Traditional Chinese Breakfast Foods

From Congee and Crullers to Hot and Dry Noodles

Congee and fried cruller
ironypoisoning/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Westerners have certain ideas about breakfast foods—namely, toast, cereal, pancakes, donuts, and, of course, eggs. In China, though, there's an entirely different expectation when it comes to the morning meal. It's nearly always savory, and it often features strong flavors that don't show up in American breakfasts. In major cities, people often eat breakfast on the go, getting their food from street vendors selling dishes ranging from congee to steamed buns to crepes.

Congee and Crullers

Many Asians begin their day with a warm bowl of congee, or zhou, a watery rice gruel that bears a marked resemblance to porridge. Although even the devoted fan of porridge would probably balk at being forced to consume it day after day, the variety of seasonings used to make congee ensure that it need not ever become boring. Congee can be sweet or savory and seasoned with everything from chicken to mushrooms. If meat is used, it is often marinated before being added to the rice. The word congee (also known as jook in Cantonese) comes from the Indian word kanji, which refers to the water in which the rice has been boiled.

Just as a morning cup of cafe au lait and a croissant are de rigueur for the French, crullers are the food of choice to serve with congee. Also known as "deep-fried devils," crullers are twisted strips of deep-fried dough. While they can be made at home, crullers—known as youtiao in Chinese—are a popular item at hawker's stands (open-air food markets). They are dipped in warm congee, the same way you would dip a doughnut into a cup of coffee. In northern China, where wheat is the staple crop, crullers are dipped into a thin soy milk beverage, which can be either sweet or salty.

Steamed Buns and Dumplings

Steamed buns and dumplings are popular at all times of day in China, but particularly at breakfast. Chinese steamed buns can be either stuffed (baozi) or unstuffed (mantou). Mantou is made from wheat flour and steamed in a bamboo basket; baozi is filled with anything from pork and cabbage to thinly sliced vegetables. If dumplings are on the breakfast table, they are usually jjaozi, smaller dumplings filled with pork or beef and vegetables that are eaten with chopsticks.

Hot and Dry Noodles

In the West, noodles are a meal for lunch or dinner, but that's not the case in China. Originating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, hot and dry noodles are cooked in sesame oil until tender and then quickly reheated in boiling water immediately before serving. They're "dry" because the noodles aren't accompanied by any broth. However, they are topped with chili sauce, pickled vegetables, sesame oil, and garlic chives.

Other types of noodles are popular for breakfast in China, too, including soy sauce noodles and mala, hot and numbing noodles. Wonton soup, a popular Chinese restaurant appetizer in the U.S., is also eaten for breakfast in China.

Breakfast Crepes

Jian bing, perhaps the most western-like breakfast on the list, are egg-filled breakfast crepes. The crepe is made of flour and is traditionally topped with egg, scallions, cilantro, sweet soybean paste, and chili sauce. However, as street food, modern jian bing is often filled with ingredients such as ham and cheese.