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November 22, 2010

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Easy living and bountiful breakfasts

THE early bird gets the worm - or if you happen to be in Yangzhou, the delicious breakfast. The city, at the confluence of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal of China, is famous for its delicate Huaiyang cuisine, notably dim sum-like breakfast, its elegance and relaxed living.

The ancient Chinese describe the laid-back lifestyle in Yangzhou by referring to both the morning ritual of eating breakfast and the evening ritual of public bathing.

They spoke of "the (dim sum) skin surrounding water (soup) in the morning and (bath) water surrounding skin in the evening." They still say that today, and it still holds true.

The city of Yangzhou, literally "rising prefecture," dates back more than 2,400 years. Since the Grand Canal was completed in the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), it has been an important commercial city, resting stop and port for traveling traders and businessmen, scholars, artists, actors, monks and all manner of people.

Almost all travelers had to pass Yangzhou. Thus, to meet the requirements of customers from all over the country, the city gradually accepted and integrated various regional cultures, cuisines and entertainment into a center with multiple choices, especially in cuisine.

Huaiyang cuisine is typical of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces and is one of China's eight most famous culinary styles. It is considered the most balanced in taste - light and fresh-tasting, delicate, never greasy.

It tends to have a sweet side and is seldom spicy. Thus, it appeals to people from around the country and was chosen for the imperial table in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.

It is known for careful preparation and meticulous, precise slicing, dicing and chopping of ingredients, some into threads. The chef's knife skills are very important; chefs are food craftsmen. There's a lot of stewing, braising and steaming, rather than stir-frying.


And Yangzhou-style breakfast captures the essence of the cuisine in the early morning. It's said that one has not sampled Huaiyang cuisine without having eaten a Yangzhou-style breakfast.

While dim sum typically features all kinds of dumplings with an obvious southern style, the Yangzhou-style breakfast is more balanced, with both dumplings and buns of various types. It is especially famous for the Yangzhou Boiled Shredded Dry Bean Curd and Yangzhou-style noodles.

Only those who wake up early get an authentic breakfast experience with the signature Lu Yang Chun (green spring of Yangzhou) tea and the cultural and poetic environment surrounding famous restaurants.

The restaurants open as early as 6am and are usually filled before 7am; by the end of breakfast around 10am, some tables have already had five or six rounds of customers.

The three oldest and best-known breakfast restaurants are the "three springs" - Fuchun (Rich Spring), Yechun (Touring Spring) and Gonghechun (Republican Spring).

Fuchun and Yechun have been in operation for more than 100 years, and many customers who have eaten breakfast there have done so all their lives.

Many love the signature Fuchun Bun from Fuchun, while others prefer the beautiful scenery of Yechun. Gonghechun is popular among locals for its much cheaper prices - less than half of the other two - and the balanced menu.

The Yechun Teahouse is inside the Yechun Garden, between the city's canal bank and some small hills. Small intricately designed pavilions and corridors with lattice carvings create a delicate and refreshing garden.

The teahouse is near the royal dock reserved for Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), who frequently traveled to the southern part of the country and always passed through Yangzhou.

As the teahouses' names suggest, the spring season is quite symbolic in Yangzhou. Numerous ancient poets and writers have described springtime outings when the weather is warm, the air is fragrant with flowers and grasses and the sunlight reflects on the water of the canal and of Slender West Lake.

Hence, the signature tea in Yangzhou is also called Lu Yang Chun, meaning "green spring of Yangzhou." It is planted the area around the city and is the tea that mostly commonly accompanies breakfast.

Another tea called Kuilongzhu, or the dragon ball, is a specialty of Fuchun Teahouse. It is boiled with Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea from Hangzhou, Kuizhen Tea from Anhui Province and Zhulan Tea from Fujian Province to integrate the color of the first, the richness of the second and the fragrance of the third.

Many teahouses and restaurants provide set menus for breakfast, ranging in price from a few yuan to nearly 100 yuan (US$15), depending on their location, popularity and reputation.

Set menus often usually include a glass of tea, and signature dishes such as Three Small Buns, Yangzhou Boiled Shredded Dry Bean Curd, Crab Soup Buns, Multiple-Layer Oil Cake and Steamed Vegetable Dumplings. Buns can be small or quite large, like mantou (steamed buns). Three Small Buns (San Ding Bao)

The stuffing of Three Small Buns includes three ingredients - tiny pieces of chicken, pork and bamboo shoots. Ingredients are carefully selected and prepared, including chicken from hens under two years old, pork from ribs and fresh bamboo shoots.

The stuffing is a balanced mixture of freshness, tenderness, fragrance and crispiness. The relative amount of the pieces is also important: the ratio of chicken to pork to bamboo shoots is 1:2:1.

A rich and sophisticated variation on the bun is the Five Small Buns, which adds tiny pieces of shrimp and ginseng or shrimp and sea cucumber.

Legend has it that Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), known for his frequent visits to southern China, tried the Five Small Buns with shrimp and sea cucumber, loved them and promoted them.

Given the higher price of the original Five Small Buns with shrimp and ginseng or cucumber, the buns were simplified to include only chicken, pork and bamboo shoots, the recipe most common today.

Boiled Shredded Dry Bean Curd (Yangzhou Gansi)

This famous dish, also known as Boiled Shredded Dry Bean Curd in Chicken Broth, requires careful and precise cutting and chopping, as do many Huaiyang-style dishes.

Dried soybean pods, about 1cm thick, should be cut into threads no thicker than a paper match. It's then cooked in a rich chicken broth with shredded bamboo shoots, chicken and dry shrimp.

The recipe varies with the seasons: seafood is added in spring, shredded eel in summer, crab meat in fall and wild vegetables in winter.

Crab Soup Bun (Xie Huang Tang Bao)

Soup buns - buns filled with soup - are famous in Yangzhou, eaten with a straw to suck the savory juice out first. And Crab Soup Buns are the best known.

For first-timers, it can be hard to figure out where to start on the bun with very thin skin, and the hot soup inside can burn the mouth, so caution is required.

It's actually quite simple. Be careful with chopsticks to avoid tearing the skin - the soup will leak out. Make a hole in the top to let it cool a bit.

Then either use a straw or suck the savory soup oneself.


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