The long-running regional food feud about which taste is better, sweet or salty, spills over to what the Chinese eat for breakfast.
Breakfast culture around China is very diversified. A lunch menu in one city may be a breakfast menu in another. In some cities, breakfast is an eat-on-the-hop affair; in others, it’s a meal leisurely enjoyed with family and friends.
Many foreigners seem to think that Chinese breakfast means a dull rice porridge called congee, but reality says otherwise. Street vendors sell steamed buns, youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks), soymilk and bean curd jelly all around China. Little eateries serve up bowls of spicy noodles and peppery soups as the first meal of the day. It just depends where you live.
The people in Wuhan, Hubei Province have a word for eating breakfast: guo zao, which translates as “getting through the morning.” The breakfast tradition in this city emphasizes speed and convenience. Many Wuhan locals eat their breakfasts as they walk to work. But speed does not compromise flavor. Wuhan-style breakfasts are so multiple that one could spend a month in the city without eating the same breakfast every morning. It’s the ideal place to grab breakfast on the street.
A Weibo user calling herself Nezaa once compiled a list of her guo zao over the span of 28 days. She started with the popular local favorite hutangfen, a gooey rice noodle soup made with rich fish stock stewed from small carp. The white rice noodles are briefly cooked in boiling water before being added to the stock, and then are topped with scallions and pickled white radish. Hutangfen is usually paired with fresh youtiao, which is torn up into pieces to soak up the delicious, peppery broth.
The noodles are thin and chewy. One restaurant known for its hutangfen is Xu’s Hutangfen shop, where a bowl of soup with youtian costs 8 yuan (US$1.3)
Another popular Wuhan breakfast is reganmian, a hot and dry noodle dish with sesame paste. It is recognized as one of the most famous noodle dishes in China, made using a special noodle, with edible trona venenum added to the flour to remove the acidic taste. The noodle is cooked in boiling water and dried, then tossed in a sesame paste sauce flavored with salt and pepper. The final dish is sprinkled with dried small shrimp, spicy radish pickle and scallions. A bowl of reganmian costs about 4 yuan.
The third beloved breakfast in Wuhan is doupi. It is made by mixing ingredients such as pork, pickles, shitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots in cooked glutinous rice, then layered between two sheets of bean skin and pan fried. The skin is often made with mung bean flour.
The doupi is similar to a sandwich, and the authentic one must have very thin skin and a square shape.
Other Wuhan breakfasts include mianwo (fried donuts made with rice flour and black sesame), pan-fried dumplings (smaller in size, with white sesame seeds and scallions sprinkled on the semi-sweet dumplings), and dumplings in soup.
The city of Tianjin is known for jianbing guozi, an on-the-go breakfast that has spread from north to south across China. It can be found on Shanghai streets as well. It might be called the Chinese version of a burrito.
There are many different versions of these savory crepe rolls. The Tianjin version is made with mung bean flour instead of wheat flour. The authentic jianbing guozi doesn’t contain sausages or lettuce. The original crepe rolls are made only with egg, a thick sweet sauce made of fermented flour and chopped scallions, and fried dough sticks or flat cake.
It is a high-calorie breakfast but easy to eat on the run.
A healthier breakfast in Tianjin is guobacai, which is made by mixing strips of mung bean flour pancake with a rich, spiced gravy flavored with sesame paste and cilantro. It is best enjoyed with a crusty clay-oven baked sesame seed cake. Guobacai is supposed to be a good hangover remedy.
Miancha (flour tea) is another breakfast popular in Tianjin and Beijing. It is a paste and puree dish made with millet flour and topped with sesame paste. Hot and thick, miancha is eaten without a spoon or chopsticks. One simply turns the bowl while sipping it.
Zhagao (fried cake) is a popular sweet breakfast in Tianjin. It is a glutinous rice flour cake with red bean paste filling that is fried in boiling oil.
The breakfast tradition in Guangzhou has expanded from a simple, quick meal to a culinary tradition that features an array of sweet and savory dishes.
Dim sum in Cantonese cuisine is more of a brunch than a breakfast. It is a cuisine distinguished by small portions of food served in bamboo steamers, ranging from steamed buns, shrimp dumplings, spring rolls and shaomai to pork ribs, meatballs, chicken feet and changfen (rice noodle roll). Dim sum is served with a variety of teas, including chrysanthemum flower Pu’er, classic green tea, oolong and flower blends.
Authentic dim sum is delivered to tables by servers pushing around carts around a restaurant. Diners choose the dishes they want and orders are recorded with stamps.
Dim sum also includes staple dishes like fried noodles, porridges and fried rice, in addition to the small portions of “Chinese tapas.”
Dim sum is also widely popular outside Guangdong Province. There are many local and national eatery chains in Shanghai that serve dim sum-style meals.
In the city that prides itself on spicy cuisine, breakfast naturally starts with something to wake up the taste buds. It’s common to see bowls of spicy noodles called xiaomian (small noodles) sold along the streets.
The most important ingredient of this breakfast is the seasoning, which mixes scallions, garlic, sauces, vinegar, chilies and soy sauce, among other ingredients. Customers tell the street vendors how they like their noodles cooked, what toppings to add and whether to throw in some additional hot pepper sauce.
The fresh noodles typically come in three diameters: 2, 4 and 9 millimeters wide. The thin noodle is the default option if a customer doesn’t specify which noodle is preferred.
Glutinous rice balls are also a popular Chongqing breakfast. They are sweet, similar to cifantuan in Shanghai. Fried dough sticks (youtiao) are wrapped in glutinous rice and then rolled in peanut powder. The hot glutinous rice ball is a very filling and easy to eat on the go.
Youcha, or oil tea is another crowd pleaser. Ground rice flour is simmered for about a minute, then added to salt, pepper, sesame oil and chili oil. It is topped it off with fried noodles.