What the Chinese Eat for Breakfast

What the Chinese Eat for Breakfast

All over the western world people enjoy Chinese food for lunch or dinner. But even the most adventurous tend to look for the food they are comfortable with at home when it comes to breakfast time. If you are staying in a foreigner-friendly hotel in China, they may well be cereal and milk, or eggs on toast, on the breakfast buffet, but wouldn’t it be better to complete your Chinese adventure by going out there to eat a real Chinese breakfast?

How early do Chinese people get up?

Selling breakfast by the roadside

Selling breakfast by the roadside: Wontons, Noodles...

The exact time that Chinese people wake up can vary depending on their occupation, lifestyle, and personal preferences. Here are some general trends for weekday and weekend wake-up times for different groups:



Breakfast Vendors:

For breakfast shop vendors, they typically need to wake up extremely early to prepare food and open their shop before customers arrive. Many breakfast vendors in China wake up between 3:00-5:00 AM to start cooking and preparing food.

Overall, the wake-up time for Chinese people can vary widely depending on their occupation, lifestyle, and personal preferences. However, in general, many people in China tend to wake up early, even on weekends, due to cultural values that emphasize productivity and hard work.

How important is breakfast in China?

Breakfast has traditionally been an important meal in China, both for nutritional and cultural reasons. In Chinese culture, breakfast is seen as the most important meal of the day, and it is often considered the key to a healthy and productive day.

Historically, breakfast has been an important part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. In ancient times, breakfast was considered a crucial meal for both physical and mental wellbeing. This was especially true for farmers and laborers who needed a substantial meal to sustain them throughout the day. Breakfast was typically composed of rice or porridge, along with vegetables, meat, and soup.

One reason breakfast is so important in China is because it provides energy and nutrients for the day ahead. This is especially important for people who have physically demanding jobs or who will be engaged in mentally taxing activities throughout the day.

In addition to providing sustenance, breakfast in China has also been closely tied to social and cultural rituals. In many parts of China, it is customary to eat breakfast with family members, friends, or business associates, and the meal is often seen as an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships.

早茶 is a Chinese term that literally translates to "morning tea" in English. It refers to a traditional Cantonese style of dining, where a variety of small dishes, such as dim sum, are served with tea in the morning. Morning tea is more than just a meal in China - it is a cultural experience and a social activity. It is a time for family and friends to gather and enjoy a variety of small dishes, such as dim sum, steamed buns, rice rolls, and congee, along with tea. The dishes served during morning tea are often bite-sized, making them easy to share and allowing people to sample a variety of different flavors and textures.

Overall, breakfast is an important aspect of Chinese meal habits and culture, and it is valued for its nutritional and social benefits.

Where do Chinese people eat breakfast?

In China, people eat breakfast in a variety of places depending on their location, lifestyle, and personal preferences. Here are some common places where Chinese people eat breakfast:

Street vendors: Many Chinese people enjoy breakfast from street vendors who sell a variety of traditional breakfast foods such as steamed buns, fried dough sticks, soy milk, and porridge. Particularly for those who work in large cities, it's common to grab a pancake from a street vendor on the way to the office after exiting the subway station.

Cafes and restaurants: Cafes and restaurants that specialize in breakfast dishes are popular in urban areas. These establishments often serve Western-style breakfast items like coffee, toast, eggs, and bacon.

Markets and food courts: Many Chinese markets have food courts where people can grab breakfast before starting their day. These food courts offer a variety of breakfast foods and snacks, such as dumplings, noodles, and Chinese pancakes.

Fast-food chains: International fast-food chains such as McDonald's and KFC have a significant presence in China and offer breakfast menus that include both Chinese and Western-style items.

Home: Some people prefer to eat breakfast at home, where they can prepare their favorite breakfast dishes or enjoy leftovers from the previous day's meals.

Workplaces: Some workplaces, especially for big companies, may offer breakfast for their employees as a benefit. This can range from simple breakfast options like milk and bread to more elaborate meals like rice porridge and dumplings.

School canteens: In China, many schools have canteens that serve breakfast to students before class. These breakfasts often include hot meals like rice, noodles, and vegetables.

Bakeries: Bakeries are becoming more popular in China, especially in urban areas, and often offer a range of breakfast pastries, cakes, and bread.

Convenience stores: Convenience stores are ubiquitous in China and often offer pre-packaged breakfast items like sandwiches, yogurt, and fruit.

Home delivery: With the rise of food delivery services in China, many people choose to have breakfast delivered to their homes or workplaces. Popular food delivery platforms in China include Meituan and Eleme.

Morning Tea

Morning Tea

What do Chinese people eat for breakfast?

China is a massive country with a huge population, so naturally there must be a variety of different flavors and cuisines, mostly depending on which part of the country people are from.

Despite the regional-based variety of breakfast foods, there are some factors that are common to all regions. Breakfast is important enough not to be skipped, but people don’t spend time preparing or consuming it, they don’t sit down to read the newspaper over a home-cooked meal. They do like breakfast to be hot and ready to be grabbed on the run.

However, this can be different in Guangzhou, where a leisurely breakfast with tea can be enjoyed especially on weekends.

Most popular breakfasts in South China

Most popular breakfasts in China

Southern cuisine uses lots of chilies and pickles, and dishes have a lighter flavor than in the north. Here are some of the most common choices.

Yam Cha, or Morning Tea and Dim Sum. This Cantonese style breakfast is customarily a leisurely occasion which is enjoyed especially on weekend mornings. Tea (of various interesting flavors such as green, oolong, jasmine, chrysanthemum and so on) is drunk along with a variety of dishes served in steamers or on small plates. These ‘dim sum’ are from a huge variety of mostly savory little snacks, that may be steamed, deep fried, or boiled, and include rice, noodles, dumplings and buns.

Zongzi. These leaf-wrapped sticky rice bundles are popular all over China, with a number of varieties available depending on the region. They vary in shape, and size, and in the fillings. Some are sweet with fillings such as walnuts, dates, or bean paste. Others are savory with fillings such as ham, egg, or chicken. All of them are delicious and you would enjoy trying them.

Rice Noodles. Boiled rice noodles are popular at any time, including breakfast. Various ingredients are chosen as additions such as fried peanuts or soybeans, thinly sliced meat, chopped scallions, or pickled mustard. You should try them at least once.

Tofu Pudding. People in the south of China like to have a sweet version of this comforting pudding which they enjoy with ginger and brown sugar syrup. (Elsewhere it is a savory dish.)

Wontons. Wontons can be boiled in a fragrant and watery broth, steamed in a bamboo steamer, or fried in a high-heat wok. Sometimes, wontons are also served with little noodles to make 'wonton noodles'. They are available with a large variety of fillings, such as ground pork, shrimp, fish, mushrooms, and other vegetables.

Most popular breakfasts in North China

Northern Chinese cuisine is generally strong and salty, and the dishes are usually oily and meaty, often flavored with garlic and scallions. Wheat products are especially popular in the north. Here are some of the breakfast you could try in the north of China.

Buns – steamed, and stuffed. These remarkably light, fluffy buns are made with wheat flour, and can be plain or filled with savory meat or vegetables, or with sweet red beans. They are a real comfort food and palatable even for foreigners at breakfast time.

Deep Fried Dough Sticks. Another wheat-based food, these delicious pairs of dough-sticks are commonly enjoyed dipped into a steaming bowl of sweet soymilk. You will find this a very acceptable breakfast, not being too different from food back home.

Rice Porridge, or Congee. Delicious rice porridge, or congee, is often eaten with all sorts of additions such as pickles, peanuts or meat. It is sometimes eaten with fresh pancakes, and is a great start to the day.

Zongzi. In the north, these leaf-wrapped glutinous rice parcels are rectangular and usually contain a sweet filling such as red bean paste, egg yolk, or lotus seeds. You don’t want to miss out on tasting these delicious treats.

Tofu Pudding. In the north, this soft tofu pudding is a salty meal, served with soy sauce and possibly meat.

Wheat noodles. A big bowlful of hot, fresh, flavorful wheat noodles is a very popular breakfast that is simple and satisfying.

Pancakes with Eggs. The pancakes are usually wrapped around a deep-fried crispy dough slice and topped with fried egg, finely chopped mustard pickles, scallions, coriander, and a spicy sauce.

What is the price of breakfast in China?

The cost of breakfast can vary significantly between the North and South of China. Generally, breakfast is cheaper in the North than in the South. In cities like Beijing or Tianjin, a simple breakfast such as a steamed bun or Jianbing (Chinese pancake) can cost around 5-10 Chinese Yuan (less than 2 USD). In comparison, breakfast in Shanghai or Guangzhou can be more expensive, with prices ranging from 10-20 Chinese Yuan (around 2-3 USD) for similar items.

The price of noodles or rice noodles in China can vary depending on the location, type of noodle, and restaurant or vendor. In general, you can find a bowl of noodles or rice noodles for as little as 10-20 Chinese yuan (approximately $1.50-$3 USD) at a local street vendor or small noodle shop. In more upscale restaurants or in tourist areas, the price can be higher, ranging from 30-50 Chinese yuan (approximately $4.50-$7.50 USD) or more for a bowl of noodles or rice noodles. Keep in mind that prices can also be higher in larger cities like Beijing or Shanghai compared to smaller towns or rural areas.

However, these prices are just an estimate and can vary depending on the specific location and type of establishment.

By Ruth Wickham
Chief Editor & Writer
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