02.22.09

What do the Chinese eat for breakfast?

Posted in Food and Drink at 8:17 am by Benjamin Ross

As people travel the world, one aspect of their lives which is usually the last to become assimilated to their new culture is their breakfast.  There is no place this is better exhibited than in the globalization of food over the past century, which focuses disproportionately on lunch and dinner cuisine.

China is no exception to this rule.  For most foreigners living in the Middle Kingdom, acclimation to Chinese lunch and dinner cuisine takes but a matter of weeks or months.  Breakfast, however, is a completely different matter, as foreigners often either stockpile a cache of foreign breakfast products at the nearest Wal-Mart or Metro, or simply skip breakfast all together, and take their first food of the day at lunch.

The same generalization can be applied for Chinese living in Western countries as well.  I can honestly say I have had several Chinese people tell me that they have never tasted anything more disgusting in their lives than a donut (except maybe cheese).  Most of my Chinese friends in the US either stick to Chinese fare as best they can in the morning, or reluctantly subsist on toast until lunch.

So what exactly do the Chinese eat for breakfast?  The continental breakfast at my hotel in Shanghai provides a typical sampling.  Here it is.

chinese tea eggs
In the first steamer, we have tea eggs, a common breakfast snack in most parts of the Middle Kingdom.
baozi
Next we have 2 kinds of baozi (steamed buns).  The first ones on the left have pork balls inside, while the ones on the right are stuffed with vegetables.
stir fried breakfast cabbage
This unappetizing-looking dish is stir fried cabbage.  It actually tastes a lot better than it looks.
breakfast sweet potatoes and chinese fried bread
boiled sweet potato (left) and fried Chinese bread (right)
chinese porridge
Probably the most common mainstay of the Chinese breakfast is white rice porridge, which consists of nothing more than rice, and a lot of water.
porridge toppings pickled radishes peanuts tofu
To give the porridge flavor, porridge is usually topped with a variety of toppings, such as (clockwise starting from bottom) peanuts, fermented tofu, spicy pickled radishes, and pickled mustard.
black porridge
In addition to the standard porridge, there is also dark porridge: It has a little more flavor than the white stuff so it usually doesn’t require any toppings.
soy milk fruit juice
Although the Chinese stay close to their roots for their morning meal, elements of Western cuisine are beginning to seep in, as we can see from the morning beverages which include soy milk (traditional Chinese drink) along with fruit juice and milk (both relatively recent imports from the West)
toast peanut butter and jelly
In addition to beverages, other common Western breakfast foods have becoming more and more common in Chinese breakfast as well, especially in large cities like Shanghai.  Here we have toasted white bread with peanut butter, jelly, butter, and a sugary dairy spread (not sure what to call it in English) which I find quite tasty.
chinese breakfast
For my own breakfast, I have generally been combining the Western and Chinese elements together like so.  Bon Apetit!

19 Comments »

  1. Tex China said,

    February 22, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Other than baozi which is typically pretty good the others aren’t really my fare. I like eggs, sweetened tofu milk, and sweetened zhou when I am up and out of the house that early. Cereal still rules my world.

  2. boyce China said,

    February 22, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Hi Ben,

    Except for the porridge (don’t like the consistency), it looks good to me. I wish I had done a similar post of some of the breakfasts I had while living in Korea – rice, soup, and five kinds of kimchi. Gets the sweat glands going.

    Cheers, Boyce

  3. Nick China said,

    February 22, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Tea eggs are great. I often cook up a batch as they are great as snacks. If you’re ever in Taiwan, they really know how do do a breakfast.. I’m a big fan og Taiwanese egg rolls and a milk tea for breakfast.

  4. Bill Canada said,

    February 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    The whitish sugary dairy spread is condensed milk, also a not too recent (probably 1920′s ?) import from the west (Netherlands). I start seeing these in the west recently, but it’s been popular in China before 1949, and after 1989, and in Hong Kong since the 20′s.

    Many babies were fed with that stuff before 1949. Yikes!!!

  5. Nathan China said,

    February 22, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    I’ve been in China for 6 months and I can’t get used to any of that food for breakfast. Even the baozi which are readily available at nearby shops. It just dosent seem like breakfast material to me. As you say I usually go without breakfast or make do with toast or similar.

  6. Don Tai Canada said,

    February 22, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Breakfast in China varies with location. In the south you can get dianxin, like you can get in Hong Kong and most North American large Chinatowns. In Northern China, most locals have youtiao (fried bread, long), mantou (steamed bread, round), yougao (fried, round, flat, sweet), and baozi (meat or veggie). Boiled eggs are pretty common throughout China, but not really breakfast food. Zhou (rice porridge) is more popular in the south, not the north. The meal is usually light. Chinese cook with only a little oil, so for breakfast they often eat youtiao to make up for this every so often.

    As for the stuff they’re feeding you, they are pretty rare. Doujiang, OJ and milk? Rare stuff, especially for breakfast. Cabbage for breakfast? Weird. Peanuts for breakfast? And what’s that dark red porridge stuff? It really looks like Western food, or some attempt at it. Go inland and you’ll not see stuff like western sliced bread and jam. That’s all Laowai food.

  7. chriswaugh_bj China said,

    February 23, 2009 at 4:08 am

    I suspect half the reason Westerners have trouble adapting to Chinese breakfasts is that their impression of Chinese breakfast so often comes from hotels and similarly dodgy places. As Don Tai says, a lot of what’s in those photos is just weird.

    But Don Tai- no doujiang for breakfast? Come on! I’ve breakfasted on youtiao washed down with doujiang in Jinghong, Tianjin and Beijing- and that was at regular, local breakfast stands, no hotels or other places laowai would normally be looking for breakfast.

    Actually, a youtiao and a bowl of doujiang is a pretty good way to start the day. Especially good as a hangover breakfast, but good to start any day. Just make sure you’re buying from where the locals get theirs (hints: There are no hotels, only apartment blocks, in sight, everybody else is speaking the local dialect, and there’s a queue).

    And that red porridge I’m guessing is made from a grain other than rice, I’m just not sure which grain. It certainly does not look like any Western porridge I know. There are many different kinds of zhou/porridge. One of my favourites is made of millet, and it’s thick, loess yellow, and tasty- more nutritious than rice, too, especially when it’s my mother in law’s organic millet.

  8. Tang Tang Australia said,

    February 23, 2009 at 5:00 am

    When I was in Liuyang (Hunan), my favorite breakfast was to head custom-made noodles soup, usually with chili peppers, eggs, peanuts and vegetables. In Guangzhou, the spicy sausage soup was also one of my favorites.

    I guess it all depends on the province you are living in.

  9. Matt Schiavenza China said,

    February 23, 2009 at 5:10 am

    I second the regional comment; no good Kunminger would let the morning pass without a bowl of 米线, which I find about as appetizing as slugging 二锅头 at banquet dinners.

    In a small Yunnan town recently, I talked the chef of a little fry house to make what I called a Chinese/Western breakfast. He cooked up hash browns, scrambled eggs, a bacon-esque dish, and some veggies. All of these were Chinese dishes; and with my packet of Nescafe made for a damn nice pre-cycle breakfast.

  10. Matt Schiavenza China said,

    February 23, 2009 at 5:12 am

    Chris- I’m also a believer in youtiao and doujiang mornings; if there was a joint near my house I’d be a regular. Instead, I go with peanut butter on toast and strong coffee :)

  11. xge China said,

    February 24, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Ben,,
    You eat porridge in a non-traditional way. All those staff you regard as toppings are most commonly serve on the side.

  12. Lisa in Toronto Canada said,

    February 24, 2009 at 11:27 am

    By any wild chance are you staying at the Yangzi Hotel? I feel I know that sweet potato steam table.

    The Nanjing Central Hotel usually had three kinds of zhou for breakfast – millet, red rice, plain etc.
    I like the red rice congee for breakfast, and also the doufu nao (tofu brains) with lots of hot peppers.
    One can get used to pickled vegetables for breakfast.

    happy eating!

  13. Benjamin Ross China said,

    February 24, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    @Lisa in Toronto

    I’m staying in the Saint Laurent Hotel Apartment. It’s on hongmei lu in the southwest part of the city. Not the greatest hotel, but the breakfast usually does the trick.

  14. West Coast Hick United States said,

    February 24, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I must be secretly Chinese. I made up a recipe for my favourite breakfast which is fried basmati rice with soy milk poured over it and a dab of honey. Hmm. I should visit someday.

  15. Kankakee Mom United States said,

    January 26, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I have a Chinese exchange student coming to stay with me. He is from Shanghi. What do I serve him for breakfast?

  16. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    January 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    @Kankakee Mom

    It’s really a toss up. Thing is, for a lot of people (I fall into this category), when they go abroad they want to experience life as the locals do. So for example, whenever I eat at a Chinese family’s home, I tend to get a little disappointed when they attempt to Americanize their meals. Then again, food (and especially breakfast) can be a very personal thing as well, and some people aren’t so adventurous with what they put in their mouth. My best advice is to ask your exchange student what he eats for breakfast before he comes. Realistically, most Chinese breakfast food is pretty tough to come by in the US, however these days more and more Chinese are adopting the “Western” breakfast of milk and bread. So it’s possible you might be fine with the staples. Best thing is to just ask him up front. Good luck in Kankakee

  17. Randy United States said,

    April 17, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Here in the USA, I wish the Chinese Resturants would open for Breakfast. American places are open early, but the Typical Chinese Places don’t open till Lunch. I would eat Breakfast, and have exactaly, what they serve for Lunch and Dinner, if they were open early. Who do I tell, there missing Busyness. Or at least mine:(

  18. Xiao Mao China said,

    May 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    That’s funny, I thought Chinese breakfast was the easiest thing to adapt to. I love tea eggs and black rice zhou and especially fresh, hot soymilk. Baozi are alright, but it’s hard to find anything but pork or egg+chive baozi here in Shenyang.

  19. Laura Chin United States said,

    December 31, 2013 at 12:28 am

    Now I am hungry for delicious tea eggs and congee at breakfast tomorrow!

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