One way to explore China’s diverse range of breakfasts is to simply eat your way through it - through the eight favourite food regions to be exact. Respected as the pillars of traditional Chinese cooking, they’ve been forged over centuries, shaped by customs, climate and geography. Here we use them as our compass to create an itinerary of some of China’s favourite breakfasts.
Lu cuisine (Shandong province)
One of Shandong’s star breakfast snacks is the jianbing or what’s sometimes known as the Chinese crepe. After setting an enormous circular hotplate spinning, the jianbing master pours over a batter made from various flours, which can include a mixture of wheat flour, mung bean flour, soybean flour and buckwheat flour. The batter is skilfully troweled out into a large, thin crepe and then painted with egg. When the egg is cooked, the crepe is whisked off the hotplate and tossed to the next person who paints it with chilli paste and sprinkles it with spring onion, lettuce and coriander, before rolling it up to serve, hot.
Anhui cuisine (Anhui province)
Driven by the wealth of produce that grows in this fertile area, Anhui’s cuisine is naturally flavoursome and fragrant. Breakfast here can include stuffed bread, herbaceous noodles and dumplings. According to Anhui-born chef Zhang Juhua, owner of Red Kitchen Cabinet Catering, Anhui’s version of wontons are the best. “My favourite thing to eat is Anhui’s wontons,” she says excitedly.
Anhui wontons are usually boiled in a soup, and are typically filled with pork mince. “They were what I loved eating most when I was a child. They have a really thin skin and they’re so, so delicious.”
Su cuisine (Jiangsu province)
Su cuisine includes several styles of food from across the region and spills over into Shanghai. One of the must-tries here is xia huang tang bao, or crab soup dumplings, jumbo-sized steamed dumplings filled with crab meat and soup. Perfect for the chopstick-challenged, they’re traditionally eaten by simply raising the plate they’re sitting on to your lips, nibbling off a hole, and sucking out the complex soup. Straws optional.
Zhe cuisine (Zhejiang province)
Zhejiang is known for its sophisticated cuisine and it’s what you’ll enjoy on trips to picturesque Hangzhou as well as neighbouring Shanghai. The region offers an endless variety of dumplings, but the standouts include xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and sheng jian. Xiao long bao (get our recipe here) are elegant steamed dumplings filled with meat (typically pork) and a mouth-scorching soup.
The more rustic sheng jian also have a juicy meat filling, but instead, have a thick doughy skin and a contrastingly crusty pan-fried base.
Another compulsory breakfast item in the area is you tiao, doughnut-like bread sticks sometimes referred to as Chinese churros. The origin of these nutritionally questionable delights is vague, but legend has it that you tiao began as an effigy made by a pastry maker in the city of Lin’an (now Hangzhou) in 1142. On hearing that an official and his wife had betrayed the much-loved hero Yue Fei, the enraged pastry maker made two lumps of dough to symbolise the nasty couple, pressed them together, and flung them into a pot of boiling oil.
Today this symbolic snack is a common start to the day all over China. Enjoy them with a side of soy milk and be sure to choose ones plucked fresh from the hot oil for maximum enjoyment.
Min cuisine (Fujian province)
In the fertile province of Fujian, breakfasts are decidedly diverse. One of the favourite morning kickstarters is ding bian hu, which translates to “pot side paste”, a matter-of-fact description of its fascinating cooking method. A soup of prawns and vegetables is set to boil in a large wok. Next, a thick slurry of rice is poured around the insides of the wok above the level of the soup. The wok is covered, and after a few minutes when the rice paste is cooked to a noodle-like texture, the paste is scraped down into the soup to finish.
Yue cuisine (Guangdong province)
Better known in the West as Cantonese, Yue cuisine is, of course, one of the best-known Chinese cuisines globally. Guangdong-born chef Zhou Chao, an instructor at Beijing Cooking School, loves the breakfast culture in his hometown.
“If it’s a work day, people usually eat chang fen, wontons, buns, rice noodles or congee for breakfast. If they have time, or on weekends, Cantonese people like to meet up with friends or family at a restaurant for dim sum.”
One of the most popular Cantonese dishes, he tells us, is chang fen, which you can enjoy at a dim sum restaurant or directly from a street-side vendor. Chang fen are translucent rice-noodle rolls, filled with ingredients that may include pork, prawns or egg – depending on the chef – and drizzled with soy sauce to serve.
“Sichuan breakfasts are flavourful, savoury, spicy and hot. I feel like they wake me and my stomach up."
Xiang cuisine (Hunan province)
Similar to Sichuan, Hunan is known for its liberal use of chilli. Unlike Sichuan, however, there are no numbing peppercorns that might help tone it down, so locals often refer to Hunan’s fiery style as the pure spice. The classic breakfast dish to look out for here is simply referred to as mi fen, which translates roughly as “rice noodles”.
It’s a steaming bowl of rice noodle soup scattered with spicy meat and your choices of other spiced-up toppings, such as preserved vegetables or more chilli.
Chuan cuisine (Sichuan province)
Finally, we come to China’s chilli capital, Sichuan province.
“Most of the breakfasts here are spicy, including noodles and dumplings. We even have our own spicy buns,” says Chengdu-born Hu Ruixi. Hu is the founder of food tour company Lost Plate, which specialises in authentic local cuisines. Though she’s travelled extensively to study China’s food, she still prefers to start the day with food from home.
“Mala niurou mian (spicy beef noodle soup) and chao shou (wontons) from Sichuan are my favourites. I’ve eaten them since I was a kid,” she says. “Sichuan breakfasts are flavourful, savoury, spicy and hot. I feel like they wake me and my stomach up.”
Photographs courtesy of Lost Plate.
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Yangzhou fried rice from Jiangsu Province is the most famous variety of fried rice in China. Known for the fine knifework in cutting the ingredients, it has been the model for “special fried rice” dishes found on Chinese restaurant menus in the West. Destination Flavour China
Combined with Anhui’s famous bamboo shoots and a touch of wild garlic and chilli for colour, this kind of simple stir-fry is a staple dish around the region. Destination Flavour China