Bacon and Eggs. Toast and sugary cereals with enough e-numbers in to send you to the moon. Bottomless coffee and litres of juice. All staples in the most important meal of the day.
In China, the above staples are gone. Most of what’s found in their place is as different as could possibly be. Even the humble egg has been transformed. Who would have ever thought that boiling an egg in tea was a good idea. I love tea. I’m British. Yet even as a Brit, this concept baffled me. Tea is for drinking, not boiling eggs in. An ominous sense of trepidation started to set in. How on earth was I going to cope?
As time has passed, and I have settled in to life in China, it appears my initial reaction to the loss of my beloved Western breakfast may have been slightly melodramatic. There are many items on the Chinese breakfast menu, all of them delicious in their own rite. However, for me, there’s really only one choice. I’d even go so far as to say I might actually prefer this humble morsel over many of the breakfast things at home. Shocking, I know. But wait, what could possibly take the place of a bowl of cornflakes?
I give you: the baozi.
Baozi are one of my top 5 favourite things about China. There is literally nothing about these delicious steamed buns that I do not love. They are an object to be revered at all times of the day – not just at breakfast. So what is it about the baozi I adore so? 2 things: the variety, and the price.
The price is one of the major selling points. As with all street-food in China, baozi are super cheap. Normally, for your standard pork baozi, they hover around the 1RMB mark. Yes, you read that correctly. 1 whole RMB. Steamed pork buns for the equivalent of 12p back at home.
So what options are available? Here are my top 5.
Cai Bao 菜包子
A vegetable option for those who may be less carnivorous. I’m hesitant to say vegetarian, because I’m 90% sure the vegetables have some form of park fat mixed in with them when the buns are made. Chinese cabbage is chopped and mixed with garlic, and packed into the envelope of the soft dough. The crispness of the veggies and the tang of the garlic makes for an intense breakfast experience.
Rou Bao 肉包子
Your standard pork baozi, mentioned above. Super cheap, and super delicious. Minced pork is mixed with garlic, cabbage, garlic and some seasoning. And some more garlic. The steaming emulsifies the fat in the pork mince, coating the inside of the bun to form the perfect breakfast morsel.
Cha Shao Bao 叉烧包 (Dim Sum dish)
These are a Hong Kong/Guangdong special. These delicious meaty buns are stuffed with shredded red barbecue pork. Barbequed meat for breakfast is definitely something I could get used to. The meat is marinated in honey, soy, hoisin, and a host of other ingredients. The result is a breakfast masterpiece.
Liu Sha Bao 流沙包
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, and you’ve been feeling a little sugar deprived since coming to China, the liu sha bao should hit the spot nicely. This one is a little bit of an indulgence. You’ll normally be able to spot the liu sha bao in the steam stack quite easily: they’re big and yellow.
The yellow dough tastes as though it’s been lightly sweetened, and though delicious, you’ll need to be careful when you bite into one. Why? Because encased in the golden ball is a core of molten sweet salted egg custard. The sweetness is offset by the mild saltiness of the egg yolk, so they’re not overpowering.
Dou Sha Bao 豆沙包
Red beans can be found in absolutely everything in China. I’ve had them in tea, in soup, and a host of other dishes. They can even be found lurking in the humble baozi. Red beans are ground into a paste, sweetened with sugar or honey, and then fried. The result is sweet. Very sweet. If you’re used to bowls of sugar at home, this one is probably the choice for you.
Honourable mention: Mantou 馒头
Mantou isn’t technically baozi, so isn’t included in my top 5. It is, however, very tasty. Mantou is the like unstuffed dough of the baozi, but slightly sweetened. The result both looks and tastes like a big piece of slightly rubbery sponge cake. It’s the perfect pairing for that morning coffee.
So many choices!
Decisions are hard at breakfast time. Hopefully this makes the choice a little easier. From the barbeque tang of the Cha Siu Bao, to the sweet molten core of the Liu Sha Bao, the baozi offers something for everyone. This list is by no means exhaustive either: there are myriad options I’ve not even tried yet. If none of the above sound appealing, you can always adopt the tried and tested approach: point, and say zhè ge.