Make Frankie Gaw’s Scallion Pancakes for Someone You Truly Love
In ‘First Generation’, Gaw explores family, identity, and how food unlocks heartache and healing.
In many families, mine included, food is a way to say “I love you.” A few years ago, when I broke an elbow, my mother drove 25 miles to personally deliver groceries so that I would be well-fed as I coalesced. I was 31 years old.
Frankie Gaw can relate. “Food as a love language is such a powerful thing, especially in my family,” says the author of the cookbook, First Generation. In one scene, he writes about how his grandmother would fix him scallion buns as she simultaneously prepared family feasts of soy-marinated eggs, pea shoots with garlic, and whole steamed tilapia in his aunt’s Denver kitchen.
In First Generation, Gaw explores how food connects us to family, memory, and identity. It has recipes and techniques Gaw learned from his parents and grandparents, who emigrated from Taipei, Taiwan to Cincinnati in 1985. These include step-by-step guides to folding wonton and shumai dumplings, plus a six-page spread on how to hot pot.
There are also innovative recipes that reflect Gaw’s Taiwanese-Midwestern culinary point of view. Take his enchanting Cinnamon Toast Crunch Butter Mochi, or a Scallion Mac and “Cheese” made creamy with cashews instead of dairy and influenced by childhood pilgrimages to suburban Olive Gardens.
The ability to represent and embrace all facets of his identity in this book is exciting, Gaw says. “When I was growing up and seeing Asian cookbooks, [it seemed like] you had an Asian cookbook if you were a historical, canonical expert of an entire cuisine.” First Generation occupies a different point on the continuum.
Gaw views his work less conventional. “I don’t consider myself a chef and I don’t consider myself an expert in Taiwanese food,” he says. “My experience with Taiwanese food is through the lens of my grandparents and what they cooked for me in our suburban Ohio house… But I think there is validity in stories that are based on personal experiences. I very much wanted to represent that side of Taiwanese food and culture: the immigrant experience, that Asian-American lens.”
One of the only Asian kids in his classes at school, Gaw recalls embracing mainstream white American culture to try to fit in. Gushers were his preferred supermarket snack, and he relished trips to McDonald’s and Skyline Chili. Meanwhile, at home, his favorite food was his grandma’s steamed pork bao.
There’s nothing inherently irreconcilable about loving McDonald’s and pork bao in equal measure. But it can certainly feel that way, especially if it doesn’t seem like everyone else values immigrant cultures or is navigating similar terrain.
In many ways, writing this book was cathartic for Gaw. “Growing up, I never really realized how much I had separated my two cultures: my Tawainese culture and my American culture,” he says. As he tested family recipes and created his own, he was able to reflect upon the experiences that shaped him as a cook and person.
First Generation is also a book about loss. When Gaw was 23, his father succumbed to lung cancer, leading Gaw to reevaluate his own priorities. Gaw found purpose and solace in the kitchen and in creating this cookbook.
One of the most poignant memories in the book surrounds his father’s scallion pancakes recipe. The night before a teenage Gaw left for a camping trip with friends, his dad prepared a batch of scallion pancakes for him to take. A self-conscious teenager, Gaw threw away the zip-topped bag at the campsite before any of his friends could see what was inside.
It’s heartbreaking, mostly because it’s so relatable. Who among us was their best self during their teen years? Who doesn’t wish they could go back and recalibrate their actions or, as Gaw says, “rep my heritage”?
Looking back on it, Gaw has empathy for his younger self. “I was probably just trying to adapt, it was almost like a survival mechanism, to feel like I belonged… We’re all just trying to figure it out. I hope that’s what people can relate to.”
It’s an aspirational resolution for those of us who have grappled in adulthood with familial guilt or layered identities.
For his part, Gaw isn’t afraid of plumbing such depths. He describes First Generation as “one messy, nostalgic, happy, and sad book.” In it, scallion pancakes become less of a painful memory but rather a lasting connection to his father and the rich culinary heritage that adult Gaw is happy to call his own. It’s complicated, sure; but so is life.
“I felt like I’d never seen a book that celebrates the messiness that is life,” Gaw says. “Life very much is about the happy parts, but also the sad parts. It’s in a lot of the grief and the down points in life that you learn a lot about yourself. I wanted to celebrate that in a book.”
And, perhaps, in a frying pan crackling with perfectly chewy scallion pancakes, as warm and forgiving as a father’s love.
Frankie Gaw’s Scallion Pancakes Recipe
Yield: 3 pancakes
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• Kosher salt
• ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons boiling water
• 3 tablespoons room-temperature water
• 1 teaspoon canola or grapeseed oil, plus more for oiling the pan
Flour and Scallion Oil Spread
• 4 scallions, green and white parts, chopped
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
• ½ cup canola or grapeseed oil (or any neutral oil)
1. Make the dough: In a large mixing bowl, mix together the flour and ¾ teaspoon salt. Slowly pour the boiling water into the flour mixture, stirring with a silicone spatula as you pour. Mix until it forms small chunks of dough, then add the room-temperature water and mix until incorporated.
2. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes, or until the dough is one smooth ball. You should be able to press your finger into it and it should have some tackiness and slightly bounce back. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes at room temperature.
3. After dough has completed its first rest, uncover and pour the oil onto it. Knead until the oil is fully incorporated and the dough is smooth once more. Roll the dough into a log and then cut it crosswise into 3 pieces. Use your palm to flatten each piece of dough into a rough circle. Lightly
oil each dough circle, then cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 1 hour at room temperature.
4. While the dough is doing its second rest, make the flour and scallion oil spread. Place the scallions, salt, and flour in a heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, warm the oil over medium heat until it starts to sizzle. Remove from the heat and very carefully pour the hot oil into the heatproof bowl to flash-fry the scallions and bring out their flavor. Stir the scallion oil and set aside.
5. When the dough has finished resting, form the pancakes. Uncover the dough circles and use a rolling pin to roll each into a flat, thin oval. Spoon an even coating of scallion oil onto each dough oval, then lightly sprinkle the surface with salt. Roll the dough tightly, starting from the long side, so it becomes a long snake.
6. Starting from one end of the snake, coil the dough like a cinnamon roll. When you reach the end of the roll, tuck the end of the dough under the bottom of the roll to seal. With your palm, press down firmly onto your coiled dough to flatten (or use a rolling pin). Flatten until the dough has reached your desired size (6 to 8 inches in diameter for a thinner pancake, 4 to 5 inches for a thicker one).
7. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough. (Tip: stack the pancakes with layers of parchment paper in between so they don’t stick together.)
8. In a medium nonstick pan, warm a glug of oil over medium heat. Place 1 pancake into the pan and cook until lightly browned on each side, 6 to 8 minutes total. Repeat for the remaining pancakes. Cut into wedges and serve.
9. If you don’t want to cook all the scallion pancakes, layer parchment paper between each raw, rolled-out scallion pancake. Place the stack into a plastic freezer bag and freeze for up to 2 months. To cook, just pan-fry directly from frozen in an oiled pan until browned.