In honor of National Breakfast Day on March 18, McDonalds in Shanghai gave away a record 1,000 Egg McMuffins in five and a half hours. The breakfast sandwich revolution mirrors other fast food trends in China, from the grande mocha latte at Starbucks to the egg tarts at KFC. Luckily, however, the big-frys have not taken over breakfast, yet. While the Chinese market for fast food is valued at 87.7 billion RMB, only 21 percent of this type of food is consumed for breakfast.
Instead, you just might find the best breakfast food served at home, by the streetside or at the end of a hutong in a snack bar (小吃店 xiăochī diàn), like the ones below. Unlike Western breakfasts, a Chinese breakfast is light, but filling. Instead of “breaking” from the night’s “fast,” a Chinese “morning meal” (早餐 zǎocān or 早饭 zǎofàn) is simply the first meal to kick-start your day. Notice the sun radical in those characters?
Huguosi Xiaochi (护国寺小吃) in Xizhimen… It’s only about 500m from Xinjiekou subway station, exit A
What meal you chow down on depends on region and season. Generally, a Cantonese breakfast includes sit-down yam cha (饮茶 yĭn chá), featuring a variety of little dishes known as dim sum (点心 diănxin). Southwestern cuisine favors spicy noodles. Northern provinces eat all the wheat: fried, steamed and twisted. When in season, everyone’s favorite treat is a block of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo (粽子 zŏngzi). Hyatt capitalized on local food trends with its 2011 breakfast menu, offering Sichuan poached eggs in rice wine, Xi’an-style pancakes with braised pork, Gungzhou-sytle wonton soup, and Hangzhou custard rolls among other specialties.
Is it time for second-breakfast? You might have tasted China’s fried pancake (煎饼 jiānbing), but check out these other Beijing basics!
1. Zhōu (粥 ) and xīfàn (稀饭)–Congee
Whether it’s called zhou, xifan, mitang (米汤, rice soup) or shuifan (水饭, water rice) , there is no way around it: this is the poor man’s porridge. Essentially rice boiled down with water, zhou has a soup-like texture and plain taste. For many, zhou is a staple food and ode to days past. The Xia Dynasty started growing millet more than 8,000 years ago and today people celebrate with the La Ba Rice Porridge Festival. However, not all zhou is created equal: “All zhou is xifan, but not all xifan is zhou.” Xifan is zhou at its most basic, usually consisting of water, plain rice and sometimes beans. Zhou’s varieties include “eight treasure congee” (八宝粥 bābăo zhōu), shredded pork (肉松粥 ròusōng zhōu), preserved egg and meat (皮蛋瘦肉粥 pídàn shòu ròu zhōu) and corn (玉米粥 yùmĭ zhōu).
While some may cringe at eating a hearty helping of gruel, adding buckwheat, oats and nuts makes zhou not only tastier, but healthier, too. It is a great dish for diabetics and for anyone wanting to improve their brain, heart and liver. Some even say that babao zhou is the perfect hangover cure. Enjoy zhou from your Chinese friend’s mom or buy it piping hot on the street.
Click here for a recipe!
2. Mántou (馒头) and bāozi (包子)–The hot buns
The lighter colored buns are mantou (the others are steamed sponge cake, or fagao,发糕)
If you’re just craving some good old-fashioned bread, look no further than a stand selling mantou or baozi. Mantou is a steamed block of dough that dates back to the Qin dynasty (220 B.C.). Like other dumplings, its creators wanted mantou to look like a “savage head,” so its shape is large and round. In the Romance of Three Kingdoms story, Zhu Ge Liang made sacrificial offerings using mantou stuffed with meat. The real pleasure of feasting on mantou comes with its necessity to eat it with your hands.
Baozi essentially is the evolution of mantou and is another steamed bun. Their sizes vary. Xiaobao (小包) are only about 3 cm in length and are typically eaten with chopsticks. Dabao (大包) are larger, up to 10 cm. The only caution with these breads is to be wary of surprises. You never know when you’ll encounter “surprise” meat, red bean, vegetables or rice. Variations of baozi can be seen regionally within China, including Tianjin’s 狗不理包子(gǒubulǐ bāozi) and Shanghai’s 小笼包 (xiălóngbāo). Other cultures also feature baozi-like snacks, including the Polish pierogi.
Want to make your own mantou or baozi? Start kneading the dough with a recipe here!
3. Yóutiáo (油条) and dòuzhī (豆汁)–Crullers and “soy” milk
Hot doujiang and youtiao
While the Europeans traditionally claim the invention of crullers, they have nothing on the Chinese version. Youtiao are nicknamed “deep-fried devils” and their legend dates back to the Confucius era. In honor of scholar and poet Yueh Fei who was falsely accused and put to death, frying the crueler in oil symbolizes the scheme he was “deep-fried in oil for.” Over time, tradition shifted, and two conjoined youtiao represented the power couple of Qin Hui and his wife. So, next time you watch a street vendor twist two long pieces of dough together (like in this awesome video), just think of it as an act of love.
What does one pair with youtiao? Try dunking these deep-fried donuts into a steaming bowl of douzhi. Douzhi (豆汁 dòuzhī), though around for over a thousand years, is easily confused with its sisters dounai (豆奶 dòunǎi) and doujiang (豆浆 dòujiāng). To clarify, dounai is typically the store-bought version of soy milk, packaged in bags, bottles and cans. Some Chinese claim that dounai is less healthy than doujiang because of its shelf-life preservatives and extra processing. Doujiang is a type of soy milk found in restaurants or on the street. It is usually served warm. Then, douzhi is the ultimate local specialty in Beijing. Most restaurants guard its recipe, but its complex process of washing, rinsing and fermenting mung beans takes days. Of all three “soy milks,” douzhi has the strongest odor. While some people find it hard to swallow the sourly sweet douzhi, now might be the time to start drinking it to acquire protein, vitamin C and fiber.
Click here for a youtiao recipe! Click here for a doujiang recipe! Click here for insight into making douzhi!
4. Yangzá tāng (羊杂汤) and chăogān (炒肝)–The meaty stews
Chinese yang za tang is the answer to Scottish haggis. Translated as “mixed lamb soup,” yang za tang contains all the inner workings of a sheep. However, as evidenced on this Chinese forum, it is a fairly tasty favorite. One blogger advised to eat the oil early in the morning as a light, healthy snack. Others reported that the soup helps people lose weight or cure their colds. Yang za tang is often stewed in a broth with cilantro or peppers for flavor.
Likewise, chaogan (or as any Beijinger would correct you, chaoganr) is a local favorite. A mix of pork liver, pork intestine and starch, the taste may be seasoned with garlic, vinegar and soy sauce. While chăo (炒, fried) is in the name of this dish, all meat is actually boiled. Some people attribute the name to the Manchu word colambi, which means “to cook.” Two stories surround the history of chaogan. In one, its elements of ao gan (stewed pork liver) and ao fei (stir-fried pork lung) hint at traditional foods in the Song Dynasty. In the second legend, a chef at a restaurant during the Qing Dynasty prepared the stew by separating pork heart and lung. Stewing both animal parts together was thought to cause simple-mindedness.
Brave enough to cook your very own chaogan? Try so with this recipe!
5. Snacks (小吃 xiăochī ): wāndòu huáng (豌豆黄) and miànchá (面茶)
As many breakfast places double as snack bars, it is only appropriate that sometimes people sneak snacks for breakfast. One of the most popular springtime snacks is wandou huang or pea-flower cake. Made into small yellow-colored blocks by boiled and mashed peas, jujubues and a special herb, this sugary treat is very moist. If you want to feel fancy (or just misunderstood?) with feasting on wandou huang, just think that Empress Dowager Cixi is attributed to having loved this dessert.
Miancha, another snack, is an enigma because it doesn’t contain cha (tea). Instead, it is a thick porridge made from millet and rice flour. That brown goo on top of the rice mixture is brown sugar and Sweet Osmanthus (桂花酱 guìhuā jiàng ) sauce. A good miancha does not have any boiled water splashed outside the bowl and is so thick that a chopstick can stand upright. Like other Chinese dishes, the emperors also enjoyed miancha.
What’s your excuse? Start cooking wandouhuang with a recipe here or a miancha recipe there.
Yonghe Dawang due east of Chaoyangmen subway exit A is a popular chain restaurant that serves breakfast items such as Youtiao and Doujiang.
Do you have any favorite Chinese breakfast foods? Let us know in the comments!