In almost every cuisine around the world, there are pancakes. They vary in shape, size, thickness, and ingredients. The most common are very thin rounds, perfect for rolling, folding, filling, and scooping. (Sorry, that’s not you, American-style pancakes.) While the French crepe is one of the most widely recognized, there are also socca from France, crespelle in Italy, dosa from India, Ethiopian injera, and Mandarin pancakes from China, to name just a few.
It’s unfortunate the word “pancake” has stuck, because it’s a misnomer. The thin rounds (or ovals or squares) share no likeness to what we call cake, nor are they necessarily cooked in a pan. Some are made from a batter, while other varieties are assembled from a flour and water dough, rolled thin, and cooked or pan-fried in a skillet, wok, or on a griddle. We might not consider Mexican tortillas (made from corn flour and water) nor Indian roti (unleavened wheat flour flatbread) “pancakes,” but they are closely related to the Mandarin variety or what we might call moo shu pancakes.
To make crepes and/or pancakes, any number of milled grains or legumes can be used, including wheat, rice, lentil, chickpea, buckwheat, teff, and corn. The flour is combined with liquid, which can be water, milk, coconut milk, buttermilk, oil, and eggs. The proportion of liquid to flour is what differentiates a thin, runny batter from a pliable dough.
As for why crepes and other thin pancakes are ubiquitous worldwide, it is clearly their thinness. Because thin means quick. The ease of preparation and quick cooking has sustained their popularity and longevity as an integral part of so many cuisines. “Pancakes” are breakfast fare, street food, an elegant dish for dinner or a delectable dessert. The cooking process can be repeated over and over to turn out dozens (hundreds!) of pancakes using a hot griddle or pan. Ease of eating is the other plus they have going for them: thin pancakes can be filled, folded, rolled, topped, or torn into pieces to scoop up saucy foods leaving nary a drop behind. No wonder this simple, fast, easy-to-eat, transportable food is favored the world over.
If you knew how easy it is to make French crepes, you’d probably make them quite often. The batter requires just a quick whisk of flour, milk and/or water, eggs, and a little melted butter. Sweet crepes (crepes sucrees) are commonly filled or spread with jam, fruit, chocolate, Nutella, or whipped cream. Savory crepes (crepes salees) are paired with heartier ingredients, such as seafood or chicken in cream sauce, cooked vegetables, and the popular duo of ham and cheese. Brittany’s Breton galette is a round buckwheat crepe topped with savory items and usually a fried egg, with its edges folded in to make a square shape on the plate.
At Cafe Sauvage in Back Bay, the restaurant’s signature dessert is a Nutella crepe. The thin pancake, slathered with the familiar chocolate hazelnut spread, is rolled up and served with chocolate crumble and caramelized banana. Restaurant co-owner and native Parisian Anais Lambert says that not only are crepes street food and restaurant fare in Paris, but people make them at home. (Unlike, say, croissants.) Cafe Sauvage, which Lambert describes as “French with African influences, where everyone is welcome,” also serves Ethiopian injera, a round crepe made from teff flour, topped with greens, mushrooms, pickled onion, and piri piri sauce. “It’s a good vegan dish and gluten-free,” she says.
Other crepes include Italian crespelle, which can be rolled around savory or sweet fillings or layered like pasta in lasagna-style dishes. Chickpea flour is used to make socca in Southeast France and farinata in Northern Italy. In Germany, thin pancakes may be called eierkuchen or pfannkuchen depending on where you are. Swedish pancakes are thin, eggy, and traditionally served with lingonberry jam. The Balkans and Eastern European countries have similar thin pancakes, most called some derivation (and pronunciation) of palacinke and nalesniki.
Blintzes, which hail from Eastern Europe, are standard Jewish deli fare in the United States. A blintz is a thin crepe shaped into a rectangular package around a sweet farmer cheese mixture or fruit, then pan-fried to brown and crisp the outside before serving.
South Indian cuisine has dosas, which are large, thin crepes made from a batter of soaked and ground rice and urad dal (black lentils) and fenugreek seeds. The batter is fermented to give it a slightly sour-tangy flavor. At Peppino’s Dosa in Waltham, plain dosa, about 18 inches in diameter, paper-thin, and delightfully crisp, is served with coconut chutney and sambar (a vegetable stew). “Masala dosa is very traditional and popular,” says restaurant owner Jaswant Singh Vraitch. The dish features a mound of spiced potatoes placed in the center of a just-cooked dosa, which is then loosely rolled into a large cylinder. You tear off pieces of dosa to scoop up the potato mixture. No fork required.
The line between thin “flatbread” (without yeast) and pancakes is thin indeed. Mandarin pancakes, made from a wheat flour and water dough, are traditionally served with moo shu pork and Peking duck. For moo shu, the eater places some of the stir-fry mixture on the pancake, then rolls it up like a crepe or enchilada or loosely folds it like a taco. This is the same way one would eat Mexican fajitas with flour tortillas; yet these rounds are likely considered more of a flatbread than a pancake. Also made from rolled-out dough are pan-fried scallion pancakes, which are cut into wedges (similar to socca) and enjoyed as a snack in China or appetizer at Chinese restaurants in the United States.
Then there is China’s popular breakfast street food, jianbing, a large batter-based, griddle-cooked pancake topped with egg, scallion, cilantro, sauce, and more. It’s rolled, folded, and cut in half or sections to eat on the go. Around here, we have chef Ming Tsai’s MingsBings, rectangular packets of crispy thin dough surrounding various tasty fillings. (A Chinese blintz?)
The list goes on: Vietnamese crispy rice flour crepes (banh xeo). Korean kimchi pancakes (kimchijeon). Moroccan msemen. You could literally travel the world eating pancakes.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com