortunate result of my work is having a lot of leftover or unused ingredients, most of them fresh vegetables, all jumbled up in a confused pile in the fridge, neglected and probably thinking existential (vegistential?) thoughts. So I turn to Ayi Wang and offer to make her lunch, if she teaches me how...

Here she teaches me how to make Chinese mince buns (xian'er bing; 馅饼); essentially pan-fried dumplings (score), but with more mince than doughy skin (winning). We did those veggies proud by making flavorful green bell pepper and carrot with beef mince. A simple, unyeasted dough is kneaded lightly then allowed to rest on the side while you mince up whatever vegetables you've got with whatever little bit of meat you have. Splash in some soy sauce, a bit of sugar, some Shaoxing wine to cut the gamey flavour of meat, a pinch of ground white pepper and an egg to bind it all; then bundle it up in a round of dough 'til you get a puckered swirl at the top. Roll flat then pan-fry. Lunch was served piping hot, the juices of the meat dribbling painfully down my arm, and some cool Tsingtao beer served in a rinsed-out glass honey jar. Simplicity, economy and goodness.

I'm not able to write an exact recipe; and Wang Ayi will simply tell you there is no recipe. This may be frustrating to first-time xian'er bing makers but if you love cooking, I trust you have some basic knowledge and intuition on what to do, with these photos and the below guidelines to follow:

  • Make sure the flour + water dough isn't sticky.
  • If using leafy vegetables like spinach or pea shoots in your mince, blanch it briefly first, then squeeze well to remove excess water.
  • If, like me, you use juicy vegetables like bell peppers, after chopping sprinkle over a generous pinch of of salt, allow to rest about five minutes or more, then squeeze very well in a colander to remove excess water.
  • You don't need much oil in the pan, two teaspoons will do for four bings (as shown in photo).
  • Make sure the flame is on medium-low; you want golden crusts, not so much burnt dough.
  • Making it with a friend and having a Tsingtao is the way to go.