I do not understand more than a few words in Mandarin or Cantonese, though my grandmother can read, write and speak both languages. Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, she only ever spoke English to me and my sister. She wanted us to know English, be American and experience all the rights and privileges that come from that designation.
As an immigrant, she arrived in Chinatown in Los Angeles when she was a teenager, with little to her name — only the determination to build a family and a life in the shadow of the great American dream — so I can understand her reasoning. But I wish I knew the language. Sometimes, when I’m in a group of people speaking Chinese, I feel like an outsider.
I can manage a greeting and a polite “thank you.” And most important, I can order dim sum and a host of other foods that make me feel connected to my grandmother and the world she came from.
It can get a little tricky when there are multiple names for a dish, the right one often depending on who you ask and where. There are no less than three names for this week’s obsession: zhi ma da bing, da bing or Shànghǎi qiāng bǐng, also known as Chinese scallion sesame bread, scallion sesame pancakes or green onion pie.
I prefer da bing, loosely translated to big pie in Mandarin. Whatever you call it, it's essentially China’s answer to focaccia bread.
Signature green onion sesame pie at Ahgoo’s Kitchen
At Ahgoo’s, Thomas and Lily Yeh’s 3-year-old restaurant in Temple City, the marquee dish is the signature green onion sesame pie. There’s a basket on every table, filled with eight triangles of bread as thick as bookends.
Each slice shows off an abundance of layers brimming with green onion. The ratio of bread to allium looks to be about one-to-one. I hope you can zoom in on the photos.
The golden speckled crust is a sesame-coated armor, as thin and delicate as that first layer of a scallion pancake. The middle is like a different bread entirely, soft and slightly spongy. It manages to be both airy and dense with a strong green onion flavor.
I eat the first slice on its own, appreciating the texture of the bread, the tiny bubbles along the crust and all the sesame seeds. The second slice I embellish with a few spoonfuls of the chile sauce on the table, the condiment a mild, toasty sludge of chile and oil.
“My wife is from northern China,” Thomas says. “When she was younger, she learned how to make it from her grandpa and mom.”
Lily makes the dough from flour, yeast, water, salt and copious amounts of green onion.
“We put the oil in the pan, then the pie, then the water,” Thomas says.
The crust solidifies into a solid crisp layer while the middle steams.
Thomas says that Lily makes the breads for the restaurant, averaging around 50 a day. But he’s also familiar with the process.
“I’m from Taiwan, and I learned from my zufu a long time ago,” he says, referencing his grandfather.
You may want to temper the rest of your order depending on how many people are at the table. Two slices could easily be a meal on their own.
Or go nuts. The bread is great reheated in a pan the next morning for breakfast.
Sesame and green onion pancake from Taste of China
You know how as soon as you're introduced to or reminded of something, you start to see it everywhere? For me, it was the week of da bing.
I wasn't at the food court tucked into the corner of the Pacific Plaza in Rowland Heights for da bing. I was there for the chicken burgers at MBL & Q Burger for a recent column. But after seeing a handful of women folding dumplings at random tables in the middle of the dining room, I decided to investigate.
I spied the sesame and green onion pancakes stacked in a clear display on the counter at a stall called Taste of China. It was a gluten palace that beckoned with dozens of buns filled with Chinese leeks, egg, pork and pickled cabbage; pan-fried buns; and rainbow dumplings.
Read more: Our favorite dumplings in Los Angeles
The pancakes were the size of large pizzas, a couple of inches thick and with golden tops scattered with sesame seeds.
The pancake was breadier than the version at Ahgoo's Kitchen, with a crisp crust that flowed seamlessly into the dough underneath.
The green onions were confined to the middle, engulfed in fluffy bread that sprang back with the poke of a finger. The subtle peppery sting of the green onion checked the three solid inches of dough with just enough freshness to encourage a second slice.
You can order your pancake sliced, or whole. If you're taking it to enjoy elsewhere, I suggest asking for the pancake whole, then slicing it right before you eat it. I couldn't wait, and asked to have it sliced there.
And yes, this one is good for tomorrow's breakfast, too.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.