January 11, 2009
There is a restaurant in Sydney called Mother Chu's Taiwanese Gourmet. It's an unassuming place, almost clinical (except for the bright red lanterns hanging from the eaves), and serves food that's quickly made and eaten. It sits on Dixon St, the main pedestrianised street of Sydney's inner-city Chinatown, which lacks the atmosphere it used to have before good Chinese food was available in unexpected neighbourhoods all over the city, like Hurstville and Burwood.
The thing that most distinguishes Mother Chu's is the spring onion pancake: a hot, flaky cake that releases steam with every bite and delivers, along with the flavours of oil and salt, an intense taste of diced spring onions.
When I say spring onions, I mean the long, slender stalks that are basically the same length the entire way, but begin firm and white at the root and end in thin green tubes. I'm being specific because spring onions confuse me, name-wise. In Australia we call them spring onions, but when I moved to England I discovered that spring onions were the ones with swelling white bulbs at the ends. I switched to the UK term, green onions, because it seemed so sensibly to refer to the object it named. Then I moved to America and found they were called scallions, a name I like because it implies a slightly mischevious character.
Figure 1: rolling & coiling the dough
Now that I live in a small town in New Hampshire, a very long way from Mother Chu's, I have to make my own green onion pancakes, and I do that using this recipe from the wonderful blog Tigers & Strawberries. The result isn't quite the same - you can watch Mother Chu's nimble-fingered chefs roll paper-thin, perfect pancakes at the front of the restaurant, and theirs are larger, thicker and flakier than mine - but it's the closest I can manage in snowy New England.
The recipe has a lot of stages. The various rollings-out and shapings are all necessary to create the oily-yet-flaky texture, so that the pastry tears irregularly when you pull the pancake apart. My flakiest pancakes were the ones in which I did as little rolling as possible after the final coil of dough. Less handling keeps the air pockets intact.
I made only one third of the Tigers & Strawberries dough recipe, yielding 8 pancakes.
Green Onion Pancakes
from Tigers & Strawberries
1 cup flour
1/3 cup hot water
1/2 bunch green onion (spring onion/scallion) tops, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp sesame oil
salt and ground pepper mixed together
peanut oil for frying
Put flour in a medium sized mixing bowl, and add water all at once. Mix until most of the flour is mixed in, though the dough will seem quite dry.
At this point, lightly flour or oil your hands and turn dough out onto a silpat or a lightly floured surface and knead for about ten minutes until a very nice, smooth dough is formed. Wash out your bowl, dry it carefully, and put the dough ball back into the bowl. Cover it tightly and allow it to rest for at least thirty minutes.
Put sesame oil in a small bowl, and salt and pepper together in another small bowl and green onions in a third small bowl.
When your dough has finished resting, take it out and roll out into a long snake shape, about one inch or so thick. Cut the snake in half, then cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces.
Roll each lump of dough into a round and flatten slightly. Put all of them back into the bowl and cover, except for the one you're working with.
Take your flattened disk of dough and using a rolling pin, roll it into a circle, about 1/8 of an inch thick. Dip two fingers into the sesame oil, smear the surface of your rolled out dough with it. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper over the surface of it, and then take up a scan’t 1/2 teaspoon of green onion slices and scatter over it.
Then, lift up the edge of the dough circle closest to you and roll it up like a cigar. Pinch the seam down the long side closed, and pinch the ends closed.
Now take the rolled up dough and make a snail-shaped disk out of it by coiling it on itself. Pinch the seams closed, then flatten it with the heel of your hand into a disk.
Next, take up the rolling pin and roll it into a flat pancake. Set the pancake on a piece of waxed paper and lay another piece of paper down over it. Repeat until all of your lumps of dough are used up.
Heat a shallow layer of peanut oil in a shallow frying pan until the oil bubbles when you put a bamboo chopstick’s tip in it. Slide in as many pancakes as the pan will hold and fry about a minute or so, or until golden brown on the bottom, then flip it over and cook until done on the other side–about forty-five seconds or so. When done, drain on paper towels. Repeat as necessary. Serve hot.