James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Smorgasbord With Chinese Characteristics

A Smorgasbord With Chinese Characteristics

Danbing and jianbing in Beijing

My life in Beijing has been divided almost exclusively between work and sleep since I became a sports radio presenter for Chinese state-run media about a year ago. It’s not a departure from many of Beijing’s workers, which have boomed in number since the city’s rapid growth over a decade ago. My waning energy makes it hard to appreciate much during these early morning hours—save for breakfast.

When I emerge from the confines of an office building around 8 am for the day’s first taste of food and glimpse of sunshine, a half-block of restaurants and stalls tucked away in western Beijing serves as a breakfast dàzáhuì (smorgasbord… with Chinese characteristics) for me and its many patrons.

Standing in the doorway of the first restaurant is a woman that masterfully serves four breakfast staples to an unending queue of patrons, both take-away and dine-in orders.

There is wonton soup, made with a light broth and a generous portion of cilantro. The time-pressed opt for quicker fare; pork and vegetarian mini baozi (steamed buns) are made in fresh batches, as are jiaozi (steamed dumplings) that are cooked more firm than floppy, to my delight.

A man stands close by, methodically rolling dough he will shortly transform into youtiao (fried bread) with the magic of an oil-filled wok. Though a bit greasy when fresh out, golden youtiao are two parts chewy to one part crunchy and go with any main breakfast dish.

A few shops down, a group of young men mount a convincing challenge for the breakfast business, serving jianbing and danbing. Jianbing can vary from city to city around China, but in Beijing, the common jianbing is a fluffy egg crepe coated on one side with a plum-soy sauce and topped with lettuce and a thin, crunchy sheet of tofu. It is then folded up sort of like burrito and artfully tied into a bag for holding while on the go or eating.

If the jianbing is a breakfast burrito, then the danbing is a breakfast taco. Danbing have a smaller, yet thicker, dough that is cooked with an egg in the batter. It is then bushed with the plum-soy sauce and folded around lettuce, a fried egg and meat or sausage at your request.

A well-provisioned fruit shop sits among the businesses, displaying varieties from Xiamen lychee to North American grapefruits.

But the real joy of this sojourn is coming up with the combinations an enterprising appetite can conjure up to call breakfast.

It can be jianbing and tangerines on Monday; a mango, danbing, and dumplings on Tuesday; watermelon and veggie baozi on Wednesday; two youtiao and a grapefruit on Thursday; wonton soup on Friday.

Besides stuffing my face, I forgo the work cafeteria for these daily breakfast jaunts to wrestle back a bit of control over my mornings. I believe the people I queue up with for food on this half-block share my sentiment. The extra milling around in line; the added banter with the laoban (boss) making the food; adding one extra batch of baozi, jiaozi, youtiao, or an additional danbing or jianbing to an already sizeable order; it all serves to pump the breaks on a daily routine in a city that doesn’t want to slow down.

So, I take my breakfast combo of the day back to a quiet part of the office, or I snag an empty chair in one of the restaurants on this half-block, where, despite my best efforts, I sneak glances at the wall clock between bites.

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