Say what you will about American food (comments such as: “there is no such thing”), breakfasts in the US, as in Europe, are certainly enjoyable affairs. There is much to be said for tearing into a pile of buttermilk pancakes swimming in maple syrup and butter and washed down with about four cups of strong black coffee (blogger wipes drool off of chin).
When I lived in Singapore, one of the facts of life my family could never become accustomed to were the Asian breakfasts. We never developed a taste for rice porridge or you tiao in the morning. Indeed on one trip to Malaysia the other restaurant patrons were tickled pink to watch the foreigners carefully drink the black coffee off the top without stirring up the heavy sweet condensed milk on the bottom of the glass. (In case you are wondering why: Malay-style coffee is strong and served with condensed milk, black coffee seemed like quite the strange order.)
When living in China I learned to appreciate, and indeed to greatly enjoy, Chinese breakfasts (早餐). Granted, they are completely different from anything we are used to in the West. But, for those willing to take the plunge, they can be just as hearty (frequently moreso), and enjoyable as a stack of pancakes with a side of bacon.
Noodles for breakfast (面条): while many Americans might find this to be a bit of a stretch, a bowl of noodles in the morning can be just what the doctor ordered. The best part is, if done right, it is a different meal every time. Although you can make a basic oil, pepper and ground pork mix to use every time, you can also through in a dallop or two of leftovers from the night before. Strange as it may sound, it works and makes a great start to the day. On the street, every town has different types of local noodle specialties. In Guizhou, fresh hot Yang Rou Fen (羊肉粉) (thick round noodles with goat meat in spicy broth) will get a man’s heart started in the morning.
Steamed Buns (包子): Shanghai may be the most famous but every city has them, and they are fabulous. The best part of getting these in the lower Yangze area (around Shanghai) is the variety available. Get a mixed bag with meat, vegetable, and sweet cream fillings. Actually for those seeking a more “western” style taste, the sweet cream filling is very nice.
Dough sticks and soy milk (油条豆浆): Although arguably most famous in Taiwan, this too is a universally enjoyed breakfast treat. The dough sticks may resemble some types of crullers or doughnuts and in the sense that they are deep fried dough, that is correct. You Tiao (油条), however, are completely unsweetened. That is where the soy milk comes in. I like mine warm with a spoonful of coarse sugar. Dip the whole stick in the bowl, or else have the vendor chop it into chunks. Let them soak for a minute and slurp in down.
Rice Porridge (米粥): No one does it quite like the Cantonese and Hong Kong is the place to be to try this for breakfast. Rice is slowly cooked down with an excess of water, as well as chicken, pork, seafood or other stock and then jazzed up with preserved eggs (皮蛋), pork, green onions, shrimp, or just about anything you can imagine. A bowl of porridge will make you wonder why you ever thought oatmeal was good (no offense intended, I like oatmeal just fine – with raisins if possible).
In Guizhou there were several other types of breakfast munchies available including various deep fried pie-like items with meat or noodle fillings, as well as what we termed a Chinese breakfast burrito: a thin crepe smeared with tianmian jiang (甜面酱) and chili sauce, a whole green onion, and a you tiao rolled together. Sticky rice (糯米) with potato strings, pickled radish, pork, chili sauce and peanuts also hit the spot on the way to a 10 hour teaching marathon.
For those lucky enough to be in Beijing….
Jian Bing (煎饼): This is probably the best breakfast item in China. A crepe is freshly made on a charcoal heated portable griddle, smeared with tianmian jiang and (optional) chili sauce, sprinkled with scallions, and coated with a lightly fried egg. Get it from the various peddle carts around town – they usually gather at school or factory gates and around pedestrian overpasses and bus stops. At 2 RMB a pop, this breakfast absolutely cannot be beat.