Chinese Breakfast: Tianjin style!

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 guÇ’zi (煎饼果子) will be a green onion crepe lined with egg wrapped around a yóutiáo (油条 “oil stick”) or a crunchy guÇ’bìngr (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 lÇŽodòufu (老豆腐 “old tofu”) at places like those pictured above, or you could go to an average local restaurant and order shuǐzhÇ”ròu (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.

16 thoughts on “Chinese Breakfast: Tianjin style!”

  1. Interesting reflections on Breakfast not just Tianjin style but it’s rather similiar in most towns and cities in North and EAst China from my experience.

    However, Breakfast in Guandong and Hong Kong is rather different. Has anyone tried Yum Cha? Yum Cha has become increasingly popular in Australia recentl;y as well.

    Essentially, Yum Cha is a buffet style breakfast where cute wairesses wheel round trays of Cantonese ‘snack’ foods and you just select what you want. Yum Cha is always held in restaurant between 8and 11am every morning but its especially popular on Weekend mornings in Singapore, Hong Kong, Guanzhou and Sydney. Generally whole extended families go to Yum Cha breakfast on Sunday morning.

    Living in China hasn’t changed my view that the Cantonese know how to cook food better than anyone else in China. Yum Cha is just another example. Better still they don’t use ‘gutter oil’ as the governments of all the places mentioned accept, possibly, Guanzhou, check the cooking oil regularly.

  2. So, are you worried about gutter oil? I’ve had some bad jinbingguozi before, actually, more than I’d like to admit. After about two years I’ve started to stay away from the street food, but I still have some youtiao at a shop down stairs. I really doubt they use gutter oil but I guess I’ll just never know!

  3. And yet, ya’ll are still ok with the gutter oil huh? I have yet to make my decision on whether or not the food is worth the risk lol. Not that I’m in China.

  4. haha, one of my students just saw the picture of the 油条 and the first thing he says is, “You should be careful eat 油条。The oil is not good!”

  5. Hi! my husband is from Tianjin, but we live in Belgium now (I’m Belgian).
    Like your blog + these pictures will surely make my husband drool :)
    Tianjin breakfast is the #1 thing he misses from his country :(

  6. I think you’ve missed the point of 油条. They don’t taste of much more than oil and dough, but fuel wise, they’re a pretty solid start. I, too, like mine with a bowl of 豆浆, though I don’t dip. It makes a good hangover breakfast, being rather easy and settling on the stomach (and therefore not bad for other kinds of dodgy stomach), but it’s also just a generally good boost of energy in the morning. And available everywhere – my first breakfast in Xishuangbanna was 油条 and 豆浆 on the side of a road somewhere between the Jinghong bus station and a hotel we reasoned couldn’t be too far away (a hotel, because it was one of those trips we got on the bus and hoped we’d be able to figure things out when we arrived).

    Dr Grainger, Cantonese food?! No way! It’s not the worst food I’ve ever eaten (sorry, but most traditional Tianjin food takes that dishonour), but it most certainly is the most overrated! I don’t know how food so bland could get such a high reputation. If you want the best food in China, I suggest you look around Hunan, with a few sidetrips to Yunnan, perhaps Guizhou, certainly Sichuan and Chongqing, out to Shaanxi, and stop overs in Xinjiang and the northeast (especially in winter, for those last two). Beijing manages to gather all of these and throw in a couple of worthy contributions (as does, I admit, Tianjin). And for your vinegar and noodles, I suggest Shanxi. But Cantonese food?! No way!

  7. Cantonese food? Aside from the adventure eating, I find it pretty much as bland as Canadian food, and that’s pretty bland.

    There’s good food to be had in Tianjin — it just mostly comes from other provinces. Tianjin’s food — the stuff that the locals claim originated here — just seems suuuuper oily and unhealthy to me, with unremarkable flavour. But I like the 锅巴菜 above, it’s my favourite from among the stuff Tianjin claims as its own.

  8. My friends in Tianjin would always dip their 油条 in the 豆浆. But I don’t think anyone would accuse them of being too classy. Now that I’m stateside, though, I really miss 锅巴菜. I can’t even begin to find the necessary ingredients in a Chinese grocery store. Sigh…

    And for those rich, lusty peasant foods, Hunan and Sichuan are really the best. But for what its worth, I call Cantonese food more refined, ie, there are a lot of foods no one would make at home. Not that I’ve been in Hong Kong or Guangzhou too much.

    1. Canadian food is American food with the spice and flavouring watered down. A server I once had in Chilliwack, B.C. who pronounced the Ls in “tortilla soup” comes to mind.

  9. Woof, and I thought American food was bland. So I guess Anglo-Canadian food must be somewhere between American food and British food… I’d think you can get plenty of Lebanese/Greek, Indian, and Asian food though…

  10. Oh yeah, if we want good food in Canada that isn’t burgers, we go for food that didn’t originate in Canada/England. I guess “Canadian food” and “food in Canada” aren’t necessarily the same thing, but they aren’t completely distinguishable categories either. Hard to say what, if anything, originated in Canada.

    Still, I’d put English food a notch below Canadian food. I blame the Brits for Canadian food.

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