Zhoucun Shaobing 周村烧饼 is a local specialty of Zhoucun in Zibo, Shandong. When you come to Zhoucun, you can’t help tasting the original Zhoucun Pancake, even though I find it very dry and bland.
During the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period 春秋战国 (770-221 BC), Zhoucun 周村 belonged to the State of Qi 齐国 with developed commerce and profound culture. In the middle of Ming Dynasty, Zhoucun had become a famous local market in Shandong, where merchants were concentrated and flourished.
Zhoucun pancakes have a very long history, its origin can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). That was when the Silk Road was first started when Zhang Qian 张骞, an emissary from the Han court was sent to look for a land route to the Middle East. As a result, the caravans arrived in the middle kingdom and brought along the pancake known as 胡饼 or “foreigner’s bread”, which can be traced to the modern day naan. And over time (over 1,800 years to be precise), the bread was developed into the Zhoucun pancake 周村烧饼.
The key to success of Zhoucun pancake lies in its unique traditional craftsmanship, raw material used (only flour, water, salt and sesame), extensive folding and podding of the dough, and baking process which is almost like a tandoori laid flat.
It was introduced into the imperial court as a tribute in the late Qing Dynasty. It is famous for its flakiness, thinness, crispness and fragrance. 薄 “Thin” means that the pancake is as thin as a piece of paper. When you pick it up and fold it, it will make a “crack” sound; 脆 “Crisp” means that the pancake will crack up when you apply pressure and breaks into pieces when you drop it onto the ground; 香 “fragrance” means that the pancake is not greasy and the more you chew it, the more fragrant it will be.
On the 6th year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1880) of the Qing Dynasty, 聚合斋 “Juehezhai” Bakery was founded and popularised the Zhoucun pancake. They introduced the use of brown paper for packaging. In the 1950s, “Juehezhai” was nationalised into Zhoucun Food Factory, becoming the predecessor of Zhoucun Shaobing Co., Ltd. Seven other Zhoucun pancake companies were nationalised and amalgamated as Zhoucun Shaobing Co., Ltd.
When you walk into Zhoucun, you will be confused by all the shops that professed to be selling the “real” Zhoucun pancakes. And all of them have “museums” to demonstrate the manufacturing process.
Right after you enter the town via the north entrance, you will come across the first pancake shop and museum. They were not selling the stuff for cheap. In fact, for the strategic location, they were the most expensive among all – ¥10 per packet.
Further down the street, the price from this “pancake” shop and museum has just gone down to ¥16 for two packets. Still not the real thing, but I bought two packets – original flavour and the sweet flavour – for comparison with the real thing, which cost ¥15 per packet.
The Tasting Test
As they say, the taste is in the pudding. Nothing can beat the real taste.
Both came in similar clear plastic bags with red printing of the products. The real thing says Zhoucun Sesame Sed Cake, while the fake did not have any English translation. Perhaps they could not afford a translator.
The same brown paper bag like a school lunch bag is still used today. Green for the original flavour, red for the sweet flavour. It said on the paper bag that it was baked since 1850, since it was originated from Juehezhai.
The fake was placed in similar paper bag. It said it has been baking it since 1775, 75 years before the original. There’s a picture that showed how it was down when this pancake was still a street food.
The real thing was exactly how they have described it, it broke and crumbled into small pieces when small amount of pressure was applied. Also the baking process did not create as many blisters on the pancake. And of course, the sesame was fragrant and left a nice sesame aftertaste in the mouth as you chewed, just as the advertising promised.
The fake was blistered all over the place. It did not break into multiple pieces when you cracked it, and the sesame was not as roasted as the original, thus not as fragrant. It was floury and dry, and was pretty much a lousier eat.
There you have it, go for the real thing, the price differential was too small to even consider otherwise.
These days, you do not need to go to Zhoucun to buy the famous pancake. They are available almost everywhere in Zibo, even before you leave the city on the spanking new generation of bullet trains.
In the final instalment, we visit the museum that featured the most famous export from Zhoucun in the modern day – the Zhoucun Pancake Museum.
Zhoucun Series 周村特辑
- #1 Northeast End of Silk Road 丝绸之路东北端
- #2 Dye Houses 大染坊
- #3 Zhoucun Pancake 周村烧饼
- #4 Zhoucun Pancake Museum 周村烧饼博物馆
Date visited : Dec 2021