Scallions (also known as green onions, spring onions, salad onions, table onions, green shallots, onion sticks, long onions, baby onions, precious onions, yard onions, gibbons, or syboes) are the edible plants of various Allium species, all of which are “onion-like”, having hollow green leaves and lacking a fully developed root bulb. -Wikipedia
Smitten Kitchen got me hooked on scallion cakes. It’s all because her recipe for Japanese vegetable pancakes, or okonomiyaki, that caught my eye one afternoon. Sliced cabbage, carrots, scallions, and kale mixed with eggs and a little flour to bind it all together. It sounded fresh and fast and a different sort of way to get some veggie love in with dinner. I gave it a shot.
It was fresh, only too fresh, like an iceberg salad without the dressing. Perfectly acceptable, but with no depth of flavor – nothing I’d crave, or even think to make again. It was a good starting point, though. I liked the idea of the recipe, but I kind of wanted some punch.
Everyone seemed to agree. After his first bite, LL said, “These would be really good if they had lots of onion, like scallion cakes.” Scallion cakes? That is not a dish I knew about, ever saw on a menu or tasted. Now, after doing the tiniest but of research, I’m just not sure how I missed them all my life. A.K.A. Cong you bing, 葱油饼; scallion pancakes, green onion pancakes . . . this dish is one of Asia’s great street foods, as ubiquitous to Chinese cultures as muffins are to your corner Starbucks.
I had to make it, yes. I love green onions. But you do know it’s tricky – even dangerous – to attempt a dish that’s a cultural touchstone, especially with absolutely no frame of reference. Especially to think you can make it your own. There are plenty of recipes for scallion cakes online, but how to if you’ve never tasted one? When looking to others for advice through reviews and comments, whose are accurate and whose are just gripey?
The only thing to do was read through as many recipes as I could to find the commonalities. First off, scallion cakes are made from dough, not batter. The dough is a simple flour and boiling water mixture in a 3 to 1 ratio. Some recipes add sugar or salt. This dough is kneaded lightly, let rest, then divided into equally-sized balls, which are flattened into cakes. Those cakes themselves move into multi-step process that involves being topping with scallions and oil or additional seasonings, rolled into a bun, flattened back into pancake form, and fried in oil. It’s a little bit of work, but oh, my gosh, is it worth the effort!
I poured 2/3 cups boiling water over a mixture of 2 cups flour and 1 tsp salt and used a fork to blend it together. Once it was cool enough to touch, in about 5 minutes, I kneaded it together gently (because it was still warm!) and let it rest for 30 minutes. During that time, I chopped those green onions; one bunch was just enough for this amount of dough. (After some experimentation I learned that for best results, put your scallions on a paper towel and lightly salt them. This step draws out the excess moisture and makes your final rolling of the scallion cakes more successful.)
Ok. Now you take that dough ball and divide it into 10 equal servings, rolling each into a ball and flattening it with a rolling pin to 1/8″ thickness. Keep these portions covered with a damp towel or wax paper while you form the dough balls to keep them from getting dried out.
Different recipes, at this point, call for brushing the dough with a flavor like sesame oil, lard, salt, or white pepper. I settled on a thin layer of Mongolian fire oil, a mix of chiles, ginger, and garlic that added a very subtle punch and seems to be available widely, at least in Santa Cruz.
Now for the fun part. Here is the flattened dough ball serving brushed with oil and topped with scallions:
Here is the 2-step process of rolling each piece first into a burrito, then into a circle, like a doughnut or a bun:
Finally, you roll each bun gently as flat as you can, without the chopped onion bursting from the dough, and fry in a small amount of your favorite vegetable oil, flipping once. The result is a savory, golden brown flatbread:
Seriously, these are so great. Make them soon.