Crowds of hungry punters are gathering daily outside this converted ice cream hut. Here's why...
It's becoming increasingly difficult to get excited about street food. That original sense of freewheeling anti-establishmentism has become diluted, adopted by the high-street and perverted by those who’d use the term as a stick to beat anyone who dares move onto bigger things (‘how dare you open a restaurant’).
Punters are moving on too. The novelty of standing in a cold, soggy car park picking through fried chicken waffles from a polystyrene tray with frost bitten fingers has worn thin. What folk want now is sexy light bulbs, brown paper menus and small plates of pigeon.
The real problem with street food is that we now know exactly where to find it, what we’ll find when we get there and how much it’ll cost (which is usually two quid more than we’d like to pay).
So when you do happen across something unusual somewhere unexpected, the pay-off is that much sweeter.
It’s the first time he’s seen it served on UK streets (it’s big in NYC, naturally) and he's borderline giddy
So to Piccadilly Gardens, where the usual dash through the filth and misery was interrupted by a pleasing whiff. A pair of red lanterns now hung from Gerry’s old ice cream van outside Santander, where a queue of Chinese students (and one curious middle-aged commuter) had formed.
Inside the van, which had been modestly updated with a few Chinese symbols, a man and woman beavered away, skilfully cracking eggs while stirring batter and taking orders.
One of the students, keen to see me take such an interest, explains that the pair are cooking ‘Jianbing’ (he pronounces it ‘gin-bing’), a Chinese-style crepe apparently very popular amongst Beijing’s breakfast commuters. It’s the first time he’s seen it served on UK streets (it’s big in NYC, naturally) and he's borderline giddy.
It begins by ladling batter across the griddle, then come the eggs and the sweep. Next, traditionally, there's a sprinkle of spring onions, sesame seeds and coriander, though orders vary: mushroom, sausage, bacon, luncheon meat, cheese, lettuce, potato slices and even crab sticks are all fair game.
Youtiao (a kind of Chinese churro), wonton crackers and bean paste are also typical, as are hoisin, sweet chilli, or hot chilli sauce to spice things up a bit. Slap, chop, fold and serve steaming in a box.
The result: a savoury breakfast omelette-cum-crepe with a pleasing crackle and the potential to give your mouth a blistering seeing-to before you've even had chance to check your inbox (careful with the chilli in the AM).
It says here that Jianbing is the oldest of all Chinese street foods, originating around 220AD in the Shandong province, where General Zhuge Liang, faced with a hungry army and no wok pans, ordered his soldiers to cook a mixture of water and wheat flour on their shields over fire.
(While you may not be facing down the armies of Cao Wei, we all know Piccadilly Gardens can get a bit lively at times.)
And how much does one of these steaming hot Chinese monster snacks cost?
Three pound bloody fifty!
Filling. Cooked to order. Entertaining. Cheap. Now that's street food we can get excited about.
Find the Jianbing hut outside Santander in Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens. Opening times are anyone's guess...