When a student invited me to have breakfast with her at the outdoor snack tent on campus, I jumped at the chance. In an attempt to immerse myself into Chinese culture, I have in the past bought one of the beige fried dough sticks calling my name as I walked past in the morning. However, like pretty much everything in China, you can’t just go into this breakfast business blind. You need to be shown. Walking through campus nibbling my dough stick, I was pretty repulsed by the hollow, bland taste and secretly glad I’d taken the precaution of having actual breakfast before leaving the house. As with most things I attempt to try independently, it turns out I was doing it all wrong.
The morning is one of the best times on campus. Vendors are setting setting up their stalls of fruit, vegetables, rice and flour. The air feels clean and fresh, the tantalising smells of a thousand breakfasts sets your mouth watering, and nursery children are outside doing their pre-class synchronised dance moves.
I reached the tent and sat down on one of the plastic stools to wait for my friend. I didn’t realise she’d already arived and was up at the heated carts selecting our morning feast. Breakfast in China is always hot. Always. According to Chinese tradition, after fasting since last night’s tea, it’s the only way to re-spark digestion and prepare the stomach for a day of work. Breakfast is usually less flavoursome than other meals, with more subtle spices and seasonings, but usually consists of rice, noodles, baozi (steamed buns filled with meat or veg) or soya milk.
For starters was zhou – a sort of hot rice soup. There was a sweet milky one, and a spicier one with large silky tofu blobs floating in in. In the Sunday morning chill this was a perfect way to start, and I eagerly slurped it I eyed up the rest of the table. Next we had some baozi and jaozi (fried dumplings). I’m always a fan of both of these, and so even though they quickly lost their heat I was keen to get stuck in. They were no different to the types you’d eat for lunch or for tea, no special oaty version and not fortified with Mr Kellog’s vitamins and iron.
I had been cautious of the dough sticks, not wanting to look rude but knowing what oily acrid taste awaited in those long beige blighters, but I was soon educated. At her prompts to try them, I picked one up in my chopsticks and tentatively nibbled on the end. She quickly corrected me and told me that they’re disgusting like that – you’re supposed to dip them. Well, I’ll be. A dunk in the fiery broth transformed each mouthful into a pleasure boat of culinary delight. I was tasting the flavours of the soup more clearly and defined than with a simple spoon, and the ugly fried taste of the dough stick was little more than a distant memory.
The last things on the breakfast menu were tea eggs. In the UK we usually just eat hens eggs. These are easy to spot and you pretty much know what it looks like boiled, fried, scrambled and raw. However, many types of eggs are eaten in China, and after seeing boiled eggs for sale on the street where the bird inside had been allowed to develop, I’m a bit wary of eggs that don’t look quite right. I’d heard of ‘tea eggs’ before, but when I asked students exactly what type of eggs they were, or how they were prepared, I’ve yet to hear a more definitive answer than “I think it’s boiled in tea”. The shells are stained a disconcerting ashy brown and are slightly cracked. I stretched out the shelling process for as long as possible, on edge for the sudden revelation of beak of claw. Inside, the white of the egg was a stained brown colour, but no body parts were visible so with some trepidation I took a bite. One bite quickly followed another and soon it was gone in a hearty greed of relief and delight. You know how boiled eggs don’t taste of much before it’s seasoned? Well this was a boiled egg where the seasoning was infused right through to the yolk. It was unimaginable, surely a feat of genetic modification or factory processing, to produce an egg which tastes so perfect. A little salty, a little eggy, absolutely delicious. It just doesn’t make sense.This popular snack is so worth a go, and I’ll crack the recipe (ha) before coming home so you can all have a try.