Breakfast in Tianjin is an early and quick affair. However, don’t be mistaken, fast does not mean boring. To the contrary, breakfast in Tianjin is my favourite part of the day.
In the past, Tianjin’s economy relied heavily on its docks, so breakfast evolved around the dock workers of the time. Breakfast needed to be fast, filling, delicious and cheap. Work on the docks was very physically demanding, so Tianjin breakfast is characterised by its high salt and energy content, to keep the workers going till noon arrived. Therefore, a good Tianjin breakfast can keep me full from 8am – 2pm without any problems. Breakfast is very affordable, so Tianjinese families have a habit of buying breakfast, instead of making it at home. You can sit down at the many breakfast establishments on your way to work or school and get a filling hot breakfast down in under 10 minutes (if you are a reasonably fast eater). However, one of my earliest memories of breakfast was grandpa waking up early in the morning, hopping on his bike and doing his rounds at our favourite breakfast hawkers buying takeaway. He’d pick up soy milk from one shop, then ride to the steamed bun place and grab me my favourite red bean buns, then visit the fried dough cart in front of our house and get a variety of fried doughs for the family. Actually, taking away breakfast for the whole family is so common in Tianjin that you can bring your own pots, pans and containers from home for the shops to fill up.
Nowadays, in Melbourne my day starts with a piece of toast, a boiled egg and a glass of soy milk. It’s a lot healthier, but a lot more mundane. It’s one of the only things I’ve never gotten used to; I miss waking up to the hustle and bustle of breakfast hawkers, awaking my senses with the delicious aromas wafting through the windows and starting my day with a feast.
In this post I will introduce to a few of many breakfast options in Tianjin.
JinJin Snack House (津津小吃店）
Liaoning Rd, Heping,
Let me explain this dish. It is kind of like a pasta and kind of like cereal. Confused? Give me another chance, I promise I will explain it properly. The carb component of this dish is made by spreading a batter that is mainly composed of mung bean powder onto a hot flat cooking surface, forming a large thin crepe. Then the crepe is folded and cut up into strips. On top of this a piping hot savoury sauce is poured. The basic sauce is made with a strong base stock of either chicken or pork bones, flavoured with spices and soy sauce, if you go to a fancier place you will often find shitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, other fungi, meat and shrimps in the sauce too. This bowl can then be topped with condiments of your choice, normally on offer are: sesame paste, salty fermented beancurd, chili oil and coriander. Why did I say it’s like cereal? Because I like to eat it fast before the mung bean crepe pieces go soggy. Fast and furious, this is a breakfast dish that can even keep the freezing Northern winter at bay.
The sauce used to make this dish can also be topped over hot silken tofu to make another Tianjin breakfast favourite. That dish dad can make back in Australia, so we gave that a skip on our visit.
As per usual dad decided to order brekky for 4 instead of 2, so once again we had to takeaway. Just to give you an idea of how cheap breakfast is, for 2 bowls of the mung bean crepes; a load of fried dough sticks; 2 pan-fried breads; the small plate of pickles and the 2 sweet pastries only came to a total 17rmb. That is about $3 AUD.
I used to never eat dough sticks when I was young and only developed a craving for them after I came to Australia. Now, I love dipping them into the thick savoury sauce that the mung bean crepes sat in. Bread is probably a very inaccurate term for the round discs sitting beneath the mountain of dough sticks. It is a type of half leavened bread that is pan fried on the stove till it is a little bit crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. There is many varieties but the staples are plain sesame and a crustier version with the addition of shortening. The two traditional sweet pastries on the side next to the pickles were subpar in quality and not worth a mention.
Quality at JinJin has decreased markedly since my last visit, but it is still a good starting point to get a sample of a wide variety of breakfast favourites in one place, otherwise you’d have to travel to a lot more places to get the same variety since breakfast shops in Tianjin normally only specialises in 1 to 3 items.
This used to be one of my favourite breakfast items when I was a kid, but this was a special treat food due to how unhealthy it was. Normally made from the left over irregular pieces of dough from making the dough sticks, then it was smothered in brown sugar and fried. Fried dough with caramelized sugar, it may not look the prettiest, but trust me it will get you addicted. This item can be found at most fried dough stations during breakfast hour.
Lu Lu Xiang （炉炉香）
Xiyingmen Outer St,
Nankai, Tianjin, China
This place specialises in the aforementioned pan-fried breads, apart from the staples they also come in a wide array of flavours from savouries of beef, lamb, pork to sweets like raspberry and pineapple jam. But, if you trust me then take my advice and give all of those a skip. What you want from this place is a large plastic bag full of these babies:
This is a very popular traditional sweet bread and another friend from my childhood. Here, they make the best in Tianjin. A perfect crisp sugary crust on the outside giving away to an innard of the richest, most fragrant fluffy centre of sesame paste bread. They sell out very fast, with multiple batches made throughout the day to keep up with the demands, so it is very likely that you will be able to get your hands on a fresh one, still warm from the kitchen. Fresh, warm ones are the best. We normally buy a bag of 10 to take back home to my grandparents, they will normally get finished by the end of the next day.
Just look at the layers inside. Oh gosh, I need some now.
I left the best to last, this is hands down my favourite item for breakfast. You can buy this at a few shops in Melbourne, they are sufficient to keep my cravings at bay while in Melbourne, but they are nothing compared to the real deal. For one is the key filling -the fried shards, which cannot be found in Melbourne. These crepes filled with fried dough sticks are famous throughout China, but the real Tianjinese knows it’s the fried dough shards that you want. The fried shard is basically a dough that has been rolled out very thin then fried; it is extremely crispy and shatters everywhere with the slightest pressure from your teeth. However, if you want this version instead of the dough stick version then you got to get in early, otherwise it will be very likely to be sold out before 8.30am. Early bird gets the worm.
I’ve always loved to see them make this parcel of joy. First the mung bean batter is spread thin on the crepe cooking platform then one/two fresh eggs are cracked on top, smearing over the entire surface of the crepe, spring onion is added for flavoured then the crepe is flipped over to add in a giant piece of fried dough shard. At this point the proprietor will rapidly add in a variety of condiments like fermented beancurd paste, hoisin sauce, coriander and lastly ask you if you’d like chili with it. Upon hearing your answer, he/she will expertly fold up your crepe and place it in a paper bag. I love the contrast between the soft eggy exterior and the crispy, shattering insides. Best of all, you can bring eggs from home for them to put in lowering the price of a 2 egged crepe from 5rmb to 3rmb. A bargain, yummy breakfast to keep you full for a very long time. This traditional breakfast can be found at many hawker carts around the city early in the morning, especially near residential buildings.
Until I get another chance to visit my family in Tianjin, I’m sure the many excellent brunch places in Melbourne will keep me preoccupied.