"It's a bing. Get used to it, people," Brian Goldberg, proud New Yorker and founder of Beijing street food company Mr. Bing, says.
He's talking about the Chinese crepe called jianbing — bing for short — that's suddenly turning up all over the country. If you haven't heard of this street food yet, Goldberg's right: You'd better wise up now, because the go-to breakfast Chinese students have been downing for years is about to hit big in the U.S.
Jianbing are savory crepes made with any combination of mung bean, wheat, rice, or millet flour. Filled or topped with egg, scallion, cilantro, chile sauce, and pieces of fried cracker, the crepes' savory, crunchy, spicy mix of sensations is enough to lure anyone out of bed (see the recipe).
Both the Beijing style, which comes with egg on the outside, and the Shanghai version, which tucks the egg inside, are appearing across the country. Jianbing Company just launched at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg in April, and Bing Kitchen opened on NYC's Lower East Side less than two weeks ago. On the West Coast, San Francisco's Tai Chi Jianbing opened last year, and Portland, Oregon's Bing Mi! has been drawing crowds since November of 2014. Meanwhile, Jian Bing Johnny's has been serving the East Bay since 2012.
Straying from the traditional Chinese versions, American-made bings contain all kinds of fillings and toppings. Mr Bing's most popular crepe comes with Peking duck, while Tai Chi Jianbing makes one with tuna. On the menu at Bing Kitchen is the Southern Comfort Bing, which comes with fried chicken and slaw. You might not find these variations in China, but they're paying homage to the motherland all the same.
The unifying theme among vendors and customers alike is earnest devotion — often steeped in nostalgia. Holding an almost sacred status, the jianbing grabs ahold of fans and doesn't shake off easily.
Case in point? Goldberg, also known as Mr. Bing himself, left the banking world to start a business built on the street food he ate every morning as a study-abroad student. After trying countless crepes, he learned the craft from a woman in Beijing who he calls "Master Ban." In 2012, Goldberg opened his first location in Hong Kong, and last year brought Mr Bing to New York City. Honoring the street food tradition, Mr Bing is currently located in a stall at the Broadway Bites street fair. But Goldberg's taking things one step further. Since jianbing are typically made on bicycles fashioned with carts on the back, Goldberg plans to start selling his crepes from custom-made, solar-paneled bicycles in just a few months.
Bing Mi!'s Alisa Grandy is another fierce devotee. She fell hard for the crepes after trying them only once — on a layover no less. Not knowing what she was ordering from a woman spreading batter on "what looked like an overturned barrel," she recalls, "I took one bite, and it was about the best thing I had ever put in my mouth." She knew she had to find a way to replicate it as soon as she got home.
Of course, jianbing are picking up momentum for consumer-driven reasons as well. Americans are constantly hungry for new, portable, and exciting breakfast options, and jianbing fits the bill. (Like so many great breakfast foods, it also happens to be a perfect drunk food, a point Goldberg reflects on, having witnessed raucous late-night crowds at his store in Hong Kong.)
At the same time, Chinese transplants are nostalgic for this once-hard-to-find staple from home. After all, jianbing are difficult to make without the proper equipment. The batter must be spread correctly, over a large surface, and the signature fried crackers are "a huge labor of love," producers Reuben Shorser and Tadesh Inagaki of Jianbing Company, who go the extra mile to make them authentically, say.
Some of the most rewarding feedback, Shorser and Inagaki add, is seeing Chinese communities in Brooklyn seeking out their crepes. Grandy tells a similar tale with the Chinese students she sees lining up at her stand.
"It's so much a comfort food. A happy food from home," Grandy says. "We have Chinese customers that say they used to eat these every morning." Consider this your wake-up call, America.
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