A few years ago, while working as a tour guide in Yunnan, I had a guest who – every morning – insisted on “not eating lunch for breakfast”. She had travelled in China before, and had been made to start each morning with a hearty, savoury meal, a bamboo basket of steamed dumplings, say, or a bowl of spicy noodles, when what she really wanted was some cereal and a croissant.
Fortunately for her, we packed a carload of breakfast cereal for each trip, because she’s not the only one who is a culinary conservative when it comes to starting the day. Take me as an example – for years now, I could have been breakfasting on dumplings and noodles, and while I can eat that for breakfast, I still find myself making ridiculous detours to bakeries and cafes to get a cup of coffee and some toast in the morning.
While in Yunnan last week, I recorded this video of a lady making a typical breakfast of wandoufen (豌豆粉) in Dali. Slabs of chilled wandoufen (a solid jelly made from pea flour) are cut into chunks and served with of chilli oil, vinegar, coriander leaves and peanuts. After watching this, I decided to break away from my toast habit and try another local dish of broad bean porridge served with the same flavourings and chunks of deep-fried dough stick – shown in the photo above. It was delicious, but I still went straight from the stall to Bakery 88, a German-run café nearby that I regularly make detours for. My order? Coffee and a bread roll…
What breakfast foods will you make a detour for?
Congee – rice cooked in water until it disintegrates into a thick gruel – is eaten right across Asia, from India to Japan. It’s used to wean infants, fed to invalids, and eaten first thing in the morning and last thing at night – a universal comfort food.
Congee can be eaten plain (with a deep-fried youtiao dough stick for flavour and crunch), or flavoured with traditional combinations of ingredients – thousand year-old egg and strips of pork, a raw egg and beef, or chopped spring onions and coriander (my favourite).
The recipe below is for two big bowls of plain congee. I made this in our medium-sized rice cooker and it still made a big bubbling mess of the worktop – make sure you have plenty of room in the pot if you want to make double quantities. The ratio of rice to water looks a bit silly but – trust me – it all works out in the end.
1/2 cup white rice (you can use brown rice too, but it will take longer to cook)
4 cups water
1 cup stock
1/2 tsp salt
With a rice cooker: Put everything into the rice cooker, and put it on the boil setting. Leave for an hour, then season and serve. How easy was that?
With a saucepan: Put everything in the pan, bring it to the boil on a high heat. Reduce heat to a medium-low setting, and cook, uncovered, for an hour until the rice has broken down and the congee is creamy. Season and serve.
P.S. The word ‘congee’ comes from the Tamil term for rice porridge (kanji), but in China it’s better known as zhou or juk, which are the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations of the character 粥 respectively. In the north of China where rice doesn’t grow easily, congee is made out of other grains like millet, cornmeal or barley. At the risk of contradicting my thoughts on Chinese breakfasts above, I remember slurping bowlfuls of millet congee for breakfast in a bone-dry Beijing winter and feeling the moisture and warmth slowly seeping back into my body. Like much of traditional Chinese cooking, the beauty of congee is that it makes a small amount of food go a long way…