Breakfast dishes in China are very different from what we’re used to eating in the West. They are usually made out of wheat flour or tofu, but many dishes are prepared in a variety of flavors and with different seasonings and toppings. They can be either sweet or savory. Tests vary a lot in different regions.
Some tourists find the Chinese breakfast dishes fascinating, others don’t like them so much. Regardless, Chinese breakfast is something you must try while you live or travel in China.
In this article, I am introducing the most traditional, and popular, Chinese breakfast dishes.
Bāozi: Stuffed Steamed Buns
Seven years ago, when I first came to Shanghai, you were able to see small shops selling baozi everywhere. They were open from the early morning, sometimes even at 6 o’clock, so that people can buy and eat breakfast on their way to work. Today there are fewer small food vendors, but the boazi shops are still a popular sighting in Shanghai. Baozi are also sold in literally every FamilyMart or 7Eleven shop across China. Another reason why they are so popular is that they are really convenient to eat as a takeaway or even on the go. Usually, two buns for breakfast are enough.
Baozi can be stuffed with anything from pork and cabbage to thinly sliced vegetables or bean paste. They can be salty or sweet. The salty baozi are usually stuffed with ground pork, eggplant, eggs, or vegetables. The sweet baozi are stuffed with bean paste, creamy custard, sesame seeds.
Mántou: Unstuffed Steamed Buns
Mantou (馒头) is the unstuffed cousin of baozi. They are made from wheat flour and also steamed in a big bamboo basket. In my opinion, mantou are tasteless and I personally never eat them. Their western equivalent would be a French toast with nothing on it.
Similar to the steamed buns, jiǎozi (饺子) can be eaten during other daily meals, but they are popular for breakfast. These are small dumplings filled with pork or beef and vegetables. Usually, they are served in a hot soup and eaten with chopsticks.
Zhōu: Rice Porridge
Eating rice porridge or congee is popular all across Asia. It is also a very common breakfast in China.
The Chinese version of rice porridge is called 粥 (zhōu). It is a relatively easy dish to prepare, but it takes a few hours to cook. The rice is cooked in a lot of water for 3-4 hours to soften. It’s served when it becomes a soft and thick porridge.
To give the congee some flavor, it is usually served with different toppings that vary by region. It can be seasoned with anything from chicken or eggs to mushrooms, pickled vegetables, fermented tofu. If meat is added to the porridge, it is often marinated and prepared before being added to the rice.
Congee can also have a sweet flavor. Usually, it is made from red beans, peanuts, and black rice. This colorful sweet congee is so flavorful that it doesn’t require any toppings at all.
I can not think of any similar breakfast dish in Europe. After all, zhou can have many different tastes and can both be sweet or savory.
The rice porridge is often served with a deep-fried dough called youtiao, which brings us to the next item in the list.
Youtiao: Deep-Fried Dough
Youtiao (油条) is my personal favorite Chinese breakfast dish. In English, is also called Chinese cruller, Chinese fried churro, Chinese breadstick, Chinese oil stick, or a Chinese doughnut. In Cantonese the dish is called is yàuhjagwái (油炸鬼), which literally mean “oil-fried-ghost” … for whatever reason.
Youtiao is simply a fried breadstick: long, brown, deep-fried sticks of dough. The drought is made from flour, milk, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Even though the recipe is simple, making youtiao is not easy and is time-consuming. You need to allow the dough to rest during several different stages, shape the sticks and fry them following very specific instructions and oil temperature.
That’s why cooking youtiao at home is not that common and many Chinese would prefer to order them from a nearby restaurant or from the local market.
Youtiao are often eaten with zhou, but they can very well be served alone or with the popular Chinese dipping sauce made of soy sauce, hot chili oil, and a splash of vinegar. It can also be served with a savory soy milk soup (called Dou Jiang) Chinese people would dip it in.
Dòujiāng: Soy Milk Soup
The savory soy milk soup called dòujiāng (豆浆) is almost always served with the Chinese Deep-Fried Dough youtiao (油条). I personally don’t like this combo and prefer to have my youtiao alone, but most Chinese don’t share my taste. The two dishes are a very common breakfast combination, called dòujiāng youtiao.
The soy milk soup dòujiāng is made from unsweetened soy milk, curdled slightly with Chinese black vinegar, and flavored with scallions, sesame oil and pickled radishes.
The fried dough youtiao is added at the end and often in the same plate.
Dòuhuā: Tofu Pudding
Tofu pudding is a popular Chinese snack made with very soft tofu. Its Chinese name is dòuhuā (豆花). In English it is also called soybean pudding or soy pudding.
This breakfast dish has different tastes and variations in the different Chinese regions. It exists in both sweet and savory tastes. In Northern China, Douhua is often eaten with soy sauce, thus resulting in a savory flavor. It can be seasoned with chopped meat, pickles, or even small shrimps. This variation of the dish is called dòufu nǎo (豆腐脑), which translates to tofu brains. The type of tofu used to make the pudding is very tender and it’s made from raw soybeans. That’s why the Chinese called it “tofu brains”.
In Southern China, Douhua has a sweet flavor. The name tofu pudding is more descriptive of this dish variation because pudding is usually sweet. The sweet douhua is served with sweet ginger or clear sugary water that tastes like syrup, but it’s not that thick.
Douhua is smooth, silky, and soft. It’s not a very felling dish. In Hong Kong people may add sesame paste or sweet beans to it, which makes the dish heavier and usually too sweet for my taste.
Jiānbing: Pancakes with Eggs
Jiānbing(煎饼) is perhaps the most western-like breakfast on this list. This is the Chinese breakfast of choice for many foreigners living here. It is the Chinese version of the French crepes, but don’t expect to find any ham, cheese, or jam inside.
These big pancakes are made from flour and eggs and usually topped with more with a fried egg, finely chopped pickles, scallions, coriander, and a spicy sauce. Traditionally they also add a deep-fried crispy dough slice inside the pancake to make it more crispy. Depending on your taste and available ingredients, a jiabing can also have a sausage inside or even a sweet soy-bean sauce. Usually, the vendor will offer you some extras to add to your taste.
This is another type of “breakfast on the run” and you still see many small shops and street vendors selling jiabing on the street or near metro stations in the morning.
Be aware that one jiabin is very big and filling. I personally can never finish one.
Zòngzi: Steamed Rice in Bamboo Leaves
Zòngzi (粽子) are rice dumplings are made of steamed glutinous rice that is carefully wrapped in bamboo leaves. This is a very easy dish to recognize and it’s often sold on street food stands and supermarkets like 7eleven or Family Mart.
These rice dumplings come in a variety of fillings, both sweet and savory. The sweet zongzi are filled with red bean paste, egg yolk, or lotus seeds, the salty ones have pork or other meat. This is a traditional dish to eat during the Dragon Boat Festival, but they are found and eaten all-year-round.
In addition to the dishes from this list, Chinese people also have noodles, wontons, and dumplings for breakfast. The only reason I included only these eight dishes is that they are more typical only for breakfast, while noodles and dumplings are also eaten for lunch and dinner.