Breakfast, the most important meal of the day, right? Well, Chinese breakfast is nothing like American breakfast (or European breakfast, for that matter), and comes in many forms. I’ll attempt to give a basic overview over what you may encounter, focusing on the less figure-threatening options.
Congee itself is pretty flavorless, but what makes it delicious is the toppings that you add. Those range from fruit to fish, but the most common options will include all kinds of salty pickled vegetables (somewhat like pickled sushi ginger). This is not typically a breakfast that appeals to most Westerners, but you can get quite used to it. Due to the high water to rice ratio, the caloric count really isn’t too bad.
This is a pretty typical assembly consisting of a tea egg or cha dan (a hard-boiled egg soaked in tea, soy sauce and spices), pickles, kelp soup or hai dai tang, and bao zi (stuffed steamed buns filled with either minced vegetables or meat). The bao zi clock in higher on the caloric scale with about 100kcal for a small steamed bun (fried bao zi are much, MUCH worse!), but one or two nicely beef up your breakfast. The kelp soup, consisting of long, noodle-shaped strips of seaweed in a clear broth, has about 85 calories per cup, and is especially nice on a cool morning. To enjoy this dish, you should definitely like the chewy texture of kelp.
As you can see, there is broth and a tea egg again, and also some boiled baby bok choy (delicious!). There are also two cold dishes consisting of lettuce and Sichuan peppers (certainly wakes you up in the morning…), and the omnipresent wintermelon, a bitter melon shaped like a long, pockmarked cucumber that is incredibly popular in China. Very vegetable-heavy dishes, though larger buffets will have meat options and bao zi as well.
Same hotel, other morning. The same vegetable dishes, plus a small cake made of bean paste and seeds. I think this would have been better warm, but the one I got was pretty much cold and very gelatinous. I didn’t finish it.
Our hotel in Emeishan taught us that Chinese businessmen at breakfast are basically hyenas. I kid you not, there were war cries and head-first dives supported by copious use of elbows. To be fair, when I faught back with the same methods, I earned graciously given respect and managed to still get food on my plate before everything was gnawed down to the bone. This restaurant had very few meat options, so I loaded up on cauliflower (pretty much just steamed without flavour), pickled cucumber, pickled tomatoes and pickled napa cabbage (yes, pickles are essential for breakfast in China).
And the final breakfast also was from Emeishan: a hard-boiled egg (no tea involved), pickled cucumbers and napa cabbage, kelp strips in a Sichuan pepper marinade (cold, but it got me sweating profusely!) and a delicious, warm eggplant stir-fry with peppers that was less rabidly spicy.
And there you have it – I also just ate fruit from stalls or street carts on mornings where we didn’t get breakfast or there were no options that appealed to me, and there are also copious little carts that pop up around breakfast times that will serve bao zi and similar items in steamer baskets.
What is your preferred breakfast? Being German, I’ve always preferred a savory, cold breakfast, but how do you respond to that? And as always, if there is anything specific you’d like to ask, shoot!