Pancake-making skills handed down under watchful eye of inheritor

2019-02-15 11:08:39China Daily Editor : Mo Hong'e ECNS App Download

Huangshan Mountain, a tourist attraction with peculiar mountain peaks and distinctive pine trees in Anhui province, also offers delicately baked crispy pancake.

The so-called Huangshan pancake is a traditional round dim sum traditionally baked in a charcoal oven for 30 minutes or so after being filled with dried vegetables.

Legend has it that the pancakes, acclaimed for their quality, originated in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They're mainly produced in Huangshan city and neighboring counties.

Song Xin'e, 48, who represents the sixth generation to inherit her family's pancake-making skills, is teaching apprentices to bake the light snack in a modern oven. All her life, since she was a toddler, she's been closely bonded with the specialty.

"My grandfather earned a living making pancakes when I was young," she recalled. "Back then I usually tottered around the old-fashioned charcoal oven, watching him work. I didn't know what it was, actually, but it was really interesting."

She said making the pancakes requires refined skills. "There are about eight steps, including making the leavened dough, followed by stuffing and baking. Every step in the procedure is time-consuming. The goal is to achieve a delicate, crispy feeling in the mouth."

Back in 1987, Song was a weaver in a factory in downtown Huangshan. But she resigned in 1988 and opened her first pancake shop a year later on a downtown street.

"It was really hard at the time because my husband was against the idea at the beginning," she said. "I earned about 300 yuan ($44) per month as a weaver but only about 70 yuan making pancakes."

That started to change about a decade ago. "We now manage three retail shops and one production workshop," she said. "During the weeklong Spring Festival holiday, we sold about 50,000 pancakes a day. Normal sales volume is about 20,000 a day. We now earn more than 1 million yuan a year."

Song said the pancakes should be baked in a charcoal oven for a better taste, although modern electric ovens were introduced for fire prevention and to meet surging demand from travelers.

Song was listed as a provincial-level intangible cultural heritage inheritor of Huangshan pancake-making skills in 2015 by the Anhui government. She is dedicated to passing down the traditional methods.

"I've taught 20-plus apprentices since 2012, and they've now opened their own shops in the city," she said, smiling. "The workshop we manage has 16 employees, and eight of them are laid-off workers. I never thought I was doing something great, but bringing them into my workshop can make their life better."

Back in Song's hometown - the city's Xiuning county - a number of young people are starting pancake retailing businesses.

Ye Lu, a 32-year-old entrepreneur in the county's Yuetan village, said the pancake business has helped transform her from housewife to breadwinner.

"The baked dried-vegetable pancake is a specialty of the city that brings my family more steady economic benefits than any other projects, and with lower risk," she said. "Actually, I failed in selling lumber."

Ye invested about 700,000 yuan to build a pancake-making workshop in the village more than a year ago and invited a senior master with more than 30 years' experience to guide the operation.

"The snacks have sold well, thanks to robust tourism in Huangshan," she said. "During the peak season from April to October, we can sell about 3,000 packages a day.

"As for the pancakes' taste, the more traditional they are, the more they're appreciated by customers."

In March, a nongovernmental association focused on management and standards for making the pancakes was organized in Huangshan. Zhu Li, its chairman, said sales volume reached 1 billion yuan ($148 million) in 2018, but problems remain, including poor sanitation, vicious competition and backward equipment.

"Now we have about 600 companies that have joined the association," he said. "We have great hope that the standards for making the pancakes will be unified in the near future, and we are actively seeking cooperation with some food titans to introduce more modern management and promotion methods."

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