I do realise that this article may well make me seem like a lost Irishman abroad who needs to get back to his mammy’s potatoes and bacon, but the inescapable reality is that a decent breakfast is just so hard to come by in China. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food, and it constitutes the vast majority of what my fiancée and I eat nowadays, but we don’t want it for breakfast. One of the major cultural differences that divides what we know of the West from what we’ve seen of the East seems to be the idea of breakfast as a meal like no other.
For the Chinese, it’s not unlike any other. The locals here like to break their fasts with a similar choice to that on which they feast later in the day. Breakfast is just like dinner and lunch, meaning that it’s common to commence a new day with a generous helping of rice or noodles, mixed together with meat or fish and a variety of vegetables. Furthermore, in Jiangxi province where we currently reside, the afore-described plate is likely to be laden with some extremely spicy chilly. Delicious, but for those of us reared on cereal and toast as our get-out-of-bed motivation, it’s more than we can stomach first thing in the morning.
So as much as we love to embrace the Chinese culture which now surrounds us, some home comforts are still required before facing the outside world. And unfortunately, finding them isn’t always the easiest of tasks. Upon moving to Shangrao, one of the hardest parts of adapting to our new home was the realisation that our local supermarkets not only lack my beloved Weetabix, but don’t stock any other cereals either. Necessity being the mother of invention, I’ve since designed a rather makeshift morning meal from a tasty-but-un-filling mixture of hot milk and walnut powder, augmented by peanut butter and slices of banana and accompanied by breakfast biscuits. It’ll do, but it’s not the same.
As for treating oneself to breakfast or brunch out, options are few and far between. Café’s don’t exactly abound in China, and the ones that do exist tend to limit their eating choices to cakes and biscuits. This is certainly the case in Bluekey, Le Miel Coffee and Holiland in Shangrao (the only three cafés we have thus far been able to locate in this city, although another appears to be opening soon), while visits to Beijing and Hangzhou have seen us frustratingly end up back in branches of international coffee chains such as Costa and Starbucks. Settling for a cake or artificial-tasting sandwich in the absence of more satisfying alternatives can be accepted as a once-off, but on a longer trip it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the tummy’s morningly rumbles.
Despite these fruitless ventures, we have learned that China’s bigger, more cosmopolitan cities do in fact offer some good breakfast spots. They just aren’t easily located. It’s far from a simple matter of strolling down a busy street and coming across somewhere serving poached eggs or a Full Irish. Any planning to travel around this vast nation who don’t fancy starting their days with either a heavy bowl of noodles or a measly muffin will have to do their research first. As someone who has learnt this lesson the hard way, I’ll happily give a few helpful recommendations.
(I hope the following café summaries can be of help to readers, but I don’t claim to be an expert café critic. If you want more detailed reviews of some of these cafés and many others in various countries, check out the Café Corner on Girl Seeks Travel Kicks.)
Shanghai – Baker and Spice
‘Now that’s more like it’ we told each other as we sipped our coffees. After so many weak and watery disappointments in various branches of Starbucks (whose Chinese branches really aren’t up to the game), we were finally drinking the real deal.
And it only got better when the food arrived. With a breakfast menu containing delicious French toast-based concoctions, eggs, fruits, yoghurt and so much more, Baker and Spice will make sure you don’t suffer through your morning on an empty stomach. The atmosphere is also a vibrant one, the din of animated chit-chat a far cry from the silence of phone-addicted customers so often found in China. As an added bonus, the café’s location in The Shanghai Centre makes for an ideal opportunity to pop into the theatre’s box office to acquire some tickets for the next acrobatic show (read more about that, and Shanghai as a whole, here).
Hong Kong’s colonial past and its continued links with Britain make it a far more internationally-minded city than any found on the Chinese mainland. Bars and foreign-cuisine-dedicated restaurants are aplenty, allowing one to enjoy anything from a hot Thai curry to a cool pint of Irish cider. Such is Hong Kong’s size, however, that it’s still worth looking up breakfast options in advance if long and unproductive wanders are to be avoided.
In terms of coffee and food you won’t do much better than The Cupping Room, a down-to-earth café with a lengthy breakfast menu. The Grassroots Pantry offers a fancier option, and the coffee is delicious, but the portions are on the small side and there is a certain air of pretension about the place.
In a similar fashion to how Hong Kong retains links with the UK, Macau is still shaped by all those years of Portuguese occupation. The Old Town area in particular feels like a slice of the Iberian Peninsula transplanted onto the Southern Chinese coast, its quaint tranquillity starkly contrasting with the brash casinos of Macau’s more modern neighbourhoods.
This peaceful piece of Portugal is a much easier place in which to locate a characterful café than anywhere on the mainland. One such establishment, known as Bless Juice Bar, serves distinctively-flavoured coffees and a variety of sandwiches, although there is no specific breakfast menu.
The morning hunt can be cut out entirely, though, if you rest your head at Best Western Hotel Sun Sun. Spending the nights here is to be recommended for various reasons such as comfort, space, value for money and the presence of a bath (another rarity out here in the Orient). Another laudable feature is that its restaurant, as well as serving sumptuous Chinese-Portuguese fusion meals in the evening, includes a fry-up and a porridge-and-fruit combination amongst its breakfast choices. Tucking into the first fry-up I’d had since my departure from The Emerald Isle, it felt like a just reward for all of those settling-for-Starbucks-again disappointments on previous escapades.
Shenzhen – Hero Espresso
While much of China continues to look largely inwards – whereas Hong Kong and Macau arguably show more in common with their former colonisers than with their reclaiming motherland – Shenzhen is a rare case of Chinese authenticity combined with a lively expat scene. One of the benefits of the latter is Hero Espresso, a small trendy café with excellent service. The breakfast-specific food is good if not overwhelmingly so, and the coffee is amongst the best you’ll get.