Ever since I was little, my parents treated street food in Beijing like the bad boy in high school; they barred me from even getting within a 10 feet range, they covered my eyes, telling me how it was dirty, cheap, and would give me unwanted health problems. Like the ever-obedient child that I was, I listened, though a longing built up in my gut everytime I walked down a small sidestreet and spied one of those pushcarts. Sure, at one point, these mobile vendors would have been a health inspector’s worst nightmare (or dream) with the number of health codes they were violating. But nowadays, the situation is much better, as more sanitation laws and requirements have been put in place.
My first tryst with the popular Beijing street food known as jiān bǐng happened one hot summer morning when I was deemed by my family just old enough to start going out on my own. The cart that I remembered from summers past had upgraded to a small dimly-lit store front window, where customers lined up, shouted out their orders, paid and watched the young boy in the window as he whipped up a steaming hot crêpe in under one minute. As the morning rush of nannies, housewives, bicyclists going to work pushed past me to pick up a quick breakfast, I inserted myself at the back of the quickly moving line. Nervous and wide-eyed, I wasn’t sure how to order. There wasn’t a menu posted overhead, no pictures, nothing. This was Beijing street food at its best- for everyday people, not hyped up for tourists. Mustering up my confidence, I pointed to the dark crêpe batter, raised my finger to indicate one, and said “I’ll have everything.” I handed over my ¥2 (about $0.25 at the time) and excitedly watched through the fogged-up glass as my jiān bǐng was expertly made.
He wiped off the circular griddle with a towel, and ladled out some of the dark batter, spreading it out with a wooden tool. Paper thin at the edges, the crêpe instantly cooked up as it hit the smoking hot griddle. With a flick of the wrist, he cracked open an egg right on top of the crêpe, breaking up the yolk with the same tool, and sprinkling on a mixture of scallion and cilantro. With the egg still somewhat runny, he flipped the crêpe in one fell swoop, and brushed on two sauces on the other side, one hoisin, the other a spicy chili paste. The final element in this process is what jian bing is best known for- the crispy-fried rectangular cruller that gets placed inside. The edges of the crêpe are then folded in to form a steamy package of egginess, slid into a filmy plastic bag, and was handed over to me. All this in less than a minute. As I stepped away, the boy was moving onto making another crêpe, one of the many hundreds more he’d made that morning.