History of Pancakes: Hot off the Pan

Pancakes. The mere mention makes us drool and crave. They are the epitome of comfort food, an essential part of any Sunday brunch. Pancake is popular all over the world under different names, sizes and flavours, but regardless of what you call them they are essentially flat cakes composed of starchy batter cooked on a hot griddle or pan.

What’s the story behind this food? Who ate it first? Who made it first?

Pancakes have a long history. They are the offspring of early Neolithic flatbreads which were baked on stones. Pancakes survived the Roman Empire, there are mentions of them as long ago as the 1st Century AD and there is a recipe in an early Roman cookbook which talks about pancakes being served with pepper and honey. Even a 1430 English culinary manuscript mentions pancakes, and a Dutch cookbook dating back to 1514 contains recipes of pancakes as well.  Pancakes have a long history, dated back to the times of Ancient Romans and it was believed that the first three pancakes cooked in Medieval times were sacred.

According to Christopher Martin Cumo, the origin of pancakes is difficult to pin point—but he says it is pretty clear that unlike in today’s times, it wasn’t a part of breakfast but more like a fast food—wrap the pancake around a sausage and eat it on the go.

The ancient Greeks made their pancakes with wheat flour, wine, and milk, fried in olive oil. This was then covered with honey because sugar had not yet been discovered as a staple kitchen ingredient. Slowly and gradually, this became a part of breakfast meals. By the 16th century, these flat cakes started including sugar, four to five egg yolks, heavy cream and flour, by 19th century, buttermilk replaced heavy cream. The cooks of 19th century also started using baking soda as a leavening agent and sometimes they also omitted the usage of eggs.

It’s possible that our prehistoric ancestors may have eaten pancakes or something similar. Studies on a 30,000-year-old grinding tools suggest that Stone Age cooks were making flour out of cattails and ferns—which, researchers guess, was likely mixed with water and baked on a hot, possibly greased, rock. The result may have been closer to a biscuit than the modern crepe, but the idea was the same: a flat cake, made from batter and fried.

Pieter Aertszen’s The Pancake Bakery, circa 1508. Picture: Wikimedia

According to a post on Ezine Articles, in America, ‘pancake’ generally refers to the classic white-flour kind, which is often made with buttermilk instead of milk. But even there, this isn’t the pancakes’ original form. The original American pancakes were made from ground cornmeal by Native Americans, who called it ‘nokehic’. It was introduced to European settlers in the early 1600s, and it was renamed from ‘nokehic’ to “no cake”. In the 1700s, the Dutch people added buck

Chocolate Pancake
Nutella Chocolate Pancake at AMPM Cafe

wheat ‘pannekoeken’ to the American menu, and the British introduced the tradition of pancake feasts, held on Shrove Tuesday as a final celebration before the Lent.

Countries all around the globe have their own versions of pancakes—the French have crepes, Indonesian have serabi, Japan has okonomiyaki, Nepal has newar—the list goes on and on.

Indians also have their own versions of pancakes—a large varierty, in fact. Each region has a unique form of this dish. North Indians have cheela cooked with sugar or jaggery with a wheat flour-based batter, or the savory pancakes that are cooked with batter prepared from gram flour sometimes garnished with paneer or onions and served with green chutney.

Dosaappam, neer dosa and uttapam are pancakes from the south of India and are prepared by fermenting rice batter and split-skinned urad bean blended with water. Meetha pooda (sweet pancakes) are often eaten with pickles and chutney in Punjab. Pitha in Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam are also famous and are made up of rice batter filled with split chickpeas. The Bengali semi-sweet pancake pati-shapta is stuffed with grated coconut or thickened milk. In Goa, a traditional crêpe-like pancake known as alebele or alle belle is eaten at tea-time, usually filled with jaggery and coconut.

So what is so amazing and distinct about pancakes that they brings together history and national borders? What make people crave for pancakes every time they hear the name or see it on the menu. The answer, pancakes are one of the original fast foods. Pancake batter is made from cheap and easily available ingredients like milk, eggs, sugar, flour and oil.

Through my research, I also found a version of pancake which is common in chitrali cuisine of Pakistan, called ‘Rishiki’. Subscribe the blog and watch out for the full recipe.

If you live in Gurgaon then I’d recommend visiting AMPM Cafe and Bar. Chef had ensured that the balance of flavour remains there, and sugar should not over power everything.  Pancakes here are soft and amazing, just the way I like them.


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