Butter bombs and fermented fish paste: A breakfast tour of Southeast Asia
2 weeks in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong reveal a sugary, savoury panoply of morning meals
On the first morning in Hong Kong, I am quite literally following my nose to breakfast.
At the start of a two-week trip to Southeast Asia, I'm in Sai Ying Pun, a gentrifying residential neighbourhood on the west side of Hong Kong Island.
The hotel-booking website Hotwire placed me in this hilly 'hood after I expressed no particular preference for the location of a hotel that will primarily serve as a crash pad for the acclimatization between the -25 C January lows in Winnipeg and the 33 C daytime heat of Thailand and Singapore, the main destinations on this trip.
Less than bright-eyed and not quite bushy-tailed after a trans-Pacific flight, I leave my non-descript business hotel just after 9 a.m. in search of sustenance that is not western.
Wandering up Centre Street, I'm somewhat tempted by the smell of roasted beans emanating from tiny, artisanal coffee shops. But no one flies 12,000 kilometres for hipster breakfast.
Centre Street steepens as it rises toward Victoria Peak. There is an escalator on the sidewalk. When it deposits me on High Street, the heavy scent of star anise hangs in the air like a savoury fog.
I follow my nostrils two storefronts to the source of the scent: a narrow noodle shop, with a handful of tables running its length and a heap of braised beef tripe and brisket behind a glass partition at the front.
I take a seat and order both tripe and brisket. They arrive over egg noodles in a bowl of both.
Both the offal and the flesh are beyond tender. The noodles are al dente. The soup itself is rich and beefy without being too cloying to consume at breakfast. I am charged less than $7 CAD and am chuckling at my good luck.
On my way out of the shop, I look up the address to find its name in English. Eng Kee Noodles, Google says. One coveted Michelin star.
In my jetlagged confusion, on my first morning on the far side of the Pacific, I stumbled into a celebrated noodle parlour using olfactory senses alone.
The all-day diners of Hong Kong
A couple of decades ago, everyday Asian culinary traditions seemed impenetrable in North America. Then TV personalities like Anthony Bourdain stuck their chopsticks into every corner of the world's largest continent, documenting every night-market morsel and motorcycle-cart concoction on camera for the viewing pleasure of Netflix subscribers from Regina to Rhode Island to Redondo Beach.
Now, late-night, boozy tours through through the pho parlours of Ho Chi Minh City or the dai pai dongs — open-air food stalls — of Hong Kong have become food-travel clichés, no more exotic than a Bob Marley T-shirt on sale at an airport gift shop in Montego Bay.
Hence my interest in breakfast, which may not just be the most important meal of the day, but the most conservative of the three daily squares in North America.
Generally speaking, Canadians relegate breakfast to a boring meal of cereal, toast and eggs. If we feel lazy, we may consume cold pizza instead. If we're hung-over, we ensure some form of greasy cured-meat product slides down our gullets.
The rest of the planet looks at this abbreviated menu and shrugs.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Southeast Asia. After a few more days in Hong Kong, I become acquainted with the Cantonese version of the all-day diner: the cha chaan teng, which translates into "tea restaurant."
These casual, often-crammed diners serve a combination of southern Chinese dishes, such as noodle soup, along with European-inspired short orders like scrambled-egg sandwiches (always on white bread and usually without crusts), spaghetti with meat sauce and macaroni in soup.
What appears to be the most common cha chaan teng beverage order is milk tea — a deep brown, highly caffeinated and very tannic blend of Sri Lankan or Chinese brew, rendered silky by a long soaking in an iron pot and a very healthy pour of evaporated milk.
This may be accompanied by the Hong Kong version of French toast, which is not just fried and slathered in butter, but also smeared with sweetened condensed milk. While this breakfast is hardly foreign to western palates, the liberal use of sugar, fat and caffeine is more than bracing.
The cholesterol bomb of Singapore
In Singapore, the multi-ethnic city state on the southern edge of Malaysia, the indulgence of a Hong Kong diner breakfast may be considered lightweight.
Singapore's national breakfast dish is kaya toast, whose comfort-foodie genius belies an appearance as dull as macaroni soup.
This dish involves two slices of bread that are slathered with a jam comprised of coconut, eggs and pandanus — a forest-green flavouring derived from the palm-like screwpine plant — and then slapped together with large pats of butter, which partly melt from the residual heat of the toast.
Kaya toast is often served with a bowl of soft-poached eggs. You then dip the buttery, sweet toast into the runny egg yolk and wash the whole mess down with the Singaporean version of milk tea, which is just as strong as its Hong Kong counterpart but even sweeter, thanks to the use of sweetened condensed milk.
A variant of this dish is kaya steamed bread: the same dish, without the crusts, placed inside a bamboo dim sum steamer until the butter melts and seeps into the white bread.
If kaya toast ever makes it to North America, the doughnut is doomed.
In Thailand, breakfast is a jok
In Canada, oatmeal is boring on its own. The sticky breakfast porridge of Thailand is just as boring without the addition of ginger, chili, fish sauce and other condiments.
One of the most common breakfast dishes in the southeast Asian nation is jok, a rice porridge similar to Chinese congee. Jok is followed closely in popularity by a semi-sweet egg omelette placed over rice.
Both of these breakfast dishes, however, pale in comparison to the morning fare you can find on the streets of Bangkok.
In its Chinatown, justifiably famous for its street food, a steaming bowl of rice noodles, beef broth and fish balls will set you back the equivalent of $1.75 Cdn, if you don't mind chowing down at a sidewalk stall.
The dish has a strong similarity to Vietnam's famous pho, though Bangkok's sidewalks are positively roomy compared to the claustrophobic confines of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
Still, the heat of a bowl of broth is tough for a Manitoban to handle on a 28 C morning. In the tourist town of Krabi, closer to Malaysia, I wind up with a cooler breakfast option: nam prik kapi, a spicy fermented shrimp paste.
Staring at a market table full of salads, I point to a mound of shredded raw green papaya, shallots, and tiny fried fish. The salad is excellent, but I'm confused by what arrives with it — a platter of raw green beans, cucumber slices and an astringent but not unpleasant herb I cannot identify, along with a bowl of pinkish-brown paste and a mound of sticky rice.
My shrugs lead to instructions. I am to place the veggies on the sticky rice and add a dollop of the salty paste. This turns out to be healthiest and most fulfilling accidental order of the trip.
I am later told this is not really breakfast food, but the Thai equivalent of eating cold pizza first thing in the morning.
Some culinary traditions are universal after all.