One of the great mysteries, foodwise, when you go abroad is breakfast. It’s not particularly difficult to find cookbooks and even restaurants that represent the cuisine of just about any country in the world. But they don’t usually include a breakfast section. Even if breakfast is served at the Ethiopian restaurant around the corner from your office, my guess is that you have never tried it (unless your office is in Addis Adaba and/or you are Ethiopian).
This is something that globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdain has discussed at length: People do not generally feel like being adventurous for breakfast, so they breakfast foods are less likely to jump cultural boundaries.
There is also a noted difference between what is available when you eat out for breakfast and what people would eat at home, especially if you happen to be living in a place (like Russia) where people don’t tend to eat at restaurants often, let alone for breakfast.
Now that I’ve addressed all the caveats, I’d like to talk about breakfast in Beijing.
If you take a morning stroll through the hutongs (alleyways) in the older parts of Beijing, you will see small restaurants with tall stacks of metal and bamboo steamers steaming over outdoor pots. There will usually be a man standing next to the steamers, in front of a wok full of hot oil, taking long strips of dough, twisting them together (sometimes with sesame paste inside) and frying them in the oil. Somewhere on the ground, either inside or outside of the restaurant, will be a pot full of hard-boiled egg in a dark vinegar sauce that dyes both the inside and the outside of the egg. When you venture inside, there will be series of stock pots, filled with tofu soup or with congee rice porridge. Each steamer has either ten steamed buns filled with pork or ten steamed dumplings filled with vegetables.
I tried the congee or rice porridge on my second day in Beijing, and I can’t say I liked it. The soft tofu soup, however, is quite delicious, and the fried bread, which reminds me of an elephant ear, is also not bad. But most times I’ve gone out for breakfast with my husband, we order the buns.
The 10 small steamed buns cost 5 or 6 yuan (that’s a little less than one dollar), and we find that one order is enough for both of us, especially if we’re having a soup as well. The restaurants have several bottles of dark vinegar and little bowls to pour it into: The buns are often dipped in vinegar before each bite. There is also complimentary fermented vegetables – often cabbage and carrots, but sometimes the options vary.
We seem to eat a lot less than the average Beijinger. Most people we see in the restaurant will get an order of buns, a soup and a fried bread and eat it all themselves. That would be too much for me to eat on my own, but it’s delicious enough that I could understand why they don’t want to skip any of the elements.
Baozi from a hutong shop in Beijing
Notably absent? Coffee and tea, neither of which is a normal Chinese thing to drink at breakfast.
I prefer savory breakfasts, so I have had no problem getting used to the breakfast options in Beijing’s hutongs. If you’re more of a muffin and cornflakes person, it might be more difficult. But give it a try: The buns are delicious.
One last thing: hotels offer “Western breakfast” in their restaurants for more than 30 yuan. I can’t see what would justify paying that much for a breakfast in China, especially when there are such delicious options available right outside the door for so much less.