James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

It’s Not a Wasted Morning If You Had Three Breakfasts

It’s Not a Wasted Morning If You Had Three Breakfasts

Rou jia mo in Beijing

It’s five a.m. in the Chinese capital, and after clearing the hurdles for obtaining a layover visa to Beijing, the three of us were bleary-eyed and ravenous after a red-eye flight from Düsseldorf. Though each of us was headed to warmer climates later in the day, we were set on eating the best snacks on our brief stop.

I withdrew a measly 100 yuan from the ATM like a parent trying to teach a five year old about personal finances. This is all you’re getting this morning. Spend it wisely.

The Airport Express train dropped us at Dongzhimen, one of the gates of Beijing’s old city wall. The December chill immediately gripped us when we exited the station, but we could see the billowing steam from street-food stalls from across the street.

All restraint was cast aside as I zoned in on a jianbing vendor. He spread the crepe around the circular griddle faster than I could answer to jidan? (egg?) and la? (spicy?). We passed the salty-sweet wrap around for a few bites before the appearance of a bao vendor distracted us. After we ordered from the bao vendor, a mixed bag of steamed buns filled with minced pork, shredded greens, and braised bean curd emerged from the shop window.

My travel companion Lili’s morning mission to find jiandui, sesame balls, ended at a Shaanxi restaurant with a to-go table spilling from the dining room onto the street. She rounded off her order of jiandui with a rou jia mo—a spicy lamb-stuffed flatbread. She handed me the rou jia mo for safekeeping while she enjoyed the jiandui’s “QQ texture” (the glutinous chewy sensation). I snuck the pillowy sandwich into my pocket to serve as a hand warmer.

We didn’t make it to Confucius Temple in Andingmen. But the morning wasn’t wasted, because we had breakfast—three times.

We split up at the next subway station. I turned and started heading to the airport, mindful that the seamless blur of urban sprawl on the way in was a 90-minute journey. Four train transfers brought me to my boarding gate with a healthy amount of downtime before boarding. I folded my jacket into a makeshift pillow for a quick snooze, but when I leaned into it I felt a loud crunch. I opened my jacket pocket.

There was the rou jia mo, with just one bite taken out of it, revealing a smattering of lamb bits, coriander, and red pepper dusted in cumin, cinnamon, and clove. Who wouldn’t rather find a forgotten sandwich in their pocket than an orphan banknote or a crumpled napkin?

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