China: What's for Breakfast?
Noodles. Dumplings. How about some Chicken Feet, too?
By Sophie Deal
It’s 2 am UK time when our bleary-eyed group stumbles down to the breakfast hall of Wan Hao Hotel, Foshan. The six of us arrived in China the previous evening and, with a seven-hour time distance to process, we are far from sprightly this Chinese morning.
Nonetheless, I’m feeling excited. This is my first introduction to authentic Chinese cuisine and I’m looking forward to experiencing a completely different way of eating. What better place to start than the breakfast table, where an intriguing array of unfamiliar dishes awaits.
Lazy Susan on the Table
Upon entering, a cheerful waitress guides us to a round table with a rotating center tray, commonly known as a Lazy Susan. Lazy Susans feature at most Chinese restaurants and accommodate China’s communal approach to eating. Large parties often dine together, enjoying a large variety of dishes. These turntables keep everything readily accessible.
Baozi, cream custard buns. I must admit, it’s slightly unsettling when one of the first items brought to our Lazy Susan is a plate of chicken feet. Our Chinese friend, Dolly, tells us that many refer to them as ‘Phoenix claws’, making them sound marginally more enticing. Still, I decide to leave them until I’m feeling a bit braver and rotate to the next dish.
Playing it safe, I opt for one of the fairly harmless looking red bean paste dumplings - soft doughy balls encrusted with a sugary topping. Inside rests a savory red bean paste that contrasts dramatically in flavor to its casing.
As more foods fill the table, it is clear that juxtaposition is a staple part of Chinese cuisine. Dolly explains that there is little segregation in China between a main and a dessert. In fact, the two are generally served together in one sitting. The sight of noodles and pork dumplings nested amongst egg custard tarts and cake reaffirms this.
To a Western palate, eating noodles for breakfast just seems wrong. But in this setting, armed with chopsticks, you’re led to question why you would ever favor a bowl of cereal over them. Noodles are delicious! Why not eat them for breakfast?
I soon feel the same way about jiaozi - sticky, crescent-shaped dumplings that taste great dipped in a pool of soy sauce. Their variably crunchy center is comprised of carrot, green bean and water chestnut shreds amongst salty, tender pork.
The next dish to reach my plate is an enticing slice of steamed cake. Back home, cake for breakfast is a naughty treat reserved for health-shunning teenagers and reluctant adults who take their birthdays very seriously. Here, it’s an everyday breakfast dish. Admittedly Chinese cakes are much less dense and sugary than we’re used to in the West, so this light sponge actually feels 9am appropriate.
By this point, my small plate is smeared in soy sauce and tiny bits of vegetables from my pork dumplings. Embracing the antithetic nature of Chinese cuisine, I dip my last sliver of sponge into the sauce and vegetable shreds, before popping it in my mouth and enjoying the mash-up of flavors.
I wash the infusion down with a swig of fresh coconut milk. This delicious drink is made from coconut pulp, juiced and combined. The liquid takes on all the natural sweetness of the fruit and is a surprisingly pleasant accompaniment to beef noodles.
Coconut milk aside, no breakfast is complete without a cup of tea. Tea is an institution in China, just as it is in Britain. However the Chinese favor a flavorsome black tea over light brown blends of milk and sugar. ‘This tea is very good for circulation, especially for giants like Charlie…’ Dolly quips, winking at our 6ft 4 friend whose height has triggered a few shocked reactions from locals in the breakfast hall.
A Glass of Shui
Feeling a little dehydrated from the heat, I ask for a glass of water - ‘shui’. When the waitress brings it to me, I assume there has been a miscommunication; the water is boiling hot. But as I soon learn, Chinese people generally don’t drink cold water.
Iced water (bing shui) in particular is considered to have ill effects on health. ‘Chinese well-being is all about heating the body up,’ Dolly informs us. ‘Cold is considered bad for you because it slows down your circulation. Bing shui is believed to have bad effects, like reduced fertility and bladder problems.’
Luckily, Dolly assures us that this superstition does not mean bing shui is difficult to get hold of in China. Although it is not always served in restaurants, it’s easy to pick up bottles of iced water at convenience stores for roughly 50 cents.
Finally, I’m ready to take on chicken feet. The texture and flavor is very similar to cold chicken skin, but drier and more rubbery. I conclude that they’re an acquired taste – I’m in no rush to try another whereas Dolly can’t get enough, stripping them down to the bone before discarding them like the pips of a moreish fruit.
After an intriguing hour of experimenting at the breakfast table, we make our exit through the hotel, well fed and ready for a day exploring Foshan. And if the cuisine is anything to go by, we’re guaranteed a day of novelty, variety and surprises.
Other common Chinese breakfast dishes:
Congee – a mild rice porridge
Tea eggs – whole eggs hard-boiled in spiced tea
Baozi – steamed buns filled with meat, vegetables or bean paste
You tiao – strips of deep-fried dough (very oily!)
Sweet potatoes – baked and soft, delicious
Sophie Deal is a writer and cartoonist from Wales, UK. She currently works as a copywriter for a major global brand, but enjoys running off to explore the world whenever she can.