To celebrate what is arguably the best festival day of the year, we decided to do some research into the many delicious ways in which people have enjoyed pancakes throughout history and the types of pancake enjoyed across the globe...
So the earliest evidence of pancake eating dates back 30,000 years. The prehistoric pancake was made of plants like fern and cattail mashed with water and would have been baked on a rock (delicious!) By the Neolithic era, grains were eaten - Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest natural human mummy, had a meal of wheat pancakes and meat shortly before he died 5,300 years ago. To be fair, if we had to die up a mountain in a snowstorm, pancakes would be a pretty good last meal.
The Greek physician Galen talks about the health benefits of pancakes in 207 CE. Ancient Greek pancakes called teganitai were quite chunky - a little like modern American ones, but made without eggs and with spelt flour. They were fried in olive oil (a Greek staple) and topped with lots of honey, crushed walnuts and sesame seeds. The Romans adopted the recipe, but added eggs to the batter and topped them with roasted pears and fresh mint.
The Tudors were big fans of pancakes and made them with a few surprising ingredients. This 1588 recipe recommends adding cinnamon, ginger and full cream to the classic flour and egg mix, then pouring in some traditional English ale to make the batter nice and crispy. Stewed apples (cheap and readily available) were a common topping; the nobility would have loaded their pancakes with sugar (then a pricey imported commodity), sherry and rosewater as well. They would have looked pretty much like an English pancake nowadays - thin and the size of a frying pan.
Quickbread pancakes, called bannaq, were a staple diet of First Nations and Inuit people. They were traditionally made with maize and/or nut meal and roots with sap as a binding agent, and sweetened with plant syrup, often maple. Post-colonisation, Native people were forced to make bannaq with the ingredients distributed as rations on reserves. These were staples of the European diet - wheat flour, sugar, lard, and butter. Modern Indigenous Americans and Canadians have a complex relationship with bannaq (which are still mass-produced with European ingredients rather than traditional ones) for this reason.
The most common type of sweet Brazilian pancakes are called tapioca after the flour they’re made with. They’re unleavened and served with shredded coconut and melted butter. By contrast panquecas (made with cow’s milk and wheat flour) are usually savoury and served with tomato sauce, chicken or beef, chopped onions and bell peppers and topped with cheese.
Pancakes have been eaten throughout Belarus, Russia and Ukraine for centuries and are usually made of wheat or buckwheat. They can be made with yeast, in which case they’re served flat like American-style pancakes, or without and rolled up like British ones with the filling inside. They’re enjoyed with a whole range of savoury toppings, like sour cream, quark (curdled cheese) and caviar. Sweet pancakes are served with fruit and jam and lavishly dusted with sugar.
By contrast, pancakes in South East Asia are almost exclusively savoury. In Vietnam they’re called bánh xèo, which refers to the sizzle of the batter when it pours into the pan. Bánh xèo are parcels made with rice flour, turmeric and water. Popular fillings include pork, shrimp, green onion, lettuce and bean sprouts. They’re often garnished with basil and mint. Yum.
So, how will you eat yours...?