Chinese Stories in English
Good Morning, Liuzhou
I certainly do enjoy my American breakfasts (defined as a generous helping of salt, served on a bed of fried eggs and pig meat). In a pinch I can make do with a so-called "continental breakfast" (a blend of refined sugar and processed wheat flour, baked and graced with a nectarous topping or filling).
When I first started coming to China, I spent most of my time in the northern part of the country. For breakfast, the people up there like to eat a bowl of rice porridge with pickled vegetables in it. Definitely not my cup of joe, so I survived on bacon and eggs in the tourist hotels. Thankfully they even had salt and pepper shakers on the tables (regular Chinese restaurants don't), but I soon learned to be careful with them: the salt was always in the shaker with one or two small holes. The one with lots of big holes was filled with pepper.
The closest thing you could find to a continental breakfast in those days, at least outside the tourist hotels, was pre-packaged baked goods. They were usually stale and only the truly desperate (like me) would venture to try them. Of the two times I've gotten food poisoning in China, one was from eating a chewy concoction that was vaguely reminiscent of a bear claw.
To accompany their rice porridge, the Northerners also like something called you-tiao (油条), which means "oil stick". They're long pieces of deep-fat-fried dough, made with no sugar at all – an acquired taste that I've never been tempted to acquire.
Once, on a tour in 1985, our group pre-ordered a birthday cake at a tourist hotel. When the time came the waitress brought it out and let us admire it. It looked great and I attacked my piece eagerly – and almost choked. It had been made entirely without sugar. When we complained the waitress explained that they had run out of sugar, but gone ahead and made the cake anyway because they knew we'd want it for the party. (Sugar was rationed at the time, so they couldn't just run out and buy more.)
More recently I've been spending my time in Southern China. The people here eat rice porridge for breakfast, too, but they put all kinds of goodies in it: ground or sliced pork, seafood, boiled egg, nuts, fruits…. Much to my surprise, I've actually taken a liking to the stuff.
I still have to go to a tourist hotel occasionally to get an infusion of salt, but if I get a yen for pastry, it's easily satisfied. Liuzhou has hundreds of bake shops of a quality at least equal to the typical U.S. bakery. (Except for the bread, that is. One place offers a good loaf, but only sporadically; two other places have tried to market good bread, but given up after a few months and gone back to selling the Wonder Bread-type stuff that the locals seem to prefer.)
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