Flipping good: why pancakes take some beating
When it comes to that comforting breakfast treat, there’s so much more to life than lemon and sugar, says Sudi Pigott
Who doesn’t love pancakes? They make us happy. There has to be something in that flipping technique that gets the endorphins going. In times of world uncertainty we turn to comfort foods – soothing, filling, almost instant gratification. Yet the flipside is that to show we are not feeling insular, we take risks and embrace foods of the world. Every culture has its own pancake tradition, always talked about with great affection. Pancakes in all their delicious diversity have long been one of the most pleasurable, life-affirming parts of my culinary explorations, and the inspiration for my book – Flipping Good: Pancakes from around the World.
My own fondest memories are of robust, buckwheat galettes complet (topped with a fried egg) in kitsch cafes in Brittany; exotic, sizzling, turmeric-infused banh xeo pancakes with their complex layers of flavour and freshness, wrapped in lettuce leaves with masses of fragrant herbs first experienced in Vietnam; and the sheer decadence of crepes suzette flambeed to order at The Ritz London. I've set out to demonstrate that there's a culinary world for the gastronomically curious to explore, beyond pancakes with lemon and sugar. Serendipitously, pancakes are very much on-trend, thanks largely to the explosion of street food, an interest in alternative gluten-free flours, more experimental ingredients and the popularity of eating brunch-like meals all day.
Pancake stalls provide brilliant theatre on the street, they smell divine and have put a huge choice of unfamiliar versions on our radar too. Jianbing, the Chinese crepe-based street snack with its filling of egg, deep-fried wonton wrappers, pork and hoisin is beginning to spread beyond Chinatown. Mei Mei Street Cart, created by Melissa and Oliver Fu, operates at street food festivals in both London and Manchester, while New York has the Flying Pig food van, which featured in the New York Times recently.
Chefs and entrepreneurs are now reimagining and reinventing the jianbing and cong you bing (with green onions) with new fillings and ingredients such as pulled pork and tofu, elevating it to a new level, and it's only a matter of time before jianbing outlets become more widely seen.
Korean seafood or pork pajeons are likely to be the next Asian pancake wave, as Korean cuisine becomes more familiar. Columbian arepa (maize flour pancakes with white cheese) and Japanese okonomiyaki (literally "what you like" but often consisting of yam, bonito and kelp flour base with cabbage, spicy sauces and seafood – try Okan in Brixton Village) are coming up too. Very different are light and spongy, slightly fermented tasting poffertjes – Dutch puff pancakes cooked in special pans with dimple-like indentations and made with a mix of wheat and buckwheat, spotted recently at Kerb in London's Camden Market.
The diversity of non-gluten flours used in less traditional pancakes adds to their appeal, from buckwheat galettes to amaranth, quinoa, almond and coconut flour pancakes, offering a healthy and nutritious option. Many pancakes are not even made with grains – care for a chestnut flour necci, or a chickpea farinata? Chickpea pancakes are especially modish and lend themselves to vegetarian inspiration such as at Battersea Park's new Pear Tree Cafe where they are served up with grilled aubergine, labneh and lime.
In London alone, riding on the trend for more informal dining inside and out, there’s been a surge of pancake-focused openings. With its stylish Dutch interior comprising slatted wooden walls and wooden chandeliers that double as planters, Where the Pancakes Are in Borough focuses on buckwheat (gluten-free) buttermilk pancakes with creative, healthy accompaniments including the 1,000 baby greens pancake, with leaves, cumin, spring onions, green chilli and lime coriander butter.
With veganism moving mainstream, vegan pancakes are increasingly available. At Nojo London in Shoreditch’s Old Street tube station, pancakes are made with nut milks and vegetable fillings, served to go as cone wraps. Each crepe has a protein and vitamin listing to substantiate its healthy stance. Vegan pancakes rule in LA too, with Gratitude Cafe pairing buckwheat and flax topped with cashew cream.
Middle Eastern food flavours are hot culinary currency, and pancakes from blintzes (regularly featured at Stoke Newington's The Good Egg) to potato latkes (beautifully cooked at Soho's Tongue & Brisket) are central to their culture and are gaining popularity in some of London's newest dining spots, besides being stalwarts of New York's Russ & Daughters.
Fermentation, a current culinary obsession, is key to many pancakes including distinctively tangy and sweetly rich Sri Lankan rice-flour and coconut hoppers, introduced by the unstoppable Sethi family at Hoppers in Soho, which was recently awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Queues form daily for these intriguing thin bowl-shaped pancakes, served with an egg nestling in the middle, plus sambal and fragrantly spiced gravy. Injera, the Ethiopian fermented pancake (usually used in place of cutlery for scooping up curries) made from the tiny super-grain teff is gaining recognition among pancake adventurists too, from Lalibela in Toronto to London’s eatery of the same name.
Instagram has been a powerful influence on pancakes’ surge in popularity. Dutch babies, the tantalisingly huge and puffed-up version, come in either savoury (pimped with herbs, cheese, bacon) or sweet (flaunting a decadent spread of seasonal fruits). They originated in Seattle and have become a huge phenomenon internationally. In London, Dutch Babies can be found at Where the Pancakes Are and are regulars at Hummingbird Bakeries too. Mille crepe cakes, first served Stateside and popularised in Singapore, Japan and Melbourne, featuring 15-20 paper-thin crepes layered with light pastry cream, are the latest sensation to hit the UK. The cakes can be savoury or sweet, naked or covered in frosting or melted chocolate and extravagantly decorated. Jason Atherton’s izakaya-style Sosharu restaurant serves a much-Instagrammed matcha mille crepe with matcha sorbet and Chantilly cream, while Soho’s Kova Patisserie specialises in pancake stack cakes with a light custard filling and has all manner of fresh fruit versions.