Pajeon, Korea’s ubiquitous scallion pancake, strikes that ideal balance between pragmatism and sheer pleasure. One of the simplest and most popular forms of jeon, a broader term for battered and pan-fried foods, it’s cheap and quick to make by mixing up a flour-and-water-based batter, loading it up with scallions, and pan-frying it into one big round. The filling-to-batter ratio is high, and the scallions are typically cut into lengths, so the effect is a nest of verdant stalks glued together by a viscous batter. As it sizzles in a well-oiled skillet, the pancake crisps and browns and the interior sets up soft and dense, with—as Beverly Kim, chef and co-owner of Parachute, an acclaimed Korean American restaurant in Chicago, described—“mochi-like” chew. It’s a no-fuss, substantial snack that’s best eaten right off the pan with a soy sauce–based dipping sauce and a group of your nearest and dearest.
“It’s very comforting food, and it can be for any occasion,” said Nanam Myszka, a Seoul native who co-owns Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group in Bloomington, Illinois. Pajeon can be celebratory fare for festive occasions such as weddings or Chuseok, the annual autumn harvest festival, or a clean-out-the-fridge preparation that uses up scallions and any other vegetables, meat or seafood, or kimchi. Most delightfully, it’s a popular snack to make on rainy days. (For more information, see “Pajeon: Recipe for a Rainy Day.”)
Given how regularly Koreans eat pajeon, many households stock buchim garu, a just-add-water seasoned pancake mix that’s widely sold in Korean markets. Some cooks combine that with twigim garu, a mix that also requires nothing but water and is primarily used to coat food for frying (its relatively high proportion of pure starch helps it boost crispness). But both products contain mostly pantry ingredients (flours, starch, leaveners), so plenty of cooks make their own batter. That route appealed to me: I was a chemist before I was a cook, so sorting out formulas is right up my alley. Plus, I don’t usually have the commercial stuff on hand but wanted the option to whip up pajeon any time the mood (or the occasion, or the weather) strikes.
Pajeon: Recipe for a Rainy DayInclement weather is a big motivator for making and eating Korea's crisp-chewy, golden brown scallion pancake.
My first batter was simple: equal parts all-purpose flour and water, salt, and a little sugar to encourage browning. I made enough of it to produce two large pancakes, and it was quite thick, so I used a rubber spatula to fold in 10 scallions that I’d cut into 2-inch lengths. Then I dragged the spatula blade down the middle of the bowl and scraped half the batter into a hot skillet that I’d coated with oil, spreading the batter into an evenly thick round. Over the next few minutes, I shook the pan periodically so that the oil spread evenly beneath the pancake and encouraged browning and watched for the surface bubbles in the center to burst—the visual cue that it was time to flip, according to recipes I’d seen. As soon as I turned the pancake, I added more oil to the pan and pressed the pancake against it to help crisp and brown the second side. I then drained the pancake on a paper towel while I cooked off the rest of the batter.
I knew I’d be able to gauge the crispness of the pancake by the sound it made when I pushed the knife through the crust—and when I heard almost nothing, it was clear that this batch lacked interior‑exterior contrast. So I read the commercial pancake and frying mix labels to see what I should try next.
The most obvious choice was a second starch—corn or potato. I tried both, and each made the pancakes more crisp. The potato starch batch, though, was exceptionally good. The unique chemical makeup of potato starch helps keep the starch molecules separate after cooling, so the crust stays crisp.
I also added both baking soda and baking powder to the batter. The powder appears in most commercial mixes, opening up the crumb so that the texture is pleasantly glutinous—but not gummy. The soda, a less common addition, was there to boost browning, which occurs most readily in high‑pH (basic) environments.
The Big Chill
There were a couple other tips that I picked up from the commercial mix labels and anecdotally. The first was adding minced garlic and pepper to the batter to give it more complexity and to underscore the allium‑ness of the scallions. The second was using cold water to make the pancakes more crisp. Won Chung, Kim’s nephew and a chef at the Michelin‑rated Onjium in Seoul, said that some cooks actually add ice to the mix. Kim said her mother would even chop and add still-frozen shellfish to her haemul (seafood) pajeon batter to keep it cold.
Here’s why: Fried foods crisp when their starch molecules absorb water; form a gel; and then eject that water as steam during frying, leaving behind an open, dry matrix. The trick is getting the starch to absorb the right amount of water: enough to create a gel but not so much that the gel is too dense and sodden to lose its moisture during frying. Using cold water helps because starch absorbs it relatively slowly, meaning there’s less gel formation and less water to force out.
I ran a side-by-side test just to confirm that a cold-water batter makes a noticeable difference to the pancakes’ texture (it does). Along the way, I also heeded advice from Kim, Chung, and others to carefully monitor the temperature of the pan.
“Because you are cooking in such a hot pan,” said Chung, “the pajeon can burn. But if you make the mistake of turning down the heat too much, the pancake has a tendency to become oily.”
That made sense: Starchy batters fried at relatively low temperatures turn greasy because the water they contain doesn’t get hot enough to forcefully blow off steam, repel the oil, and prevent it from seeping in. So what I needed to do was keep the oil at a gentle sizzle, adjusting the heat as needed to keep it hot but just shy of smoking. As long as I did that, the pancakes cooked up evenly brown and crisp.
After that, there was just the dipping sauce: a soy sauce–based mixture that should be savory and tart, with a hint of sweetness. I thinned mine with a little water and stirred in rice vinegar and a bit of sugar, as well as gochugaru and sesame oil for a backdrop of heat and nutty depth. It soaked into the crisp-chewy, oniony pancake wedges I’d cut from the communal disk, and the effect was sheer pleasure.