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Apam balik is one of Malaysia’s favourite snacks… but where did it come from?

Okay, we know – it’s our third ‘food history’ article in like a week. But we’re not just extremely hungry people okay, this time we really got reason to look at the humble apam balik. You know, that pancake-like foldover with kacang and jagung smattered between.

Fun fact: For awhile, the Cilisos office (pre-MCO) used to order these every other day. Image from Wiki

Why are we suddenly looking at apam balik you ask? Well other than the fact that we love it as a snack….

 

Apam balik was just featured in an episode of ‘Good Mythical Morning’

With Rhett (left) and Link (right). Image from Mythical

Alright, so for those of you who aren’t one of the 17 million people subscribed to the Good Mythical Morning channel on YouTube, it’s a gameshow/talkshow of sorts hosted by Rhett and Link. Among the various games they do on GMM, they have one called the International Taste Tests, where they taste various dishes of a certain type from around the world and guess where it’s from by throwing a dart to a board with a map on it.

On the latest episode of GMM, they did an international taste tests with…. pancakes. And in one of the rounds, one of the pancakes they had to taste and guess the origin of was – if it wasn’t clear by nowapam balik.

Look we don’t know why he smelled it either. GIF from Good Mythical Morning

Of course, they loved it. Who wouldn’t love a pancake filled with groundnuts and sweetcorn right? But more importantly, did they guess Malaysia? Well, Rhett actually did! He reasoned that the peanuts in it reminded him of Thai peanut sauce, and went for Malaysia. That being said, Link on the other hand went for Argentina… so he got it terribly wrong.

GIF from Good Mythical Morning

Now normally we wouldn’t write a whole article about two mat sallehs eating Malaysian food on YouTube; that’s literally all over the internet now. However, it was due to this video that we decided to look up apam balik, because it’s what we do for fun here in Cilisos.

And that’s when we found out that….

 

It’s said that apam balik actually originates from… China?!

Zuo Zongtang, better known as General Tso, was a famous Qing dynasty Chinese military leader who lived thruout the 1800s. In fact, you might’ve heard that name before from the American dish General Tso’s Chicken. But it’s his alleged creation of the ‘apam balik’, or rather ‘man jian guo’ that we’re gonna look at today.

General Tso, circa 1875. Image from WDL

The story goes that during the 1850s, the Qing dynasty had a lil rebellion going on in Hunan, China, in the form of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. During the rebellion, Tso found himself first as an advisor to a Hunan governor before later taking on a position in the province’s govt himself. Before long, the Taiping rebels invaded Fujian, China, and Tso would lead the army there to fight back the rebels.

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Now during those days, a common food for the army and the locals was this flatbread with spring onions, which would’ve looked something like this:

A far cry from apam balik. Image from Echo’s Kitchen

However, Tso didn’t want the army eating up the locals’ food supply, so he changed the army’s food to a pancake using ingredients that were more readily available in the Fujian areasugar and peanuts.

“In order to feed the army, he (Tso) gave them salty pancakes improved with cane sugar and peanuts that were plentiful in Fujian, making it easy to carry and eat.

 

This pancake gradually spread in Fujian, becoming an affordable and convenient street snack, and was brought to Nanyang (Southeast Asia) with the early Hokkien immigrants,” – Xie Yanwei, food writer, as translated from Hong Kong Economic Journal

 

These days, you can find it just about everywhere in the region

For real tho, the snack has about a quadrillion different names throughout the region, enough to make Prince jealous. For instance, it’s called ‘Martabak Manis’/’Terang Bulan’ in Indonesia, ‘Man Jian Guo’ in China, ‘Lang Gow’ in Hong Kong, ‘Apam Balik’ in Malaysia, and for the local Malaysian Chinese people, the name literally changes every other state!

But if you still think apam balik is as Malaysian as nasi lemak and teh tarik, you’ll be pleased to know that in Brunei at least, it’s called ‘Kuih Malaya’. And just for good measure, it’s even officially recognised by the Jabatan Warisan Negara as one of our country’s ‘heritage’ foods!

Yes this is quite literally a random apam balik stall in Brunei. Image from Kuih Melaya Babu Cantik’s Facebook

In fact, the standard kacang and jagung filling is no longer the usual order you’d find these days, with just about every other possible combination of fillings from Nutella to Milo to Cheese and everything in between. So what’re you waiting for? Go get some apam balik for tea (responsibly #CMCO) and spin that wheel of mythicality!

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