| | By Anna Mindess
Every culture has its own way to start the day: croissants in Paris, muesli in Zurich, pan dulce in Mexico City. On a recent trip to Tokyo, my early morning encounters with salted plums and dried baby fish woke me up to the fact that certain cultures serve up quite unusual breakfast items (at least from an American bacon-and-eggs perspective). I returned from Japan determined to seek out and sample a range of breakfasts from various cuisines in local eateries. I found that Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Indian breakfast specialties are all waiting close by—if you know where to look.
Although elders in most cultures advise eating a good breakfast, once the alarm clock rings, what people lay on their tables varies greatly. Surprisingly, ethnic and regional cookbooks and even travel guidebooks largely ignore breakfast, as if the morning meal is not special enough to feature. Yet, being the most intimate, it holds an important piece of the cultural puzzle. The first meal of the day finds us at our most vulnerable. We are sleepy, often in a hurry, and the first thing we choose to put in our bodies can set the tone for the day. We crave the soothing sustenance our mothers laid before us, or (in America) the dependable caffeine and carb we now choose ourselves. If we are adventurous, however, those of us in the Bay Area can awaken our palates on early morning culinary outings, without packing any bags, by visiting restaurants like those listed below.
When you hear the term “Chinese breakfast” you may think of dim sum, the succession of delectable morsels wheeled around on carts. Actually, dim sum is often eaten for lunch or weekend brunch, but its quiet cousin, the mainstay of many breakfasts, is a steaming bowl of rice porridge, known as jook or congee. Jook is also eaten for a light late-night snack and is a famous cure-all for illnesses, especially upset stomachs. Rice porridge is a component of many Asian cuisines, but plays a major role in China. Another Chinese breakfast staple is you tiao, long sticks of fried dough, also called Chinese doughnuts or deep-fried devils. They are not sweet but can be dipped in or eaten with sweetened soymilk and are often paired with jook.
Oakland resident Vicky Chen, a librarian at the Asian branch of the Oakland Public Library, eats jook for breakfast every day. “It’s easy, you can make it in a rice cooker. Mostly, I eat it plain just like my family does back in Taiwan, with Chinese doughnut and soymilk,” she says. Chen reminds me that people in different regions of China eat various things for breakfast—the Cantonese, for example, love to put meat or fish in their jook. Chen directs me to Gum Kuo, an unassuming restaurant near the library, which seems to be jook headquarters, with more than 20 different combinations on the menu.
Gum Kuo’s menu includes BBQ duck, hot pots and even macaroni but is renowned (on Internet foodie sites) for its rice porridge, ranging from plain to one with sliced squid and cubed pork blood. The chicken and black mushroom porridge is an easy introduction and a warm, addictive bowl of comfort food. Other optional additions include: pork belly, abalone, dried oyster, beef balls, kidney, liver and pork with little brown cubes of century egg. This preserved egg has a gelatin-like consistency and a pleasant eggy taste. Gum Kuo’s Chinese doughnut provides spongy squares of fried bread to munch on with your jook.
Aya Kasai, an expressive art therapist from Oakland, describes a traditional Japanese breakfast as plain steamed rice, miso soup and tea. Optional side dishes include salted plums, stewed seaweed, pickled vegetables and natto (fermented soybeans). “I guess you could call them ‘Rice Helper,’” quips Kasai, who grew up in Hiroshima. The meal has a salty theme, without fruit or other sweet dishes. Additional items for more protein are tofu, fish or omelet. Even though she has lived in the United States for more than 15 years, Kasai still finds she cannot face the day without a Japanese breakfast. “I spend a fortune buying all this stuff in local Japanese markets,” she says.
To sample Japanese breakfast food, head to Hotel Nikko, an elegant four-star San Francisco hotel, which boasts an extensive daily breakfast buffet. Snub the usual lineup of bacon and eggs and proceed to the sedate Japanese breakfast section. Offerings on a recent trip included: plain rice porridge, a homey vegetable stew with carrots, lotus, bamboo shoots, taro and gobo (braised burdock root), miso soup, broiled salmon, a range of pickles (crunchy yellow daikon, wrinkly green cucumber and tiny packets of fish tied up in seaweed), fish cakes, plain rice, dried seaweed and natto. These soybeans are fermented with a special strain of bacteria that confer a strong flavor and pungent aroma—an acquired taste for non-Japanese. A subtle study in balance, Japanese breakfast is soft and crunchy, dry and wet, salty and plain.
In Thailand, vendors line the streets at all hours cooking up delicacies with tempting aromas. Morning and night markets carry curries, grilled meats and prepared salads. Noodle dishes like pad thai are made to order on sidewalk woks. A popular morning soup is kao tom, with pork, rice, fried shallots and fish sauce.
Oakland hairdresser Nuch Turner moved here from Thailand eight years ago and is nostalgic for Thai breakfast dishes. She explains that in Thailand breakfast foods are not a separate category, as “everyone eats everything all day.” The most typical morning dishes are soup, noodles or rice plates. “Here,” Turner sighs, “I just have coffee in the morning.” Then she brightens, “Unless we had Thai food for dinner, then I can have the leftovers for breakfast.”
The Thai Buddhist Temple in Berkeley has a long tradition of hosting a fabulous feast every Sunday morning from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Temple members cook up a dizzying array of dishes and serve them to the long line of hungry patrons. The mood is casual, convivial and crowded; grab a seat outside at covered tables or on the grass. The enticing smells from the fresh food make the hardest part deciding what to choose.
Vegetarians can pick from yellow or red curry, fried eggplant or squash and tofu dishes. Meat eaters can sample beef noodle soup, pork and green beans, yellow or green chicken curry and whole trout, to mention only a few. Fried foods include chicken, taro, potato and banana. Shrimp rolls, fried flat bread and pad thai are also available. If, like me, you need to end every meal with something sweet, try the fresh mango with custard and sticky rice or choose from a dozen different sweet rice morsels flavored with coconut, sweet beans, taro or even dried shrimp. (An ongoing controversy with temple neighbors about the crowds that gather weekly to eat has been debated at recent Berkeley zoning meetings. The next hearing is November 13. Stay tuned for a decision or go enjoy while you have the chance.)
The French presence in Vietnam has left a lasting influence: French bread is available almost everywhere. But even crusty French bread will not eclipse the essence of Vietnamese breakfast, a steaming bowl of pho (pronounced “fuh?” with a rising intonation). This hearty broth is made from simmering beef bones with spices and features the distinctive taste of star anise. It is usually served with rice noodles, onions and various thin cuts of beef. To accompany your pho, the waiter brings a plate heaped with garnishes you add to your soup as you work your way through it, such as fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil, cilantro, green chili peppers and lime wedges. Fish or chili sauces may be added to spice things up.
Bao Nguyen, a library aide at the Asian Branch of the Oakland Library, finds the meals served in America too large. “In Vietnam we get up early, around 5 a.m., then we have maybe five or six little meals,” says Nguyen, who has lived in the United States for eight years. “We basically snack all the time.” Nguyen still prefers a bowl of pho for breakfast, or some rice porridge with chicken.
Although Oakland’s Pho Hoa Lao 2 has a full menu with many noodle dishes and rice plates, everyone at the restaurant on a chilly Tuesday morning greeted the day with the traditional bowl of pho. It’s offered in 18 variations, with some combination of several beef options (brisket, flank, tendon, tripe). Though the tendon looked a bit off-putting, its gelatinous globules melted in my mouth and made the soup a deeply fulfilling experience.
Addis Restaurant in Oakland can help you start your weekend with a little spice, Ethiopian style. A combination plate may be enough for two people: scrambled eggs with beef and jalapeno, kinche (cracked wheat grits) and quanta fir fir, which are pieces of injera (spongy, crepe-like bread with a hearty sour-ish taste, made from the teff grain) tossed in a spicy red berbere sauce with Ethiopian beef jerky. These dishes are served Ethiopian style, in mounds atop a metal tray draped with injera, accompanied by salad and crumbled cheese. Ethiopians traditionally eat with their hands, using torn-off pieces of injera to dip and scoop food into the mouth. A basket of rolled injera is available for this purpose; a fork is provided upon request. My server at Addis, Beth Ketema, moved to the United States from Ethiopia when she was 9 years old, but still prefers to start her day with a traditional Ethiopian breakfast, “This is the food I grew up with,” she says with a smile.
“Each region of India has its own breakfast specialties, such as paratha (stuffed bread) in the north and idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes) or dosa (breakfast crepes) in the south,” explains Vinita Chopra Jacinto, who grew up in Northern India and now teaches at the California Culinary Institute in San Francisco. Even though Jacinto is a chef herself, she doesn’t have the time to cook fresh Indian breakfast foods every day, as did older generations. Jacinto does spend the time on weekends and holidays to lovingly prepare for her daughter the Indian foods her mother used to cook because, she says, “traditional things will never go away.”
Given the thriving Indian community in the East Bay, I was disappointed not to find any restaurants open in the morning. Luckily, I stopped at Milan Market, a huge, family-run store on University Avenue that carries spices and ingredients for dishes from all parts of India. The owners did their best to satisfy my curiosity by offering a selection of typical breakfast foods I could try at home. Two frozen dishes were flavorful and simple to heat up: Aloo paratha, thin fried bread stuffed with spiced potatoes and surti khaman, spongy, steamed chickpea cakes. I also tried a spiced powder one adds to tea and milk and a variety of crunchy biscuits (in almond, pistachio, cumin and cardamom flavors) that are commonly eaten with or dipped into the hot chai.
So next time you greet the dawn and glance at your boring bagel with a sigh, get up, get dressed, go out and taste a world of new breakfast possibilities.
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer specializing in comtemporary culture and food. She is also a sign-language interpreter. Find her work at www.annamindess.com.
Clockwise from upper left: Pad thai delight.(photo by Andrea Skjold); Congee and Chinese doughnuts (photo by Jane Pang); Miso in the morning (photo by Guy Erwood); Daybreak in Japan: Japanese breakfast can include grilled red sea breem, miso soup, salted plums and steamed seaweed (photo by Terraxplorer); Ethiopian injera with spinach (photo by Kristen Johansen); Fondness for Pho (photo by Kristen Johansen); Indian paratha (photo by Danish Khan). Click on photo to enlarge it.
Gum Kuo, 388 9th St. (in the Renaissance Plaza), Oakland, (510) 268-1288; open everyday, 8 a.m.–12 midnight, except Wednesday. Plain porridge: $2.25. Others from $4.25-$6.50.
Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St. (at Ellis), San Francisco, (415) 394-1111; Monday-Saturday, 6:30–10:30 a.m., Sundays, 6:30–11 a.m; $20 for the breakfast buffet.
Thai Buddhist Temple, the driveway between 1911 and 1913 Russell St., Berkeley, (510) 849-3419; Sundays only, 10 a.m.–1 p.m.; Dishes: $1-$7 for each dish. Eat there or take home.
Pho Hoa Lao 2, 333 10th St., Oakland, (in Chinatown), (510) 763-8296; open seven days a week, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Pho Bo Beef noodle soups: $5.50 for a small bowl, $6.90 for large.
Addis Ethiopian Restaurant, 6100 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3456; Saturday and Sunday only, 9 a.m.-noon. Combination breakfast: $10.99 and less for à la carte items.
Milan International Market, 990 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 843-9600; Tue-Sun, 9:30 a.m.–7 p.m. All dishes mentioned are less than $5.