Search for the Lost Chinese Pancake Recipe

It’s funny how family recipes are developed, passed on, and morph over time.  Over the last year and a half or so, I have been trying to get the recipe for a type of Chinese pancake from my mom.  She used to make these periodically when I was growing up.  Other than their flat round shape, they did not resemble American pancakes in their taste and texture.  They were savory pancakes made with scallions and preserved, dried vegetables, and dried shrimp.  They were gluten-free, made with glutinous rice flour instead of wheat flour.  They were chewy and dense, not light and fluffy, and they were very filling.

My mom had not made these pancakes in many years, and somehow they came to mind about a year and a half ago when I had a hankering for them.  When I asked my mom for the recipe, she said she had to look for it, as it had gotten buried somewhere inside her recipe notebook.  Well she found the recipe and decided to try her hand at making the pancakes one day.  For whatever reason, they did not turn out right.  Now my mom is old school when it comes to cooking and recipes.  She is of the “little bit of this, a little bit of that” when it comes to cooking.  I, on the other hand, am a self-taught baker first, so I have always followed written recipes to the letter until I’m very comfortable with making them.  I guess my mom had written a general recipe that did not have precise measurements, and after not having made it in many years, had forgotten all the little details of it.

Anyway, bless her soul, my mom talked to a few friends in an attempt to recreate the recipe.  She finally found a friend who had a Chinese pancake recipe made with sweet potatoes and wheat flour.  My mom tried the recipe and was happy with the results.  But I knew that given that it was made with wheat and not glutinous rice flour, it would not be the same.  I made a half-hearted attempt to replicate it, but it ended up dry and bready (due to my over addition of flour).  So my search continued.

Now the interesting thing was that about six months prior to all this, my mom had made some sweet potato pancakes for the very first time using glutinous rice flour.  I tried one, and they were delicious with the texture reminiscent of those Chinese pancakes of my childhood.  The problem?  They were hard to fry up, even in my mom’s well-seasoned wok because they just kept sticking to its hot surface.

Well finally the other week I decided to attempt making the sweet potato pancakes with wheat flour again. I asked my mom to explain to me again how to make them.  She suggested that I try making them with tapioca flour instead, and that it would be similar to the jeen duy, fried sesame balls, that she and my grandma used to make every Lunar New Year.

Tapioca flour

Tapioca flour

If you’ve ever had dim sum in a restaurant, you may have seen these fried sesame balls.  They are rolled in sesame seeds and usually have a sweet bean paste filling.  If you’ve only tried them in a restaurant or gotten them from a Chinese bakery, you have no idea how delicious they really are when made at home. This is definitely something that tastes so much better homemade than store-bought.  Restaurants and bakeries will just toss the balls of dough in hot oil and fry them until crispy on the outside.  When made at home, the balls of dough are constantly hand turned in the hot oil with a pair of chopsticks in one hand, while being pressed with a spider held in the other hand.  You turn and press the balls until they puff up and double in size.  What you end up with is a fried pastry that has a very thin, crisp, chewy skin, unlike the thick doughy, almost gummy, pastry you get from dim sum houses.

One of my earliest food memories was of my mom and grandma together in the kitchen very early in the morning on Chinese New Year’s, making these fried sesame balls.  My mom would usually be the one frying up the pastries, while my grandma would be filling them and rolling the balls of tapioca dough in sesame seeds.  Unlike the dim sum restaurants, they would make a savory version filled with ground pork, minced preserved vegetables, dried shrimp, and Chinese sausage.  I loved these savory balls so much more than the sweet bean filled versions because they were less rich and filling.  Plus, the combination of the sweet fried dough and the salty filling was addictive.

While other families would also make a savory version of these fried sesame balls, my mom and grandma made another version with mashed sweet potatoes in the dough, and it is what these sweet potato pancakes are reminiscent of.  I may not have found that Chinese pancake recipe yet, but this recipe brings back memories of my childhood.  Until I learn how to make those fried sesame balls myself, these pancakes will suffice.

Please note:  This recipe does not have precise measurements, but I have provided visual cues to help you out.

Chinese Sweet Potato Pancakes

One sweet potato, about 14 oz, more or less

Tapioca flour  (A 14-oz bag is more than plenty for this recipe).

One Chinese air-dried sausage, steamed through

Chinese air-dried sausage

Chinese air-dried sausage

1/3 cup minced preserved radish or turnip (Found in Asian markets.  They are both similar and can be used interchangeably, but I prefer the radish.)

Dried preserved radish

Dried preserved radish

One scallion, chopped – optional


1)  Peel and cut the sweet potato into several uniform sized chunks.

2)  Place sweet potato in a small pan, and add enough water to just cover.  Place lid over pan, and bring to a boil over high heat.

3)  Once the water boils, adjust heat to a steady boil.  Boil the potatoes until you can easily pierce them with a sharp knife.

4)  Drain and transfer to a medium bowl.   Allow to cool for a few minutes.

5)  While the potatoes are cooling, soak the minced radish or turnip in a small bowl of water and drain. Set aside.

6)  Finely dice the sausage into tiny pieces.  Set aside.

7)  Mash the sweet potatoes until they are smooth.

8)  Add a heaping spoonful (a regular kitchen spoon will do) of tapioca flour to the mashed sweet potatoes, and mix with a wooden spoon until incorporated.

9)  Continue adding heaping spoonfuls of tapioca flour to the mashed potatoes and mixing to incorporate until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and gathers around the wooden spoon.  It will look something like this:

Pancake dough pulling away from sides of bowl


10)  Add the minced radish/turnip and sausage, and scallions, if using, to the dough and mix well to combine thoroughly.

11)  Heat up a wok or skillet with oil over medium-high heat.  Break off 2-inch pieces of dough, and roll between the palms of your hands.  Place balls of dough, a few at a time, in the wok or skillet.  Flatten with the back of a spatula.  (The dough may stick to the spatula a bit, so try gliding your spatula over the surface of the flattened dough to help slide it off).

12)  Fry pancakes for a few minutes until browned.  Flip them over with a pair of tongs, and continue frying the other sides until browned.  (Lower heat if your wok or skillet starts to smoke).

13)  Transfer pancakes to a paper towel lined plate.

14)  Continue tearing off pieces of dough and pan-frying them until all the dough has been fried up.

15)  The pancakes will be really hot, so make sure you cool them a bit before digging in.

Yield:  Approximately 12 pancakes.

Chinese sweet potato pancakes 1

Chinese sweet potato pancakes, all fried up and ready to eat!

Note:  The pancakes will stay tender for about a day or so even when refrigerated.  If they turn hard, just steam them for about 5 to 10 minutes, and they will be nice and tender.

Chinese sweet potato pancakes 4

The great thing about this recipe is that unlike recipes using wheat flour, there is no danger of over-mixing the dough, so mix away until everything is incorporated :0)

What recipes have you inherited from your family that you now make?  Have you tweaked any of them? Please share in the comments.

About Serena Y Lee

Serena worked in the biotech industry for 18 years before leaving to pursue her life purpose – to live in freedom with creativity and simplicity. Her love for baking, creativity, and story-telling compelled her to start blogging to share her ideas with a wider audience.

4 Responses to Search for the Lost Chinese Pancake Recipe

  1. Phyllis Garland May 11, 2014 at 12:11 am #

    Your traditional recipe, Chinese Pancake, sounds delicious. I know that I would not have the patience to make them. Do you know if I can get these in a restaurant? Thank you for sharing!

    • Serena Y Lee May 11, 2014 at 4:32 am #

      I don’t think these sweet potato pancakes are sold in stores or restaurants. It was just a recipe my mom made up. I can bring you some the next time I’m in San Mateo, though :0)

  2. Hiromi May 14, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    I love sweet potatoes (white ones) and doughy food! I should try this without the sausage. Do you think it would still be good without the sausage?

    • Serena Y Lee May 15, 2014 at 6:38 pm #

      Yes, these pancakes would still taste great without the sausage. I just added them because I was trying to use up the sausage I had leftover. But you don’t have to use them at all. It’s the preserved vegetables that really give the pancakes the unique, Chinese taste. Add scallions, onions, garlic, whatever you want. I’m sure they would taste great :0)

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