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A scallion pancake recipe is layered with thoughts of family, China and a tiny secret

Left: A family photo of Lily Liu and her father, Tai. Right: A plate full of scallion pancakes held by Lily's niece.
Lily Liu
/
Collage by NPR
Left: A family photo of Lily Liu and her father, Tai. Right: A plate full of scallion pancakes held by Lily's niece.

All Things We're Cooking is a series featuring family recipes from you, our readers and listeners, and the special stories behind them. We'll continue to share more of your kitchen gems throughout the holidays.

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Lily Liu's parents left China when they were just high school students. It was a quick decision made one night in 1948 amid the country's Civil War. The two wanted to escape the prospect of life under communist rule. They didn't take a lot with them, and what they did take, they mostly ended up throwing out. But one tradition they held onto was a recipe for scallion pancakes, Liu said.

Those pancakes help keep the memory of Liu's father, Tai, alive more than a decade after his death and remind the family of where they came from.

"The memories still are with us of waking up on a Sunday and the aroma of these crispy, wonderful scallion pancakes would be wafting up the stairs," Liu said. "But it meant that he had woken up early because it takes a while to get the flour ready and then to make them."

Liu lives in Washington, D.C., now, but said she can still picture walking down the stairs in the family's Delaware home to see her father standing in front of the stove. The house could be drafty during the winters. So, there he was, London Fog raincoat draped over his shoulders like a "Superman cape," making pancakes.

After a handful of years in a refugee camp and in Taiwan, where the couple got married in the mid-1950s, Liu's parents landed in Indiana, which was fitting because they came from what she calls the Midwest of China, where there are a lot of wheat fields, and flour is a core ingredient in many recipes, including the pancakes.

"It's so simple when you think about it. Flour, scallions, salt, and that's about it. And oil to cook it," she said. "But from that simple thing, the layers I feel of the flaky inside show the layers and the nuances of the love of parents."

These days, Liu's siblings carry on the tradition by making scallion pancakes for their children on the weekends, just like their father did for them — always following his guidance.

"He said the secret was to stand there at the range, turning it so that the outside would be crispy, but the inside would be nice and flaky," she said. "That was his forte."

Liu said she has thought more about the traditions her parents brought to the U.S. as she has watched the war in Ukraine unfold this year, with many people leaving everything behind. She sees a common thread between Ukraine's refugees and her parents, who left China more than 70 years ago.

"The traditions are in our minds and in our hearts, and sometimes that is enough — better than any monetary inheritance or some gold bracelet or something that someone was able to bring out," she said.

Ye Ye's Scallion Pancakes / Tsung you bing

Recipe submitted by Lily Liu
Washington, D.C.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm water (if needed, add a tablespoon or two of warm water)
  • 1/4 cup Mazola corn oil
  • 4 scallions, sliced very thin
  • Directions

    Pour the flour into a medium bowl. Add the warm water to the flour and stir with a spoon. Continue stirring until all of the water has been absorbed by the flour.

    With your hands, knead the dough in the bowl. You may need to add up to 2 more tablespoons of warm water until all of the flour comes together.

    Knead the dough for about five minutes. If it sticks to your fingers, sprinkle in some more flour.

    Finally, shape the dough into a ball. Cover the bowl with a towel and let the dough rest for about 30 minutes.

    Next, sprinkle flour on top of your workspace. Cut the dough into four pieces. Keep one piece on your work surface and place the three remaining pieces back in the bowl.

    Shape the first piece of dough into a small ball. Use a rolling pin to shape the dough into a thin circle. The size should be about 6 inches in diameter.

    Spread some corn oil on top of the entire dough circle. Sprinkle the thinly sliced scallions all over the circle of dough. Pinch some salt and sprinkle it evenly across the scallion pieces.

    Pull on the top end of the circle of dough and roll downward to the bottom, forming a log-like strip. Put your right palm on one end of the strip and your left palm on the other end and push toward the middle, bunching up the strip of dough. Turn the patty of dough face up and place it on your work surface.

    Use one palm to flatten the dough into a circle. Using the rolling pin, roll the dough circle out thinly, about half an inch thick. The thinly sliced pieces of scallions may come to the surface of the dough circle.

    Transfer this scallion pancake to a plate and prepare the remaining three pieces of dough using this process.

    Using a medium-size nonstick skillet, dribble 4 tablespoons of the corn oil around the pan. Turn on the stove to medium heat and place one pancake in the middle of the skillet. Using a heat-resistant cooking spatula, swirl the pancake around in the skillet repeatedly. Fry each side about five to seven minutes until the crust is crunchy and golden brown. The heat should be turned lower toward the end of the cooking time.

    Repeat this process for the three remaining pancakes, adding oil to the skillet before cooking each pancake.

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