There’s a joke in Australia that if you want to make a soup from a cockatoo, or any member of the parrot family, you need to add a stone to the pot. Cook the soup until the stone is tender, old-timers will tell you, and then maybe the parrot meat will be edible!
These days it’s illegal to eat these native birds, and anyway I wouldn’t want to. But it sounds as implausible as ‘stone pancakes’.
We were at the restored village of Pinyao in Shanxi province, northern China, where the 14th-century Ming dynasty buildings have been painstakingly restored.
The nearby Qiao Family Compound was the set of Raising the Red Lantern filmed in 1991. A few years ago a popular TV series was also shot there, so we found endless groups of people posing for photographs in front of the stars’ posters on the walls.
But the thing that got my attention was just outside the compound gates where dozens of vendors had set up their stands and charcoal braziers. The cooks were using a short rolling pin to roll out small pieces of dough into thin circles the size of a dinner plate. These were then draped over smoking hot stones in pans and then covered with more round hot black stones.
These wafer thin pancakes – breads? – cooked in just seconds and kept the shape of the stones. Their dimpled surface was intriguing, almost waffle-like, and of course I had to sample them – as did every passing tourist, because the scent was irresistible. They were meltingly delicious with just a hint of the black sesame seeds or finely sliced green onion with which they had been sprinkled. We discovered later they were unimaginatively called shi tou bing (stone pancakes).
It was impossible for me to get the recipe, but my guess is it was simply a dough of wheat flour and water, the sort of basic bread people have always baked. They were cooked in the simplest way, using a pan that possibly did double duty for other cooking, the stones adding weight to prevent the pancake curling up, as well as an even heat to cook them quickly and keep them crisp.
When I think about it, I’ve got something similar in my own kitchen. Except it has two flat metal plates and I call it a sandwich press!