While many Chinese lunch and dinner dishes have become familiar to Western diners, Chinese breakfast foods have largely remained a mystery. This is unfortunate, because Chinese breakfast dishes are interesting, varied, and tasty — some sweet, some savory, some comforting, some challenging and surprising.
Dim sum, which means "touch the heart,"is one breakfast tradition that can be found in Chinatowns all over the world. It began in Southern China as a snack to be eaten during yum cha, or tea drinking time, and today the dishes are still small and succulent.
At restaurants, customers can pick from a large selection of tasty choices, which are brought to the table and served in steamer baskets or on small plates.
Dumplings, or gao, are a traditional dim sum treat. They are filled with vegetables, shrimp, tofu, or meat and wrapped in a translucent wheat or rice flour skin.
Other common dishes served at dim sum include bao, which are baked or steamed buns, meatballs, chicken feet (known as "Phoenix claws"), small pastries, rolls, and sweets. The variety is almost endless.
Tea is also an important element of a traditional dim sum breakfast. Diners may choose from green, oolong, jasmine, chrysanthemum, or other types of tea.
Congee is a mild-flavored rice porridge that has been cooked until the rice begins to break down. It is usually served with different toppings that vary by region, which may include pickled vegetables, aduki beans, peanuts, tofu, and meats.
Century eggs are a common dish served with or in congee. These are chicken, quail, or duck eggs that have been preserved in alkaline so that the yolks are dark green and creamy. Tea eggs, which are cooked in spiced tea, are also a common breakfast treat.
Sometimes congee is made with black rice, which becomes purplish when cooked. Some find this colorful congee to be so flavorful, it needs no toppings at all.
Many Chinese enjoy having a bowl of noodles for breakfast, and there is a wide variety of noodle dishes to choose from.
In Northern China, where wheat is more commonly eaten, a bowl of hot and flavorful wheat noodles is a popular breakfast dish. Rice noodles are more often eaten in the South, along with steamed sweet potatoes, another Southern specialty.
In Wuhan, hot-and-dry noodles are eaten at breakfast by almost everyone. This dish is prepared by oiling cooked noodles and drying them, then scalding them quickly and adding spicy condiments. The result is chewy and quite tasty.
jiang, or hot, sweetened soy milk, is a very popular breakfast food. It is frequently eaten with youtiao, which are long fried sticks of dough that are dipped into the soy milk (much as doughnuts are dipped into coffee in the West).
Zongzi are dumplings made of sweet glutinous rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. They have a variety of tasty fillings and can be bought at street stalls. Zongzi are especially popular as a festival food and are frequently eaten during the Dragon Boat festival.
Chinese people eat baozi — steamed, filled buns — at any meal, but they are especially popular at breakfast. Baozi can be filled with ground pork, vegetables such as spinach or eggplant, eggs, or bean paste; indeed, there is an almost endless variety, both savory and sweet. They are a popular street food.
With so many breakfast choices, there is something to pique any appetite. No one need go hungry at breakfast in China!