All The Bings: A Guide to China's Favorite Street Food

By Sophie Steiner, August 25, 2020

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The best time to explore any Chinese city is in the morning. As the city starts to wake up, food vendors pop up on every street corner and the smell of deliciously frying dough, steaming savory dumplings, boiling wontons and noodles and baking bready treats waft over the city, like a warm, comfy blanket. 

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One of the most common breakfast foods and – in reality – all day snack, is the all-encompassing bing (饼). The specific character for bing is defined as anything round and pastry-like, no matter the exact shape, size or list of ingredients involved. There are too many scrumptious bing options to keep track of, so we’ve put together a guide for any and all of your bing consumption needs. 

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Jian Bing 煎饼 – Fried Pancake

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The mother of all bings, jian bing, is the perfect on-the-go breakfast; it takes about two minutes to make, is downright delicious and costs roughly RMB7 or less. Jian bing stands are a dime a dozen, located all over Shanghai every morning of the year, rain or shine, so you never end up waiting in line too long.

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A proper jian bing is made by ladling an overflowing scoop of glutinous millet batter onto a hot, flat griddle that is then spirally spread into a thin, savory crepe. An egg or two are cracked and smeared across the top and left to fry into the batter. The ayi then sprinkles on cilantro, scallions and pickled mustard tubers before folding the crepe in half and slathering sticky, sweet tian mian jiang sauce and spicy chili oil across the folded half. 

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The almost finished jian bing is topped with a fried, crunchy wonton skin or a crispy youtiao, and finally wrapped into a pocket shape before being sliced down the middle and handed over to the lucky patron. The ideal jian bing comes down to texture ratios – a crispy crepe exterior, fluffy eggs, loads of aromatic cilantro and scallions, generous portions of spicy chili oil and sweet sauce and the crispiest fried wonton skin you can imagine. Heaven in a bite.

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Cong You Bing 葱油饼 – Scallion Oil Pancake

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Another commonly found yet anything-but-commonly flavored breakfast treat is cong you bing, a dense griddle-fried and baked scallion oil pancake flecked with green onions. While it is sold on most neighborhood street corners around Shanghai, one of the most famous cong you bings is made by Mr. Wu. As the owner of A Da Cong You Bing, this elderly gentleman has a reputation that dates back more than 35 years! He has such a cult following that people stand in line for hours waiting to try one. 

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Mr. Wu’s scallion oil pancakes are particularly thick and dense, yet we feel there are some serious contenders that give him a real run for his money. (Blasphemy! I know we may receive some flak for that statement.) 

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Along Changhua Lu, just south of Haifang Lu, there is a humble cong you bing connoisseur. Despite having no actual store front space – just a small oven nestled between two shops – he regularly draws a crowd. After cracking an egg inside the raw dough, he flattens and fries it before baking the pancakes to a crisp. The gooey egg bursts with the initial bite, the inside is moist and chewy without being overly greasy and the outside has the perfect, salty crunch. 

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Qian Ceng Bing 千层饼 – Thousand-Layer Bread

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Thousand-layer bread, or qian ceng bing, is a chewy naan-like bread sold at most breakfast joints around Shanghai and the rest of China. Although it’s not everyone’s first choice of bing, when done right, it’s the Chinese fusion version of pizza you never knew existed. It’s crispy, salty, hot and greasy in the best way possible, topped with scallions and chili sauce. The elastic pull that comes with every bite is truly irreplaceable. 

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Shou Zhua Bing 手抓饼 – Hand Grab Pancake 

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The shou zhua bing hails from the ever-foodie famous Taiwan street markets, as a ‘sister-bing’ of the aforementioned cong you bing. If a buttery French croissant and a Chinese scallion oil pancake had a steamy night, this flaky, griddle-fried bing would be the resulting delicious offspring. 

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There is no right or wrong way to shou zhua bing; some prefer it with grilled chicken and hot sauce, while others like it with those individually wrapped room temperature ‘hot dogs’ that taste and feel about as close to rubber as you can get. Our go-to combination involves a fried egg, lettuce, julienned cucumber, spicy grilled chicken and chili sauce, but we’re always open to suggestions.

Mei Gan Cai Bing 梅干菜肉饼 – Dried Vegetable and Meat Pancake

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This thin, flat bread is stuffed with dried vegetables and bits of pork before being baked to a crisp in a tandoori oven. When the shopkeeper is doing it right, he smothers it in tangy chili sauce and serves it piping hot and ready to be devoured. Mei gan cai bings are sold all over the city for about RMB5; just look for the barrel oven.

Shao Bing 烧饼 – Roasted Sesame Seed Bread 

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Shao bings are the underdogs when it comes to the wonderful world of bings, since some can be bland and doughy with little redeeming quality. Yet, when done right, they are shatteringly crispy and light on the outside, and buttery and flaky like an American South-style biscuit on the inside. The shao bing is easily recognizable by its signature topping of a liberal sprinkling of sesame seeds. It’s available in flavors ranging from brown sugar or black sesame for those with a morning sweet tooth, to pork-flecked with scallions or dried vegetables for those craving more of a savory breakfast sandwich vibe. 

Ji Dan Bing 鸡蛋饼 – Egg Bread

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The ji dan bing can be quite elusive in Shanghai, as less and less vendors sell it because of the extra mafan it takes to make. When you do finally find a vendor touting it, make sure to stock up. Like the thousand-layer bread’s overweight cousin, the ji dan bing is fluffy and pillowy, bubbling up in all of it’s glutinous glory. Baked with a gooey egg and topped with a variety of sauces, this carbo load of joy usually requires a nap within 15 minutes of consuming.

Hua Bing 花饼 – Flower Pancake 

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The flower-filled hua bings are traditional pastries hailing from Yunnan province. Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, when the emperor mandated that flower cakes be given as a tribute to the Royal Palace, these treats have been popular ever since because Yunnan’s year-round Spring climate is ideal for growing edible roses.

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Hua bings are crumbly and buttery, without being greasy, and filled with sweetened rose petals. However, the strong rose flavor can be overpowering at times, making the cake taste like potpourri. 

Xinjiang Nang Bing 新疆馕饼 – Xinjiang Naan Bread

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Found at Xinjiang restaurants across the country, this Chinese take on a naan bread is best accompanied by a fat-glistening skewer of lamb chuar. Rolled into a ball, and then flattened using a rounded hand-carved piece of wood, these bread are baked in ultra-high temperature tandoori-like ovens so the edges are expertly crispy. The Xinjiang naan breads come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are sold from early in the morning into the wee hours of the night.

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[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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