Pancake Day is almost upon us once more, but do you know where the inimitable food comes from, or where it can take you to? We look at the history of this quirky celebration, as well as some of the different types of pancakes you can find all over the world.
Before we start salivating over pancakes, some background information for you - context, if you will. Pancake Day is celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which signals the beginning of Lent, when Christians fast for 40 days in the build up to Easter. The reason it’s called Shrove Tuesday derives from the word ‘shrive’, which means absolution for sins by doing penance.
But why has it also become the biggest - and in some cases the only - day of the year to eat pancakes?
Opinion is divided, but there are plenty of decent explanations, such as it being a great way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk and sugar before starting the Lenten fast. Some people also believe the ingredients have special significance, and symbolise creation (eggs), the staff of life (flour), wholesomeness (salt) and purity (milk).
Once mixed together and fried (in the pan that gives them their name), tradition also dictates they need to be tossed in the air - sometimes while running down the street in fancy dress. The latter is a uniquely British institution, and pancake races take place in a number of towns across the UK on Shrove Tuesday.
The event supposedly dates back to 1445, when a woman in the market town of Olney, Buckinghamshire in the UK, heard the shriving bell calling her to church while she was making pancakes and ended up running to the service still wearing her apron, and still clutching her frying pan. The town’s pancake race is now one of the most famous in the world, and all the competitors must be local housewives.
Whether the pancakes are fit to eat once the race is run is another matter, of course, but you probably know that the traditional English version is thin and flat, and usually topped with golden syrup or lemon juice and sugar. It should also be served and eaten within seconds of coming out of the pan, obviously.
But just as pancakes aren’t just for Pancake Day, nor are they only to be served the English way, as they come in all shapes and sizes, and with a variety of fillings and toppings. To give you an idea, and with more than a hint of artistic license, here’s our guide to pancakes from all over the world…
USA: (American) Pancakes
Pancakes in the USA are fluffier and fatter than their English counterparts, largely as a result of adding baking powder to the batter mix, which allows them to rise. Primarily a breakfast staple, they’re usually used with butter (churned) and maple syrup, often with a side order of bacon, which shouldn’t work, but it really does.
Where to eat:
Breakfast is undoubtedly one of the eye-popping meal highlights of any trip to America, and ideally eaten while sat in a booth in an old-fashioned diner-style restaurant. How about Las Vegas?
It seems almost predictable, but if the American pancake is the chubbier version of the British one, then French crêpes are the slimmer member of the family. But while they’re paper thin, they’re also bigger in diameter, making them ideal for wrapping round fillings that range from sweet to savoury. The various options - such as chocolate, fruit and whipped cream, or sautéed vegetables and cheese - means they can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert. Or all four, if you’re so inclined.
Where to eat: Despite the prices, an outdoor table at a coffee shop in a good people-watching spot in Paris takes some beating.
More years ago than I care to remember, a great pub restaurant near where I lived used to serve what it called ‘Mexican pancakes’ - chilli con carne wrapped in a pancake covered in melted cheese, and served with chips. It was so huge it filled the plate and became the only thing I ever ordered when I ate at that particular pub, and I mourned the day it disappeared from the menu. In many ways I still do.
Those ‘pancakes’ - flour, but more authentically nixtamalized corn, tortillas rolled with fillings - form the basis of many Mexican dishes of course, from tacos and quesadillas to enchiladas and burritos. Take your pick - they’re all good. Don’t forget the salsa verde and guacamole to go with!
Where to eat: Playa del Carmen in the ever-popular Riviera Maya has lots of friendly, inexpensive restaurants where you can eat great, authentic Mexican food.
Ireland’s classic boxty is often filled with meat and used as a tortilla-like wrap, but its ingredients are a little different to many of the pancakes discussed here. Not least because a key constituent is potato - finely grated raw, as well as cooked and mashed - which seems totally appropriate for Ireland, and there’s also flour, baking soda, buttermilk and egg in the batter mix, which is spread onto a griddle and cooked on both sides.
Where to eat: Head for County Leitrim in north-west Ireland, which is not only one of the places where the boxty is believed to have originated, but even hosts its own Boxty Festival, when it celebrates the dish through music, song, dance and, wait for it, potato art! Many cafés and restaurants in the main town of Carrick on Shannon also join the fun by creating a food trail featuring ‘re-imagined’ boxty recipes of their own.
A potentially controversial selection, the aebleskiver, is probably more doughnut than pancake and isn’t even flat, but the Danes won’t budge on the issue, since it’s made from batter and cooked in a pan - albeit a cast iron one with indentations in. The finished articles look like small puffy doughnut balls, and are served fluffy and hot, dipped in jam and sprinkled with icing sugar.
Where to eat: The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen is a must-see for visitors of all ages, and also serves some of the best aebleskivers.
The clue here is not in the name, because Finnish pancakes are not fried in a pan, but baked in the oven. The sweet concoctions, which are made with vanilla-spiked batter and look more like a cake with a crispy top and sticky interior, are eaten for breakfast or dessert, and are served in slices topped with icing sugar, cream, jam or fresh berries.
Where to eat: Get a table near the window to enjoy the views from one of the mountain restaurants in Ruka Village, a ski area in Kuusamo, Finnish Lapland.
Hungarian pancakes are very much a sweet treat - thin, crêpe-like delicacies with a creamy filling made from walnuts, rum, sultanas and errrr, cream, then folded into triangles, slathered in chocolate sauce and rum, flambéed and served hot and wonderful.
Where to eat: You could do a lot worse than pick one of the many restaurants in Keszthely that offer views over glorious Lake Balaton.
In terms of appearance, pfannkuchen sit somewhere between French crêpes and thicker American-style pancakes, being made from a denser batter. They can be served sweet or savoury, and there are plenty of fillings to choose from, including cheese and salami, bacon and champignons, jam, apple sauce (or sliced apple, with cinnamon and ice cream), or even as a banana split. A major proviso though - be careful when ordering in Berlin, where the word pfannkuchen actually refers to ‘Berliners’, the filled doughnuts that are a local favourite. If you want a pancake in the German capital you need to ask for eierkuchen.
Where to eat: There are some great specialist pancake outlets in Berlin - just remember what to ask for!
These thin, savoury pancakes hail from South India and are made from fermented rice and lentil batter, and fried until crisp rather than served soft. They can be eaten plain, but are usually served with a filling, such as spiced potatoes, vegetables or cheese.
Where to eat: Grab a table at a family-run restaurant in the popular hill station of Ooty, dotted with parks, gardens and lakes, and you’ll have views to more than match the food.
These savoury pancakes get their name from the words okonomi (‘what you want’) and yaki (‘grilled’), and are made with flour, egg, a root vegetable called nagaimo, shredded cabbage and, well, what you want - the other ingredients depend on the customer. The choice of fillings is both extensive and exotic, ranging from squid and octopus to pork belly and other meats, as well as wasabi, plum sauce and more. The finished product is usually drizzled with Japanese mayonnaise and sweet-and-savoury okonomi sauce, so sticky fingers are pretty much assured.
Where to eat: The recipe and preparation of okonomiyaki depends where you are - in Osaka, the fillings are stirred right into the batter; while in Hiroshima the pancakes are created in layers, feature yakisoba noodles, and are finished off with a fried egg.
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