YOU CAN eat French toast in China, and scrambled eggs and all the usual trappings of American breakfasts. But anyone who knows which end of the chopstick is up knows that breakfast Chinese-style is one of the fascinations of visiting that country.
Like the seas of dark-jacketed people who crowd the streets, Chinese breakfasts at first seem endlessly the same, but the details vary in intriguing ways.
Congee -- or jook -- is the center of Chinese breakfast, a plain unseasoned soup of rice and water that may be served thick or thin, hot or lukewarm, with or without bits of pickles and meats stirred in. Usually in China you are on your own to mix in the condiments or to alternate bites of salty or sharp tidbits with spoons of congee; in America's Chinese restaurants, however, congee is often available with a choice of ingredients already stirred in just before serving.
Sometime during a trip to China, an inquisitive tourist is likely to discover that nothing comforts a queasy stomach like plain warm congee. It is the most supportive, undemanding food in existence.
But whether or not you ever relate to congee, Chinese breakfasts can be memorable. In Peking they are a parade of doughs -- fried crisp rectangles with one corner pulled through a slit in the middle, flower-shaped steamed rolls, round cakes filled with fruits and nuts like Eastern strudel, and steamed baos with sweet bean paste. Following those come thin pink slices of anise-seasoned roast pork and slices of sweet-spicy red sausage and pickles, all kinds of pickles: salted cucumbers, bok choy with peanuts or tiny crunchy gray snail-shaped vegetables. The main variations in Peking breakfasts are likely to involve freshness and temperature. One day all may be hot and fresh, the next day everything chilly and stale in Peking hotels. Green peppers may be included one day, baos left out another day, but one constant is that the meal will start with sweets.
As for regionalism, it is most apparent in minor details. Shanghai's baos are filled with meatballs more often than bean paste, its flaky baked cakes with poppy seeds instead of fruits and nuts. The pork in Shanghai is dried and shredded into hair-thin filaments to mix in the congee. In Shanghai one might find cold scrambled eggs and cold fried fish and baos that taste like whole wheat. Canton's baos also hide meatballs in their centers; the bean paste in this city is most likely to be found inside the flaky baked doughs. And in Canton one finds spring rolls for breakfast, crisp ones with hardly any filling. The Canton sweets include tarts with persimmon jam and whipped egg topping like meringue, plus old familiar almond cookies. Everywhere, though, there are pickles for breakfast.
Since breakfasts in China are vehicles for using leftovers, the regional differences at dinner are repeated at breakfast. Hangchow serves cold duck webs and soy-flavored duck breast; but then, Hangchow serves duck whenever there is the slightest excuse. True to Hangchow's devotion to food, its hotel breakfasts are among the most ambitious: fried dumplings and glutinous-flour sweet dumplings, ham, jellyfish shreds, thousand-year-old eggs, and several kinds of beans and vegetables in sesame oil. Nanking, on the other hand, has little culinary distinction, and its breakfasts are most notable for including what must be the world's saltiest pickles.
But Nanking's kitchens are eclectic, ready to produce anything from plain fried dough for dipping in soy sauce to chocolate souffle. And it was at breakfast in Nanking that I discovered the perfect culinary couple, congee and caviar. The super-salted, sludgy red caviar of China is hard going on its own. But stirred into congee, the ultimate blandness, the contrast raises both elements to new heights. And it has the kind of insouciance one feels wearing diamonds with blue jeans. CONGEE (6 servings) 1 cup long-grain rice 8 cups water 1 teaspoon salt (optional) 1 tablespoon oil (optional) Condiments: Any meat: chicken seasoned with soy sauce, roast pork, duck, shredded beef, meatballs, liver, Chinese sausages Fish: fried, smoked, salted, dried and shredded Shrimp or other seafood Picled vegetables Chopped scallions Chopped fresh coriander Shredded ginger Cold cooked vegetables, well-seasoned, diced or shredded Marinated raw vegetables, diced or shredded Dash of soy sauce and/or sesame oil
Simmer rice in water, covered, for at least 40 minutes, without stirring. Some cooks simmer the rice for 3 hours, partially covered, in 12 cups water, and others use chicken broth instead of water. You may add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon oil during the cooking. Serve hot, in bowls, with condiments on the side.