Breakfast in China – Soy Milk & Chinese Doughnuts
Breakfast. I’m always infatuated by breakfast when I travel to a new place. It’s so different everywhere and it tells me a lot about a culture. Never would I have thought I would be writing a post on soy milk and Chinese doughnuts, but the significance of the dish was interesting enough that I wanted to give it a post on its own.
Breakfast in China varies according to each region and there are more options beyond this, but this is probably one of the most popular breakfasts to have. It’s cheap and delicious and it’s often found at street vendors before 10am. It is strictly a breakfast food although some cafes serve it all day.
Photo from here
This is soy milk and Chinese doughnut or “you tiao” or “yàuh ja gwái”. It’s almost like the Chinese version of churros and hot chocolate in Spain.
“Yàuh ja gwái” literally translates to “oil fried ghost”. The Chinese legend is that the two strips of dough combined represents the husband (named Qin Hui) and his wife who plotted to kill a revered general named Yue Fei. To punish their behaviour they boiled these strips of dough in oil and that’s why the Chinese call it “yàuh ja gwái” in Cantonese.
Process of making soy milk. Dry soy beans + water + sugar. Photo from here.
I never really cared for soy milk, but I have a rule where I try everything until I start to like it. There aren’t many things I dislike to begin with, but there are certain things I won’t care to eat unless someone orders it. Soy milk is one of them.
I must say if soy milk tasted as good as the ones I had in Asia then I would actually like it, but at home (Vancouver, BC) I haven’t come across it yet. That being said I should probably start ordering it more to see if it exists, but the risk isn’t worth the reward since I didn’t care for it to begin with.
The soy milk I had in Beijing was amazing. It might not be true of everywhere in Beijing, but generally speaking the ones I had in Hong Kong and China were great. They were home made, thick and almost creamy. They were so full of flavour and not watered down or mealy. It was almost like almond milk and it was lightly sweetened and fragrant. I actually craved it and crave it thinking back to it.
Photo from here
Chinese doughnut, “you tiao” or “yàuh ja gwái” are most often served for breakfast with hot rice congee or soy milk and they look like crullers. Although they are referred to as “doughnuts” they are more like deep fried bread. They really aren’t sweet at all but instead lightly salted. They are crispy on the outside and very light and fluffy with membrane like insides that are soft and a bit stretchy like croissant dough, but not buttery. Authentically they are crispy all the way through, but the majority of the time they tend to be served fluffy and soft inside (especially in North America).
Photo from here
As I mentioned in Follow Me Foodie to Beijing, Chinese food has a lot of symbolism and the ingredients are often chosen for a reason. I always looked at this dish and thought “soy milk and Chinese doughnuts”… so what?… but it is much more than that.
In traditional Chinese cooking they believe in the philosophy of the yin and yang. They don’t view them as battling forces, but they believe that the two sides need to be balanced to create harmony. This applies to cooking and the creation of a dish as well. Everything from colours, flavours and textures are supposed to be balanced.
In this case the Chinese doughnut is considered a “hot food”, or the Chinese will call it a “heaty food” (literally translated as “hot air”). All fried foods, barbecued items, greasy foods and even mangoes and lychee etc. are considered “heaty” foods. The Chinese believe that too much of them are bad for the health and will lead the body to be more prone to disease and sickness.
Therefore these heaty foods need to be balanced with “cold food” or “cooling foods”, which in this case would be the soy milk. It doesn’t matter if the soy milk is warm or hot because “heaty food” does not refer to the temperature of the food but instead the inherent “hot” and “cold” properties in the food. For this reason is why hot soy milk (cooling food) and the Chinese doughnut (heaty food) are eaten and enjoyed together. And that is just one example of the yin and yang balance in Chinese cooking.