Living in Tianjin and not knowing about this food is like living in America and not knowing about hamburgers, except that maybe there aren’t giant Chinese corporations more powerful than some national governments selling “oil sticks” and “tofu brains” next to KFC on every potentially profitable street corner on the globe. Still, you can find Tianjin’s local … delicacies … within walking distance of most neighbourhoods here. These local foods are a defining characteristic of the city, and you can feel the warmth and even a little pride from locals when you ask about them.
Breakfast is an especially big deal in Tianjin. Many people don’t like to cook breakfast themselves and the sidewalks are filled from early to late morning with folding tables, plastic stools, and crowds of people enjoying their very public meals.
Last week my sister came from Canada to see us, so I took her out before 6am one morning to sample both the local daily exercise scene and some breakfast. We took pictures, so here’s breakfast, Tianjiner-style, in no particular order. See the warning label at the bottom. Most dishes cost around two kuài ($0.30).
When Tianjiners travel overseas and get homesick, this is the stuff they miss.
1. 锅巴菜 gābacài
I like this stuff, though I wouldn’t have a clue what it’s made of just from eating it: maybe some sesame sauce, strips of something, some pink sauce, thick brown broth, and you can throw in some cilantro and crushed hot peppers in oil if you want. Apparently gābacài (锅巴菜) is a Tianjin original, and it’s seriously high-energy food; you feel like running a few miles afterward. According to this online recipe, it’s made with a mung bean-&-millet broth, strips of chopped, crepe-like jiānbǐng (煎饼), some of kind of gravy made with over ten kinds of seasonings, sesame paste, chilis in oil, pink fermented tofu sauce and cilantro. In standard Mandarin it should be guōbacài, but in Tianjin it’s gābacài — people often think it’s funny if the foreigner knows to use the local pronunciation.
2. 老豆腐 lǎodòufu
My students rave about “old tofu” (老豆腐) or “tofu brains” (豆腐脑) whenever I bring it up in class, but even they admit that it looks disgusting.
From what I can tell, it’s slimy lumps of tofu in an oil bath with some brown (sesame?) sauce thrown in. For me, the taste doesn’t come anywhere close to making up for its appearance. Of all the Tianjin breakfast foods, we liked this one the least. I think my sister stopped after the first or second spoonful.
3. 油条 yóutiáo
Two small strips of dough pinched together at the ends and deep fried, “oil sticks” are pretty much donuts without any sugar or flavouring. I honestly don’t see the point, unless you were trying to consume as much oil as possible without actually drinking it straight, though for some reason I still eat them occasionally. These things are everywhere at breakfast time, perhaps the most ubiquitous of all Tianjin’s breakfast offerings, maybe because they travel easily. 5 máo ($0.07) each.
The wider thing in the fry pot in the above photo is called a guǒbìngr (果饼儿) in Tianjin (薄脆 báocuì in Beijing). Guǒbìngr are thin and crispy rather than donut-y.
4. 面茶 miànchá
If you cooked it in less oil and traded the salt for brown sugar, you could slip bowls of miànchá (面茶) onto a Canadian family breakfast table and no one would notice (assuming that some Canadians actually still have family breakfasts). According to this online recipe and my Chinese-English dictionary, it’s made from millet, sesame paste, sesame oil, and sesame seeds. Unsweetened porridge, basically. I don’t know how to translate the name; the characters are the ones for “noodles” (面) and “tea” (茶), but I’m not seeing either in this dish [see comment #14]. Anyway, I’ll definitely be eating this again on a somewhat regular basis, though I can’t say the same or the “tofu brains” in the right half of the photo above.
5. 煎饼果子 jiānbing guǒzi
This is more or less the Chinese breakfast burrito, except that other than having a thin crepe-like wrapper, it’s (sadly) nothing at all like a burrito. The styles can vary and you can sometimes choose for yourself (see a list here), but a standard jiānbing guǒzi (煎饼果子) will be a green onion crepe lined with egg wrapped around a yóutiáo (油条 “oil stick”) or a crunchy guǒbìngr (果饼儿 — stacked overhead in the photo below), with some sauce and crushed red peppers in oil, and then folded twice. These transport well, and I often see them on the subway in the morning.
6. 豆浆 dòujiāng
“Bean broth” (豆浆) is better known in North America as soy milk, only the Tianjin variety is unsweetened and served really hot in a brimming bowl, scooped out of a big pot. Dòujiāng to-go comes in a bag with a straw. Sometimes they’ll add sugar to it if you ask. I like dipping the yóutiáo (油条 “oil stick”) in it, but I get funny looks from my Chinese friends when I do this.
This post doesn’t include every single kind of Tianjin breakfast food (there’d be no end; Tianjiners love them some breakfast!), but these are all the biggies. Hungry?
P.S. — Warning
Adventure eaters, be ye warned: This kind of local food is pretty much guaranteed to use the cheapest, poorest quality ingredients, and in China that means something different than it does back home. If, for example, you were deliberately trying to consume “gutter oil” (地沟油), which is discarded cooking oil that’s been skimmed off the sewer slop that was scooped out of manholes and resold in used containers back to restaurants and street vendors, you would eat things like yóutiáo (油条 “oil sticks”) or lǎodòufu (老豆腐 “old tofu”) at places like those pictured above, or you could go to an average local restaurant and order shuǐzhǔròu (水煮肉 “water boiled meat”), which is basically meat and vegetables in a serving bowl filled with oil. Most Chinese dishes use incredible amounts of oil, but the ones I’ve mentioned here use even more than usual and are therefore thought to be the most likely candidates for gutter oil.