One of the most notable differences between Chinese and Western cuisine is breakfast. When most westerners think of breakfast, images of toast, cereal, pastries, eggs, bacon, orange juice and coffee come to mind. In China, breakfast is a whole different ball game. A major difference in Chinese cuisine is the lack of dairy. Milk, cheese, butter and yogurt are not staples in Chinese cuisine and often aren’t readily available in smaller markets and grocery stores. So many Western breakfast staples aren’t eaten often here. Chinese breakfast is usually savory and people don’t shy away from stronger flavors such as preserved eggs, pickles, and spicy oil to eat first thing in the morning. Many people go out for breakfast and grab a quick bite to eat on the way to work or school. Street vendors will open up early to sell their goods to passing commuters – always at a very cheap price!
Below I’ve listed some of the most common breakfast foods in our cities. This, however, is only a sampling of what options are out there – especially for the more adventurous eaters. So get your taste buds ready, and before you know it you will be a Chinese breakfast convert!
粥 Zhōu (Congee)
Zhōu (congee) is a popular breakfast dish, which can be eaten all over China, but especially in southern China. Usually made of rice, although there are variations made with cornmeal, millet, sorghum, etc., zhōu is similar to oatmeal or porridge. Zhōu, however, is not sweetened and instead of adding sugar or fruit as a topping, popular toppings include zhàcài (pickled vegetables), salted eggs, soy sauce, and bamboo shoots to name a few. Yóutiáo, (long, deep fried dough) is often served as an accompaniment to zhōu.
馒头 Mántou (Steamed Buns)
Another very popular breakfast food in China is mántou. The classic mántou is white and made from wheat flour, though they come in various shapes and forms. Fresh from the steamer, mántou are soft and pillowy, and make for a great breakfast or midday snack. In northern China, often times mántou will be served with a meal instead of rice, and grilled mántou are one of my favorite street barbecue items.
包子、饺子 Bāozi, Jiǎozi (Steamed Bao, Dumplings)
Dumplings are also a classic Chinese breakfast. Bāozi are large steamed dumplings you can eat straight out of your hand. They are usually filled with minced meat or vegetables, though some have sausage, egg and other goodies inside. Jiǎozi are smaller steamed or boiled dumplings you eat with chopsticks and dip into a vinegar and soy sauce mixture – and of course as much spice as you want.
煎饼 Jiānbǐng (Fried Pancake Wrap)
Jiān bǐng is a common breakfast food that is popular all over China. Similar to a French crepe, jiān bǐng are always made to order, and usually filled with egg, hoisin sauce, chili paste, scallions and báocuì (fried, crispy cracker).
肠粉 Chángfěn (Rice Noodle Roll)
Chángfěn is found in southern China – more specifically in the Guangdong province, and is definitely a staff favorite here in InternChina. For those lucky enough to be in Zhuhai, every morning you will walk past huge trays of steaming metal contraptions, with cooks churning out chángfěn faster than you can blink. Chángfěn is made from rice milk that is mixed with minced pork and egg, then steamed on large metal sheets. The resulting steamed rice noodle is then scraped onto a plate and covered in sweet soy sauce. Chángfěn may not sound appealing, and it definitely doesn’t win a beauty award, but is by far one of the best breakfast foods to be found in China! So if you’re coming to Zhuhai, make sure to give it a try.
And of course, no breakfast is complete without a cup of dòujiāng (豆浆), fresh warm soy milk, to go along with it!
Coming home from a long day at work in the InternChina Chengdu office, I was surprised to find my host family’s grandmother cooking in the kitchen. Being the courteous young man I am, I immediately dropped my things and went in to investigate, only to discover her chopping furiously away at a couple of poor cabbages. With my limited Mandarin skills, I managed to figure out she was preparing the ingredients needed for jiao zi (饺子, also known as dumplings), a well-known staple of Chinese cuisine.
With a huge butcher cleaver in my hand, I went to work on the cabbages and proceeded to shred them as finely as possible. Mixing in a series of green onions, ginger, and spices into the minced pork meat, the filling was relatively easy to get done. The REAL challenge came with the skins.
As she proceeded to deftly roll out the jiao zi skins one by one I struggled for a good five minutes on mine, ending with this result. Hardly round and not even symmetrical, I had to restart and practice on this one many times!
But after a few more tries, I think I got the hang of it.
Afterwards the jiao zi were filled and nicely folded (at least 姥姥’s were). Mine continue to be a work in progress!
There are various ways to cook jiao zi, including steaming them, cooking them in soup, and frying them.
Overall a pretty interesting experience, considering how easy it is to eat a jiao zi compared to the effort needed to make it. After making them for about three hours, we have enough to last us the month!
Some history on jiao zi: Originally called “tender ears”, jiao zi were used to treat frost-bitten ears in the north of China. No longer restricted to the north, jiao zi are as versatile as they come. Eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and served as entrees, appetizers, and main meals, the jiao zi is the jack of all trades for Chinese cuisine. Never out of place at any time of the day, there are no limits on how and when these delicious dumplings can be eaten!