I was told that I wouldn’t enjoy Chinese food in the U.S. before I step here. It was supposed to be different. Spending years in Malaysia and Singapore, I was skeptical about that. I might enjoy American food and did not plan to try Chinese food when I came back for college, but I’m sure I would be able to find some Malaysian food when I need it. How innocent was I! There were plenty of Chinese food in Champaign, but these were not what I was looking for. And no, these restaurants were authentic as I only went to the ones that were recommended by Chinese friends, and many only offer Mandarin menus. This was the watershed moment when I realized I knew nothing about the world. Chinese, as I knew it, was Malaysian Chinese. As we are a diaspora group of Southern Chinese immigrants who left China more than a century ago, the cuisine that I am used to is significantly different from where they originated from. Moreover – Chinese is such a generic term for a group of people related by nationality, culture and geographical association – that I didn’t realize that even authentic Southern Chinese cuisine is just all but a subset of the varied Chinese cuisine. I’m still not a fan and extremely unfamiliar with most Chinese cuisines. Which is why I was so confused with a jian bing (煎饼 pancake) food cart located in Portland. Megan is extremely excited about trying these pancakes, while I am very hesitant to try these. The only Chinese pancake I ever had been scallion pancakes, which are served for breakfast in a Dim Sum shop. All that made me so much more conservative about having these for dinner.
Portland, being the capital of food trucks, isn’t popular with food halls. Instead, we have food trucks garden, where food trucks are park permanently in a nice beer garden setting. Bing Mi is located in a “food trucks garden”, among other International cuisine at Nob Hill such as Indian, poke and Thai food. One sign that gave us some confidence were the three Chinese in line. (I know it is somewhat racist and that they might just be trying out) The chef-owner is also Chinese and handled both cooking and ordering. We ordered the smoked sausage loaded and the double egg jian bing. Orders were made fresh but slowly, as there are only two frying pans. While we wait, we walked around the tiny food truck garden. Everyone is kind of weary of each other, yet many do not hesitate to sit and eat on the public tables. We kept our distance, especially with the lack of mask when the patrons are not eating. Most people were eating from the Taco truck (definitely the most American cuisine) and I did not spot anyone who ordered from Jian Bing.
We carried these hot pockets into our car. Megan thought these pancakes looked and taste similar to French crepes, but I thought the eggs-in-the-batter made it significantly different. Besides, crepes taste kind of plain, and depends on the flavors of the fillings. I thought jianbing tasted more like an omelet fold over. I’m kind of glad it isn’t like a crepe because I really like the Chinese duck sauce (hoisin sauce) with sliced Chinese sausage, and the crunchy texture from the fried wonton skin. Moreover, the chili sauce goes really well with the otherwise mild flavoring – Megan disagrees though, as she sweat profusely. My only criticism is that it is extremely difficult to eat two jian bings at the same time (the chef folded it). Think of eating two burritos with your hands at the same time, and we did not have the luxury of taking one out to put it on the plate. Eating these handhelds are somewhat messy.
The question we asked ourselves were the origin of these jian bing. We theorized if this is an authentic/traditional Chinese dish vs. an imitation of the French crepe. From what I could gather (from Wikipedia), jianbing originates from Shandong and Tianjin, two northern providences that are close to Beijing. Zhuge Liang, one of the masterminds during the era of the Three Kingdoms, instructed his soldiers to use their shields to cook wheat batter on open fire, as a substitute to woks, resulted in these pancakes. I don’t understand why they couldn’t made other dishes with their shields, or why it took a genius to figure this out, but it seems like jianbing has been around for eons. Literally, around 2 millennials. And by some luck, we cross path thousands of miles from the origin, in a little tiny food court among other street food. With that, I encourage all to visit Bing Mi, to try something new, especially these uncertain times. Do it now, before the virus takes away all the opportunity to enjoy the culture that are far away.
Visited: June 26th, 2020 at 18:00 for dinner.
Address: 1845 NW 23rd Pl, Portland