My uncle and his family run a shop in Taichung, Taiwan, that specializes in a common Taiwanese breakfast: shao bing, a sesame flatbread, which gets split open and stuffed with you tiao, a doughnut-like fried strip of dough. A bowl of warm, sweet or savory soy milk completes the meal. The family makes fresh soy milk, you tiao, and, of course, shao bing every day, and people line up along the block to get this breakfast sandwich set. The shop has only a few tables, but people eat quickly and zip off to work. It was there that I learned how to make shao bing while visiting my uncle's family nearly 20 years ago.
There's nothing fancy about shao bing, and making them at home is straightforward. The flatbread is baked until it's toasty on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside. There are also versions that are thin and extra flaky-so flaky, in fact, that they barely hold together and shed shards of pastry all over your shirt.
Shao bing dough comes together with all-purpose flour and a combination of boiling hot water and cool water. It's mesmerizing to watch my uncle deftly form the dough from a mound of flour on his counter, water kettle in one hand and a wooden dowel in the other. He stirs the flour and hot water together, then adds the cool water so that he can transition to kneading the dough with his hands. At home, I use a mixing bowl and a spatula, but you could use a stand mixer if you prefer.
Why both boiling and cool water? The hot water helps to make the dough more pliable-you need to roll out the dough into a large, thin rectangle and brush on a roux made with oil and flour. The roux and a series of folds (similar to laminating pastry) help create layers inside the shao bing. After the folding procedure, the last step is to brush the surface with water and coat the top with sesame seeds before rolling it out into its signature rectangular shape. My husband jokingly calls these "Chinese Pop-Tarts."
The bread bakes for about 15 to 20 minutes in a 450º F oven. As the shao bing cook, they puff up dramatically, and then gradually deflate after they come out of the oven. If you're using the shao bing for sandwiches, as they do in Taiwan, you'll need to cut open the bread, keeping one side intact. In addition to you tiao, you can stuff the shao bing with any number of fillings. Personally, I love stir-frying a mix of whatever vegetables I have on hand to fill the shao bing.
If you don't feel like making them from scratch, you can find frozen shao bing in Asian markets. The quality can vary by brand, but they're convenient and easy to heat up in a toaster. When my kids were younger, they went through a phase during which I couldn't keep enough shao bing in the refrigerator. They'd toast them and simply slather them with butter.
When I make my own shao bing, I think back fondly to the time I spent in my uncle's shop-and I hope he'd approve.