During my travels in China, the one thing I really enjoyed turning a necessity of life into a hobby was the food. It goes without saying that Breakfast is one of the best meals of the day (the other is, of course, Dinner). I must admit that when I first arrived in China in 2003, I dreaded the thought of even slurping on a bowl of rice noodles mixed with bits of “meat” (usually Pork chops; but in China some people cannot translate the meat type into English, so they just say “meat”), first thing in the morning. Instead I wanted my Corn Flakes with delicious cold milk, strawberry muffins and a nice cup of Tetley tea! Yes, I was spoilt on eating a standard western breakfast all my life! Plus, as a travel writer I should have jumped at the opportunity to become a bit more adventurous and expand my gastronomical interests!
I still remember the huge disappointment of being forced to eat Chinese breakfast by my friend. “I can get some cake and Nestle Milk from Seven 11!” I said. “No” was the immediate answer from my Guangzhou friend;” You must try Chinese breakfast, I am sure you will like it” So, the first time my friend gave me a Chinese breakfast, my immediate reaction was “What is this?! Hot and spicy soup for breakfast?!”; I asked in hesitation.
That comment alone seemed to bring out the giggles on my Guangzhou friends’ faces. But as the days and weeks passed, I had actually gotten used to eating a traditional Chinese breakfast…no complaints whatsoever! It got to me so much that I actually used to look forward to waking up the next day and eating a delicious Chinese breakfast. It was my meal of the day. Why? Because every bite, every slurp is healthy, delicious, and just a sheer delight! I loved it, and still do. I even persuaded my parents to try Soybean milk, so much so that every time I came back to the U.K. I used to bring along bags of powdered Soya Milk.
In China, breakfast means so much more than just your average cup of tea. It's all about socialising- meeting people while soaking up the sun and catching up with the local gossip. Although western cereal companies haven't drummed it up yet in China, breakfast in China is still very much Chinese, and has proven time and time again to be the most important meal of the day. On every Chinese street, side alleyway, school canteen and office canteen; you are bound to come across five breakfast dishes renowned throughout the country for their taste, smell and unique attractiveness to foodies everywhere. Although Chinese breakfasts differ greatly between regions, however these five dishes are essential to any breakfast meal irrespective of your location in China.
The dishes are: Large white bun (Man-Tou: 饅頭), Deep-fried fluffy dough sticks (You-Tiao: 油條), Glutinous rice balls- sweet or spicy (Tang-Yuan: 湯圓), Large sesame bread (Da-Bing: 芝麻大餅); and Fresh Soybean Milk (Dou-Jiang: 豆漿). The Five dishes, sometimes referred to as just four when not taking the Man-Tou into consideration, are almost like a fashion icon of breakfast meal. Basically, it may be said that no Chinese breakfast is complete without these. Although sadly with the emergence of MacDonald’s and KFC in most Chinese cities many young kids are opting out of eating healthy Chinese breakfasts - even to the extent that these “Little Emperors’/Empresses’” will argue with their parents/grandparents to eat the last remaining Hamburger, or drink a Strawberry Milkshake first thing before school begins (I have seen this with my own eyes many times, and its not nice).
Making of a perfect Chinese Breakfast
Now, I am more than sure that the Taiwanese-born Chinese chef, Ching-He Huang, would have a much better way to describe this, but this is my version, and the way I was taught to eat Chinese breakfast! One dish which I have left out of the list is the Congee (稀饭), which is similar to the western Rice porridge. Interestingly enough, the word Congee actually derives from South India from the Tamil word “Kanji”. The beauty of a bowl of Congee is that you can mix it with whatever you like depending on your taste buds and preference. You can make it sweet or spicy. Everyone has their different way of eating a bowl of Congee.
Let’s begin with the large sesame bread, (Da-Bing: 芝麻大餅), which comes in three types: Tasteless (boring and simple), Sweet (preferred by many) and salty (usually sprinkled with spices and sesame). The art of cooking this bread is to simply mix the fermented dough with some butter (Margarine or, Sesame Oil and Sunflower Oil will also do) and when you are happy with the shape of the bread, stick it onto the oven (usually a clay fireplace is used by professional chefs), and bake it into savoury bread.
The Man-Tou (饅頭) can be classed as being one of the Da-Bing, however usually it can just be bought on its own. One portion normally consists of three small or large white buns- resembling a large marshmallow. The Man-Tou is boring, tasteless and quite hard to eat- imagine biting into a hardened cake and you’ll get the idea! Usually people eat a Man-Tou with a flavoured dish (salty or spicy).
The Tang-Yuan (湯圓) consists of sweet or salt flavoured steamed coarse glutinous rice turned into balls the size of Beetroot. They contain a stuffing of deep-fried downy dough sticks; spicy pickles, dried meat for salted ones; and sesame seeds or white sugar for the sweet ones. The sweeter ones are also dipped into syrup- alas this can be too sugary for some people!
The Dou-Jiang (豆漿) is best drank fresh- when I mean fresh I mean that the Soya beans that are used to make the drink have been crushed that very day and mixed with hot water and sugar (if preferred) using a blender. For some people in China it is routine to get up early in the morning and make fresh Dou-Jiang to take to work or to give to their children to take to school/college. The Dou-Jiang you get in the shops and the supermarket (even with powdered Soybean) is not quite as healthy and delicious as the fresh one. The fresh Dou-Jiang is viscous and has a strong aroma of soybeans (just like fresh coffee!). Some shops such as the Circle K-Shop make it fresh as you wait.
I have tried making fresh You-Tiao (油條) a couple of times (I managed somehow). Now some people may have different ways to cook this, but I was taught to neatly blend the fermented dough with some vegetable oil, twist it into long stripes so that it looks like a foot long screw (that’s the best way to describe the spiral shaped bread!), fry it until it turns golden, soft and crispy. Most people eat their breakfast on- the- go (i.e. in the bus, train or car on the way to work). Its inexpensive (you can get fresh hot Dou-Jiang and You-Tiao for around 5RMB in most shops), healthy and delicious!
Oh and, of course, I am talking about eating Chinese Breakfast in China...because Chinese food only tastes good IN China, not in USA, UK etc.
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