Garlic cloves, chili sauce, and vinegar. Yes, at breakfast.
A few weeks ago I read something that got my ire up: this article for travel site WorldHum , in which travel writer and author Eric Weiner argues for sticking with what you know for breakfast when on the road.
For the traveler, breakfast grounds us in our home culture so we can work up the gumption to explore a new one. It also reminds us that however adventurous our spirit, however global our citizenship, we’re still products of a particular culture. At least once a day, preferably at the start of the day, we need to reconnect with that culture.
It's a great piece of writing. But I couldn't disagree more.
Let's start with the last bit. I travel not to remind myself of where I come from, but to immerse myself in where I don't; the last thing I want to do when on the road is to actively 'reconnect' with my own culture on a daily basis. Besides, for me the simple act of being abroad is in itself an ever-present reminder of where I come from. I never feel so 'American' as when I'm not in America.
As for the foodish aspect of Weiner's article -- it is true that, for many otherwise food-focused travelers, breakfast is the 'Last Frontier'. But getting past that is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a traveler.
Well, it's a bit like street food. Avoid it, it and you're closing yourself off from not only from a whole class of flavors and dishes but also opportunities for unique experiences and encounters. By the same token, no matter where in the world you are, breakfasting locally will expand your culinary horizons and afford an entree to bits of local life that are lived only in the wee hours.
This was brought home to me in Hoi An almost a year and a half ago, as Dave and Iwalked to the morning market. We passed a traveler's cafe just outside the old town, where four young tourists drank Nescafe (the tell-tale jar sat on their table) and ate toast made with floppy bread from a packaged pre-cut loaf . In a land of fantastic local coffee and bread they were, essentially, eating and drinking garbage. Not only that, they were missing Vietnam's morning-only self.
Dave and I walked on, stopping by our favorite fruit shake stall for a small plastic bag of kumquat 'marmalade' (meant to be eaten with shaved ice I think, but we surmised it might have other uses as well) and then continuing on to a touristy waterfront cafe that until 8am serves Viet-style iced coffee to locals at low tables out front. Dave ordered cafe sua da while I bought a baguette, split in half and warmed on a grill, from a mobile vendor steps away. We drank our coffee and ate our toasted baguette halves with the marmalade squeezed from the bag -- all with a bird's-eye view of the lively comings and goings to and from the market.
I'm not unsympathetic to the impulse to take the easy route when it comes to food, especially first thing in the morning. But we breakfasted on coffee and toast, just as those young travelers had -- yet ours was so much tastier (not to mention cheaper), and came with a slice of Hoi An's a.m. culture (the nature of that street leading to the market changes quite drastically between 7-8am and 9:30 or 10, when guided tour groups begin showing up).
Perfect boiled dumplings with plenty of chili oil. For breakfast.
Some of you reading this might be thinking, 'Easy for you to say. You eat everything.'
It's true, I do eat almost everything. Moreover, I'll eat almost anything at any time of the day. Which makes eating whatever for breakfast, wherever I am, easy. But it hasn't always been so.
When Dave and I lived in Chengdu I was an adherent to the Western breakfast. Every morning Dave left extra early, to pick up a couple of garlicky pork and Chinese chive-stuffed steamed buns before class; I stayed in our apartment, eating instant oatmeal that I'd brought from the U.S. Some days I cycled into town, to the Jinjiang Hotel, for their 'Western breakfast': awful, fluffy bread toasted and served with stone-cold fried eggs and really, really bad coffee.
What can I say? I was 22 years old, not yet grown into my now rather food-obsessed skin. All I know is that now I wish I could have all those mornings -- and all those uneaten steamed buns -- back.
My breakfast breakthrough came 6 years later when we returned to Sichuan for a holiday. In Leshan to see the world's largest buddha statue, we arrived at the dock early only to find that the 7am boat had become the 7:30am boat. Dave went in search of breakfast and I tagged along with no intention of eating.
He ordered boiled jiaozi. Big as coin purses they were, and emitting a Chinese chive reek that might have turned my stomach. But as I watched Dave eat, lips leaking a drop of chili oil and blissfully happy, something gave. He offered his chopsticks and I accepted. As soon as the first dumpling hit my mouth I was ravenous. I ordered my own bowl.
I think of that morning in Leshan as my watershed. From then on anything has been fair game for breakfast. I never afterwards pined for toast and jam or went hungry until lunchtime for the lack of it. That breakfast gifted me another opportunity, every single day, to sample local specialties. I would never again miss out on dishes, or the often memorable -- and irreplaceable -- experience of being part of the local breakfast scrum because of an insistence on sticking to the breakfasts I grew up with.
So -- yesterday at Luang Prabang's morning market we sat shoulder-to-shoulder with a gaggle of local women and tucked into nem kao, then moved down the block for a fantastic bowl of soup noodles made with ragu-like spicy pork mince and our pick of veggie add-ins. To my knowledge neither of these dishes are sold here outside of breakfast hours.
In a village on Java our morning hungries led us to a lone mobile cart, where we watched children tromp to school and women carry goods to market while warming our hands and stomachs with perhaps the most delicious rice porridge I've ever eaten. We exchanged some conversation with locals, and ate well. The latter took on extra importance when we found that evening how limited (and of limited appeal) post-breakfast dining options were.
In Saigon a grilled pork and rice breakfast gave us a ringside seat as a neighborhood woke on a weekend morning. In George Town a dish of noodles topped with gloppy five spice-infused sauce and thick slices of crackly-skinned pork belly gave us a reason to investigate a storied coffee shop we'd walked by a hundred times.
Breakfast noodles, with mutton and mutton parts.
If not for my openness to noodles first thing in the morning we might have left Langzhong, an ancient river town in northeastern Sichuan, without ever realizing that many of its residents are Hui.
Though there are a couple of Muslim bakeries in the old city there appear to be no restaurants (at least not that we could find). There are, however, a whole row of Muslim noodle shops on the street leading to the market. Open only in the morning, they all serve the same thing: za mian ('mixed' noodles), made with mutton and mutton parts.
Quality varies among the shops; the most atmospheric also serves the most delicious version of za mian, with a rich meaty broth and very substantial pasta. It's also run by a woman -- the only shop in the bunch -- with a big voice (she can really bark orders) and a friendly smile. (Note the glass jar next to the wall -- it holds meizi jiu, a not-too-sweet fruit wine with more than a bit of alcoholic punch.)
When I travel I aim for the tastiest morning meal rather than one that will remind me of home. So in Chengdu, when I spotted an 8am crowd at a tiny shop in Xiao Jia He district I made sure to return the next day.
I found wonderfully fresh doujiang (soy milk), crispy fried crullers with barely a lick of grease, porky steamed buns, and a characterful crowd.
We ate in close, steamy quarters against a backdrop of bellowed orders, chatter around mouths full of dough, the clang of metal ladle against doujiang pot. In other words, we ate immersed in China -- as much a great experience as a delicious one.
I was quadruply thankful for my tendency to eat outside the breakfast box on our last day in the city.
I'm a jiaozi (boiled dumpling) lover, and we tried many during our 3 weeks in Sichuan. But none quite measured up to the best we ate at least 4 times a week in 1985, or even to my liberating bowlful in Leshan.
It was 10am, we were strolling down one last narrow lane, and we had to get back to our hotel to pack. And there she was: a lone vendor, stuffing and crimping wontons and dumplings. Her set-up -- a folding table and chair piled with dumplings, a single table surrounded by stools for customers, one pot boiling over a charcoal fire -- told me all I needed to know: this was going to be the jiaozi I'd been looking for.
And it was. It really and truly was, with skins thick enough to boast a chew but with enough elasticity to keep from gumming up in the boiling water, a porky filling heavy on Chinese chives, and a sauce made with fragrant sweetened soy with a hint of anise.
Her homemade pao cai, tart and garlicky and made with slices of fresh mustard tuber, was icing on the cake.
And if I still turned my nose up at anything other than my own country's breakfast food for breakfast, I'd have missed it all.