Sunday, January 29, 2012

Spring wraps of North China

Most people when they think of Chinese cuisine picture bowls of rice. But north of the Yangtze River, it is too cold and dry for rice paddies. Up there on the edge of the deserts where sand storms and blizzards are the norm, wheat and other hardy grains have been the starch of choice for countless years.

Noodles, breads, pasta... these are what northerners enjoy. And around the Lunar New Year, spring wraps join jiaozi (dumplings) at family celebrations.

Super thin and tender
Often translated as "Mandarin pancakes," these wraps are actually more like flour tortillas than anything else. Just like their Mexican cousins, they are created out of little more than fine flour, water, and a little bit of fat. That's it. But unlike tortillas, spring wraps are as thin as muslin, usually as wide as one's hand, and very delicate.

As you can tell from the name, spring wraps are meant to be enjoyed during the Lunar Year, and we still have one more week to go before the Lantern Festival (the first full moon that marks the end of the festivities), so here is yet another traditional northern treat to enjoy.

You do not have to be terribly fancy with the fillings (unless you want to, of course). Usually there are at least simple three stir-fries set out with spring wraps, along with some shredded green onions and a sweet wheat paste sauce.

Korean tianmianjiang
Now before I go any further, I want to share yet another one of my gripes about translation with you. A common condiment in North China called tianmianjiang (literally "sweet flour paste") is often rendered into English as "sweet bean paste" or, as in the picture to the right, as "black bean paste." But the main ingredient is not beans at all, and only a bit of soy sauce is added to provide a nice salty edge to this thick black sauce. (Sweet bean paste, for the record, is what sweetened mashed red beans -- hongdousha --is often called, and mixing up the two could lead to some truly disastrous result.)

The correct translation is, then, sweet wheat paste. An elderly friend from Shandong once described how they used to make it when he was a child: steamed breads (mantou) were left to mold, and then mixed with water, sugar, and some soy sauce to ferment. I've made it myself  that way, and it worked out pretty well, but the Korean brands in particular are really quite good and inexpensive, so it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to make it myself.

The bing should be translucent
Like just about every other wheat flour-based recipe on this blog, these spring wraps work best with Korean bread flour. The gluten level is just perfect, and you end up with very tender yet tensile tortillas. Do look at the Tips down below, as there are other little things you should keep in mind when making these spring wraps. But otherwise, this really is simpler than it seems. The recipe calls for mixing boiling water into the dough, making this yet another example of our rapidly expanding repertoire of hot dough recipes.

If you are serving spring wraps with some simple stir-fries as your main dish, count on about 4 wraps per person. Otherwise, 2 apiece will probably be just right.

Spring wraps 
Chunbing  春餅 
Makes 16 wraps

2 cups Korean bread flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons soft lard, shortening, or unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
¾ cup boiling filtered water 
About 1 tablespoon cool filtered water
Roasted sesame oil, as needed

Divvy up the dough
1. Mix the flour, salt, and butter together in a medium work bowl. Stir the boiling water into the flour and mix with a wooden spoon (or in an electric mixer or food processor) until combined; the dough should look flaky at this point. Stir in just enough cool water to make the dough form a solid mass. Turn the dough out onto a clean, smooth, unfloured board and knead the dough until it is smooth and soft. Add extra water or flour only if really necessary, as the dough ought to be perfectly workable at this point (see Tips).

2. Let the dough rest for about 20 minutes under a damp towel or plastic wrap. Roll the dough into an even rope 16 inches long (use a ruler for best results), and then cut the dough into 16 1-inch pieces. Roll each piece between your hands to form a ball, and then flatten the balls into even discs on the board, covering any pieces you are not immediately working on.

3, Prepare a clean, unoiled skillet, preferably seasoned cast iron (see Tips), as well a plate to hold the finished wraps and a clean towel. Pour a few tablespoons of sesame oil into a small bowl and have both a small rolling pin and a pastry brush ready.

4. Place two flattened discs next to each other and brush one completely with some sesame oil. Place the other one on top, matching them up as close as possible, and then use the rolling pin to roll them out into circles about 6 inches or so in diameter. Repeat with the rest of the dough until you have 8 sandwiched circles.

5. Heat the skillet over medium heat until the edge of the skillet is just too hot to touch for more than a few milliseconds. Place one of the sandwiched circles on the skillet and gently shake the skillet back and forth so that the dough slides on the surface and doesn't stick (see Tips). As soon as the dough either puffs up or is covered in bubbles, flip it over to cook the other side. Both sides of the wrap should only be very lightly browned with golden dots (see Tips). Place the cooked wrap in the prepared plate and immediately cover with the towel so that it steams (see Tips). Repeat with all of the circles until done.

6. Remove the bottom wrap from the pile and gently peel the two sides apart; it should be soft and supple from steaming under the other cooked wraps. If it is at all brittle, steam it before peeling it apart, as it will crack and tear once it is hard or overcooked. Place the peeled wraps on top of the other wraps and continue to remove the bottom one, peeling it apart, and returning it to the stack. When all of the wraps have been peeled apart, fold them into quarters. They may be served immediately or cooled, placed in a resealable plastic bag, and either refrigerated or frozen.

Wrap diameter: 6 inches or so
7. To heat the bing, place them in a steamer on either steamer paper or cloth. Steam until hot and soft. Serve immediately.


Different flours require different amounts of moisture, so be flexible here if you are not using the Korean flour and if you are in a high altitude, for example. Whole wheat flour yields rather brittle wraps, so I don't recommend it unless you have a better source of flour than I do. Using as little additional flour and water as possible makes this a soft, workable dough. You will see that the board in these photos is unfloured, and yet the dough does not stick to the board, the rolling pin, or the hands. This is what you want.

Any type of solid fat can be used here as long as it is fresh, unsalted, and at room temperature.

Other liquid fats can be used instead of the roasted sesame oil, such as peanut or vegetable oil. 

Bubbled up and ready to flip
Try a well-seasoned, unoiled, cast iron skillet for dry frying things like spring wraps. They are virtually non-stick if treated with respect and will last a lifetime; secondhand stores often carry excellent ones. Heat the skillet before you put the dough on it, and this will allow the bottom of the wrap to immediately cook, and then by rapidly shaking the dough loose, you've kept the dough from ever getting a chance to weld to the iron.

Cook the wraps only until they are barely cooked on each side; you do not want big brown spots, as this tells you that the heat is too high. Adjust the temperature so that the dough cooks only to pale golden spots at the most, as this will give you tender wraps that do not break.

The biggest secret to preparing perfect spring wraps is letting them steam under a pile of other wraps before separating them. You will of course want to immediately enjoy the magic and peel them apart, but wait a few minutes. The steam will moisten them just enough so that they turn supple. I learned this by trial and a whole lot of error!


  1. what are some recommendations for fillings?

    1. Anything stir-fried, gently crunchy, and in thin shreds works perfectly here. I like them lightly seasoned since I always include sweet wheat paste and julienned green onions on the side. Mung bean sprouts are perfect, as are any type of shredded pork, chicken, vegetables... whatever suits your fancy, really.