Friday, June 1, 2012

Breakfast tortillas & eggs

Whenever we visit Taipei, I have three main food beelines on my list: the local farmers markets for fresh vegetables and fruits, the myriad night markets that begin at sundown and snake down city streets and alleys for my after-hours intake of snacks and munchies, and the breakfast stands that open up just before dawn and offer freshly-made soybean milk along with a host of generally northern style treats.

After a long night of eating and catching up with friends, a hot breakfast really hits the spot. We usually head for a place that serves soybean milk alongside things like today's breakfast flour tortillas and other goodies from China's far north, like steamed breads (mantou) and filled steamed breads (mantou). 

These were transplanted to Taiwan's shores by the soldiers who came with Chiang Kai-shek at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and these delicious foods took root -- as so many other cuisines from all over China did -- in Taiwan's fertile soil.

Chinese flour tortilla
Back in the late seventies and early eighties, one district to the south of Taipei, just over the river, called Yonghe gradually became synonymous with rich soybean milk and good breakfast fare. And, like intrepid businesspeople everywhere, the name was expanded upon as a name for breakfast spots, and very soon we had the Yonghe brand plastered up all over Taipei and then pretty much all over Taiwan. 

What I hadn't realized was that in a few years this had even traveled to Beijing. When we went there in 2001 and asked around for a good doujiang dian (soybean milk shop), we were invariably shoved in the direction of a Yonghe franchise! The food had come full circle, and had acquired a certain trendiness through its stay in Taipei. 

One dish that I seem to order without fail is this simple flour tortilla that is rolled around a scrambled egg and chopped green onions. Simple and apparently foolproof, this is how I usually start my vacation day in Taipei, along with a hot bowl of sweet soybean milk. 
Boiling water added to flour

Once in a while I might mix it up a bit with a fried cruller (youtiao) rolled up in the middle for some crunch and an extra dose of holiday extravagance, but all in all this is a pretty levelheaded way to head out into Taiwan's busy streets, on the lookout for more food and fun, two things that are never in short supply around there.

These tortillas are a snap to make, and I implore you to try them. You can, of course, use store-bought Mexican flour tortillas, and the results will be passable, but don't blame me if you are not transported by the results.

No, you really have to make them fresh. And once you master them, you will find that making a stack of tortillas and freezing them before you cook them is a great way to prepare a shortcut to many a great Chinese and, dare I say it, Mexican meal.

Smooth ball of dough
These are what you want to use as wrappers for Mu Shu Pork and things of that ilk. They are strong enough to withstand all sorts of abuse, yet their freshness assures you that they will melt in your mouth. (You can also use the thinner Spring Wraps that we looked at a few months ago.)

What makes these tortillas so perfect? Two things that we've discussed before: Korean bread flour and boiling water.

The Korean bread flour has less gluten than American bread flour, but more than our all-purpose. Plus, it is better quality than Mainland Chinese, so it's something that I continue to recommend.

Boiling water added to flour makes what the Chinese call tangmian, or hot dough. This cooks the flour and makes the resulting pastry lighter. You never end up with a powdery texture when boiling water is used; rather, it will be silky and soft. And when you shape it into the initial ball before letting it rest, the dough will feel smooth and supple in a way that the Chinese compare to an earlobe.

Divide the rested dough
Once the dough has rested for an hour or so, cut it into six equal pieces and roll them into balls. Coat the balls in oil and then roll the balls out into very thin rounds that are about 9 inches wide; the oil will make this easy. All that is left is to quickly toast them on an ungreased pan; they will bubble up on top while their undersides become a speckled brown. Flip them over for another quick go in the pan and they are done.

Turning them into breakfast is simply a matter of beating some eggs and patting a cooked tortilla on top of the eggs as they quickly cook. I like adding some chopped greenery in there -- green onions and/or cilantro are always welcome -- plus sesame oil adds another grace note of flavor.

Cheap, easy, and delicious. Hard to improve on that.

Flour tortillas 
Danbing 單餅 
Northern China
Roll out the dough
Makes 6 tortillas

2 cups Korean bread flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (or so) boiling filtered water
Fresh peanut or vegetable oil, as needed

1. Mix the flour and salt together in a medium work bowl, and then stir in enough boiling water to form a soft dough. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes until it is smooth. Coat the dough lightly with some oil and place it back in the (clean) bowl; cover and let it rest for an hour.

2. If you are going to freeze some or all of the tortillas, prepare a baking sheet and some parchment paper or plastic wrap. Then, place the uncooked tortillas on the paper or wrap and freeze them separately; when solid, seal them in a freezer bag. If you are going to immediately cook all or some of the tortillas, have a 9-inch smooth, seasoned, ungreased skillet on the stove; heat it on medium for about 3 minutes before you cook the tortillas. 

3. Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and coat with more oil. Use a small rolling pin to roll each piece out into a 9-inch circle. As you finish each tortilla, either lay it on the paper or plastic, or cook it on the skillet.

4. Cook the unfrozen tortillas over medium heat until the tops bubble and the bottoms are covered with brown spots. Lift one edge with your fingers (or use a spatula) and flip it over. Lightly brown the other side as well. Remove to a plate and cover with a clean cloth so that it can steam and stay warm. Repeat with the rest of the tortillas.

5. To cook the frozen tortillas, cover the pan to create steam and cook the tortillas more evenly, but otherwise cook the same as unfrozen; there is no need to defrost them first.

Breakfast tortillas 
Danbing 蛋餅 
Northern China
Bubbles on the top of the tortilla
Makes 6 and serves 3 to 4

1 recipe Flour Tortillas
4 large free-range eggs
1 tablespoon filtered water
4 green onions, optional
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Small handful cilantro, optional
Roasted sesame oil

1. Cook the Flour Tortillas as directed above and keep warm by covering them with a clean tea towel.

2. Lightly beat the eggs with the water. Trim the onions and/or cilantro, if you are using them, and chop them finely. Add salt and pepper to taste to the eggs.

3. Make the breakfast tortillas one at a time: Heat a tablespoon or so of the sesame oil in a 9-inch smooth, seasoned skillet over medium and roll the oil around the pan. Add a sixth of the eggs to the pan, quickly swirl the pan and add a sixth of the greens. Immediately press a tortilla on top of the eggs and press down lightly on the tortilla with the palm of your hand to squish the eggs out toward the edge of the pan, which will allow the eggs to cook evenly. Shake the pan, and as soon as the eggs are lightly brown, flip the breakfast tortilla over. Lightly cook the other side for a few seconds to ensure that the center of the eggs is cooked, and then remove to a plate. Keep the breakfast tortilla warm while you prepare the rest of the breakfast tortillas.
Let the eggs squish out the edges

4. Roll each breakfast tortilla up and cut crosswise into six pieces. Serve hot.


You can serve these as is, or eliminate the salt and pepper and serve with either a sweet chili sauce or thick sweetened soy (jiangyougao) or ground roasted Sichuan pepper and salt.

Instead of soybean milk, these also are terrific with a bowl of millet porridge or congee.


  1. Oh this looks so amazing and simple to make. I'll have to try this one. By the way, your photos look amazing. Do you use a special camera? They look great!

    -Terri =)

    1. Thanks, Terri! I use a dinky little Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Really beat up after years of use, but it's a great camera -- highly recommended. And thanks for asking.

  2. This was my favorite breakfast growing up although I only ate it prepared with green onions. I was so surprised (and pleased) when I was in Shanghai and it was made with a giant fried cruller and three different sauces. Amped-up danbing! It has never occurred to me to make the wrappers, but I have always been lucky enough to live by a good Chinese market.

    1. A good Chinese market nearby has to be one of the finer things in life. Thanks!