Wake Up and Smell the . . .
Published: June 2009
By Jeffrey Alford, Naomi Duguid
. . . rice noodles, honeyed flat breads, coconut chutney, almond-laced hot chocolate, and just-baked cinnamon rolls. Welcome to the best breakfasts around the world.
Breakfast is a highly personal matter, and even more so when you're traveling. Many people go to great lengths to find a breakfast that is first and foremost familiar: orange juice, a certain brand of cereal, toast and eggs. Others are just the opposite, hitting the street each morning, ready to try whatever local food goes by the name of breakfast.
We're a little of both. We're on the road several months a year, exploring the world for our cookbooks, and documenting daily life in photographs. First thing each morning we'll do whatever it takes to get a cup of coffee, even if it involves bringing a jar of instant and boiling our own water. Morning means coffee, and that's that. But once coffee is taken care of, we're ready for adventure. We'll even wake at an ungodly hour, something we never do at home, to go looking for an early morning treasure we've heard about, or to return to a pleasure we already know well.
Here are our favorite breakfasts around the world. Almost all have to do with clouds of steam rising from a cooking pot, with people rubbing their hands to stay warm, with smells of good food and fresh air colliding, with the crisp sounds of morning and a sense of opportunity. Some are exotic, some immensely comforting, and all a delicious way to break the fast.
Breakfast in the old section of Georgetown, on the island of Penang, is something of a problem. The problem is how to choose. You can eat foods from all over Asia: Tamil Muslim and Tamil vegetarian (from southern India), Hokkien, Teochiu, Hakka, and Cantonese (from China), Thai, Sinhalese (from Sri Lanka), Malay, Atjehnese (from Sumatra), nonya (the local Chinese-Malay cuisine), even Punjabi. In fact, one of the most common choices among visitors is creamy oatmeal, occasionally followed by a bottle of Guinness beer! But porridge seems a bit crazy in the tropics. Try a Malay roti jala (coconut milk crêpe) from a street vendor, a masala dosa at a Tamil vegetarian restaurant, or roti channa (flat bread with hot dal) at a Tamil Muslim restaurant— unless, of course, you're in the mood for dim sum.
The Ramblas is made for strolling. Along this tree-shaded boulevard, buskers ply their trade, vendors sell songbirds, people painted gold or silver pose as statues of Christopher Columbus (a little money dropped their way animates them for a moment, and they quickly shift poses, then stand again, immobile, waiting for the next contribution).
The Ramblas is also the best way to reach our favorite early morning breakfast spot, the Boquería, one of Europe's most outstanding food markets. At the zinc counter near the entrance, we order café con leche and the delicious Catalan specialty pa amb tomÀquet, good bread rubbed with the tiniest touch of tomato, garlic, and olive oil; or instead pa amb pernil, bread topped with thin slices of serrano ham from the mountains. Then we stroll the Boquería, pretending to still have an appetite.
The challenge in Oaxaca is having enough time to sample all the fondas (food stalls) at the market. One day, order a wondrous, frothy, steamy hot chocolate, made from locally grown and roasted cocoa beans flavored with Mexican cinnamon and almonds. Another day try a delicious corn concoction called atole, a drink that's been popular here since well before the conquest. After a strenuous early morning excursion to the ruins at Monte Albán, sink your teeth into a quesadilla, or else a large crisp tortilla topped with puréed beans and shreds of quesillo, Oaxacan string cheese. And don't leave the market without buying a generous stash of chocolate from a chocolatera (chocolate maker)— with vanilla, cinnamon, almonds, and sugar added, to your specifications— so you can make your own hot chocolate for breakfast back home.
In the lush, green tropical state of Kerala, at the southern tip of India, there are a great many dishes offered early each morning in vegetarian restaurants, all of them extraordinary. Each is simple in its ingredients (rice, coconut, palm sugar, and such), yet ingenious. And with tantalizing names like wellayapum, uppuma, iddli, and puttu, ordering breakfast is a pleasure for the tongue. The best is masala dosa, a huge paper-thin crêpe made from a fermented batter of rice and black lentils, wrapped around potato curry and accompanied by hot tamarind lentil stew and fresh coconut chutney. Served on a banana leaf and gobbled up using your right hand exclusively, it is almost as much fun to eat as it is delectable.
Huge yellow billboards on I-25 between Denver and Fort Collins lead the way to Johnson's Corners (2842 S.E. Frontage Rd., Loveland; 970/667-2069), a 1950's restaurant that serves one of America's best cinnamon rolls. It's big, hot, sugary, and cheap, at $1.60. Indulge while swiveling on a counter stool, or take a table and eavesdrop on the farmers, truckers, and road-weary travelers around you. Early Sunday morning is hard to beat, but then again, the Corners is open 24 hours. Late at night, when you're numbed by too many miles on the road, the coffee tastes that much better with the cinnamon roll.
One autumn we rented a small house in a hamlet near Mont Ventoux and conducted our own bread tour of northern Provence, searching out every bakery and market bread vendor we could find. Our first son was 10 months old at the time, so indoor restaurants were less than desirable. Outdoor cafés were okay, but bakeries were best. Our favorite routine took place on Monday mornings in the nearby town of Bédoin, where we would buy a sampling of rolls and breads from a market baker— rye and walnut rolls, olive fougasse— and maybe a local cheese or two, then find a table outside for café au lait. Simple and so satisfying.
Fresh, soft, wheaty flat breads (shao bing) filled with buckwheat honey and set next to a bowl of hot, slightly sweet soybean milk (do jiang) used to be the only breakfast served in Yangshuo— a small town just down the Li River from Guilin, in Guanxi Province. Fifteen years ago, that's what we ate at the government restaurant, People's (Xi Jie St.; no phone). The only restaurant in town, it resembled an untidy two-car garage; the service was nightmarish.
Yangshuo, set in a beautiful dreamlike landscape straight out of a Chinese brush painting, has since become a favorite destination among bikers, hikers, and those who just want to enjoy the rhythms of small-town life, Chinese-style. As a result, there are a plethora of homey restaurants serving rice congee for breakfast, as well as granola and pancakes. But the buckwheat honey shao bing with do jiang at People's— now much friendlier— are still too good to pass up.
Sour plum sauce (tkhemali) served with little red kidney beans, cheese- and potato-filled flat breads, eggplant and walnut roll-ups, basturma (spicy dried meat), harisa (chicken and wheat-berry soup)— food in the Caucasus is a brilliant blend of the cuisines of Persia and the eastern Mediterranean, a reminder that the region was historically a crossroads between East and West. Breakfast is no exception. One autumn morning we visited a market in Yerevan, Armenia, and bought an armload of fresh lavash, large sheets of bread like folded laundry. From another vendor we got two big beautiful sweet pomegranates, and from another a soft creamy goat cheese. Next we found a quiet, sunny church courtyard, where we hung the lavash on a clothesline and then sat savoring every bite of each: pomegranate, fresh cheese, and lavash— breakfast in Armenia.
At the Hotel Palais Salam (Rte. de Ourzazate; 212-8/885-2312), a pink-walled palace of courtyards and mystery within Taroudant's Old City walls, breakfast is so wonderful that it makes the rest of the day's meals practically irrelevant. From nearby oases come piles of green and black olives, luscious dates, and oranges to squeeze for fresh juice. There is locally pressed yellow-green olive oil, and deep red, nutty-tasting argan oil, a specialty of the Souss Valley that's made from the seeds of thorny argan trees. Hot flat breads are dipped into oil or eaten with yogurt or fresh cream cheese. There's also a choice of Moroccan pancakes and pastries, including several kinds of rghaif (crêpe-like flat breads drizzled with melted butter and honey), and sfenj (deep-fried fritters dusted with sugar). And to drink there's sweet tea, made by packing a teapot with a fistful of fresh mint leaves.
Muang Sing, Laos
Along the Mekong River, from China to Laos and Cambodia to Vietnam, one of the most popular and nourishing breakfasts is a big bowl of hot rice noodles in broth, called pho in Vietnam, foe in Cambodia and southern Laos, and khao soi in northern Laos. It can be simple or elaborate, spicy or relatively mild, but it should always be eaten in pleasurable surroundings, and preferably in the cool morning air.
The best khao soi we ever had was in the tiny village of Muang Sing in the far north of Laos, 10 miles from the Chinese border, in Luang Nam Tha province. Every morning we'd eat outside at the market, piling fresh pea shoots, lettuce, mint, coriander, and basil on top of our hot, soupy, spicy noodles. The Muang Sing market gets started several hours before dawn when tribal people arrive on foot from their villages in the hills to buy and sell. By 8 a.m. the market has all but disappeared. Thanks to the khao soi and the incredible people-watching, there are few breakfast moments that can compare.
JEFFREY ALFORD and NAOMI DUGUID, Toronto-based food writers and photographers, are the authors of Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas (Morrow), for which they won the 1996 James Beard Cookbook of the Year award, and the just-published Seductions of Rice (Artisan).