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Chinese Breakfast

Tired of cornflakes and milk? Start your day with a Chinese breakfast


Congee and fried cruller
ironypoisoning/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
What do the Chinese eat for breakfast? This isn't a question that's likely to arise in the average cooking class. Like dessert, we don't tend to think of breakfast in connection with Chinese cooking. And the truth is that many westerners would be reluctant to try it. While we think of rice as belonging at the dinner table, in many parts of China this nutritious staple is consumed three times daily, including for breakfast.

Nonetheless, there's more similarity between a Chinese and western breakfast than it would first appear. Many Chinese begin their day with a warm bowl of congee, a watery rice gruel that bears a marked resemblance to porridge. But while even the most devoted fan of porridge would probably balk at being forced to consume the white stuff day after day, the variety of seasonings used to make congee ensure that it need not ever become boring. Congee can be sweet or savory; seasoned with everything from chicken to mushrooms. Often, the meat is marinated before being added to the rice.

The word congee (also known as jook in Canton) comes from the Indian "kanji", which refers to the water in which the rice has been boiled. (In parts of India today the word congee still refers both to the boiled water and the rice dish itself). In Chinese Food, Kenneth Lo notes that congee serves two purposes - besides warming the body, it takes the place of a beverage, as the Chinese don't normally serve cold drinks.

Just as a morning cup of cafe au lait and a croissant are de rigueur for the French, crullers are the food of choice to serve with congee. Also known as "deep-fried devils," crullers are twisted strips of dough - approximately twelve inches long - that have been deep-fried in oil. Their nickname, "deep-fried devils," is derived from ancient legend. During the time of Confucius, a government official falsely accused Yueh Fei, a famous scholar and poet, of treason. Yueh Fei was subsequently put to death. The Chinese name for the dish, "Yu Za Kuei" translates literally into deep-fried devils. Frying the crullers in oil symbolizes the government official and everyone who participated in the scheme being deep-fried in oil for eternity.

While they can be made at home, crullers ("you tiao" in Chinese) are a popular item at hawker's stands. They are dipped in warm congee, the same way you would dip a doughnut into a cup of coffee. In northern China, where wheat is the staple crop, crullers are dipped into a thin soymilk, which can be either sweet or salty.

Here are links to several recipes for congee and crullers:
Basic Congee Recipe
Jook (Congee) - with turkey

Note: In The Encyclopedia of Asian Food, Charmaine Solomon offers a quick way to make congee by adding water or stock to leftover cooked white rice, add then letting it simmer until it has become a gruel (another enough water or stock to cover).

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