Breakfast in China – Soy Milk & Chinese Doughnuts

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.


  • LotusRapper says:

    Did my Mom send you that blurb about “hot vs. cold” foods ?? 😉

    At least I wasn’t subjected to the plethora of Chinese medicinal soups as a child that many of my friends did in their homes 🙂

    Speaking of childhood, THIS is one of my most memorable meals ….. the Northern brekkie consisting of fried donut, sandwiched inside a “shao bing” all accompanied by a large bowl of warm sweet soy milk. Often on weekend mornings my parents would take me to a local Northern eatery and we’d enjoy these and other Northern dim sum items as a long slow brunch.

  • LotusRapper says:

    Mijune, in your top picture there is a small dish of what looks like a brown dipping sauce. Can you tell us what that is ?

  • Mijune says:

    @LR – !!!!!!! you’re making me crave it again!!! I love your comment… it’s perfect for this post and I’m so glad you can relate. That “hot air” thing is hard to explain to anyone outside of the Asian culture!

    Okay that brown dipping sauce.. so funny that you mentioned it. I spent half an hour trying to figure out what it was myself. I pulled the photo off google and I’ve been scratching my head figuring out what it is!!! I though it was caramelized condensed milk, but the colour is wrong. If it was, it is how they would eat it in Malaysia and sometimes in Shanghai. My next guess is plum sauce or some sesame sauce even though it doesn’t look like either and Chinese doughnut isn’t typically eaten with either too. I think it looks like lotus seed paste made into a sauce. I think it’s a modern photo with a modern condiment… they treated it as a dessert in the photo.

  • Rick Green says:

    “…I have a rule where I try everything until I start to like it.”

    Makes me wonder where my palate would be today if I had applied that rule at your age :-). As people get older, they often become set in their ways. That doesn’t seem to be the case with me. I will still try anything, and find I like things that never appealed to me before. Noodles for breakfast? I loved these spicy soup noodles I had in Anshun with soy milk and spicy pickled cabbage: They completely changed my ideas about breakfast.

  • LotusRapper says:

    @Mijune, thanks for that. Maybe someone who knows what that mystery sauce is can chime in and educate us all.

    What I didn’t mention was those weekend childhood brekkies were in Taipei, and in those days authentic Northern and Cantonese restos were actually somewhat sparse in even a big city like that, where a large % of folks were of Fujian heritage. But I recall the resto’s proprietors were Shanghainese by their spoken dialect (my Mom speaks it too but she’s Cantonese) and they were unusually tall. My parents would tell me the Northerners are tall because they eat a lot of *long* noodles, whereas the Southerners like us are relatively short because we eat a lot more small and “short” grains of rice. Now you can understand my family’s buy-in into the whole hot vs. cold/ying vs. yang thing and a bunch of other folklore myths ! And don’t forget to zip up your jacket to cover your throat or the cold winds will get ya sick ! 😉

    If I may digress a bit more, Double Double just re-opened in Richmond at Empire Place. They’re known for their excellent Chinese crullers and “ngow lei sow”, speaking of deep-fried goodness 🙂

  • Mijune says:

    @rick – lol! I love that you keep trying things! My dad was convinced he hated cheese and then I just kept pressuring him to try different types of cheese and now he doesn’t hate all of them!! Woohoo! It’s progress at least! You really make me want to go to Anshun now! Have you been to Vietnam? Pho is for breakfast!

  • Rick Green says:

    Good for you in persuading your dad to try different types of cheese, Mijune. Like a lot of food and drink, there are so many kinds, you are bound to find one you can enjoy. Hopefully, lactose intolerance is not a problem, but hard cheeses are less of an issue.

    Yes, I’ve been to Vietnam and enjoyed the pho. Another great breakfast street food is banh mi trung chien, the Vietnamese version of an Egg McMuffin:

  • Rick Green says:

    @Mijune @LotusRapper I think I know what the sauce is. This photo from, ironically, Bao Bei, shows a similar looking sauce: It would seem to be a condensed milk caramel. Apparently, you also had it there on February 1, Mijune:!

  • LotusRapper says:

    Good sleuthing, Rick !

  • Linda says:

    hmmm have you ever tried eating a yàuh ja gwái with bak tong guo (steamed rice cake)? o my my, that used to be my favorite breakfast… that with a glass of milk tea!

  • MizzJ says:

    Great post! I’ve always loved eating these donuts, but never tried it with soy milk (or rather almond milk, since I agree the soy milk here sucks). This is definitely not the type of post to be reading during lunch time.

  • LotusRapper says:

    MizzJ – none of Mijune’s posts are the type to be reading during lunch time [grin]

    What brands of soymilk do you buy locally ? I’m assuming you’ve had Sunrise and Superior, both of which are locally-rooted and make all their products locally. Sunrise has organic versions with fortification, sweetened or un-sweetened, regular or low-fat. Superior has fewer varieties. But either one are IMHO much better and more authentically-tasting than mainstream brands like So Nice, So Good, Silk, etc.

  • KimHo says:

    LR, I will put it under “depends”. If it is for the “traditional” usage, certainly, So Nice, So Good, Silk and so on would certainly fail compared to the Sunrise or Superior. However, you gotta look at it from the perspective of milk (as in dairy) substitute. That’s actually what So Nice, So Good and Silk aim for.

    As for myself, call me a “traitor” of sorts: I drink the western type soy milk (specifically, Silk, mainly because it is sold in Costco) because I drink it as a milk substitute. As with a lot of Asians, sometimes, cow’s milk does not agree with us! Come to think about it, I made ice cream the other day and I am certain it was the cream (otherwise, the ice cream was great!).

  • Steve T says:

    great article. I can also attest to the difference in the taste of soy-milk in China vs where I’m at (Toronto,ON). A lot of soy-milk here doesn’t have a homogenous consistency and tastes a little powdery. I’ve never tried them together before but doughnuts and soymilk sounds like great breakfast idea.

  • LotusRapper says:

    @Kim – sorry if I came across sounding like I’m knocking the mass consumer versions. They definitely have their place in the market, as you say, as milk alternatives. Until Sunrise or Superior makes a chocolate version, I will continue to buy So Nice’s chocolate soymilk for LR Jr. (and I like it too).

  • KimHo says:

    LR, by no means! Again, it is more of a different strokes for different folks things! Come to think about it, I am not certain how chocolate soy drink would taste, given the regular texture is quite thin.

  • Pamela says:

    I eat this with my family when we all get together for breakfast and it’s great comfort food! Love this in depth post. My dad especially likes to do Pao You Tiao in his Dou Jiang all the time. I personally love Fan Tuan. Great post and I’m linking it to my blog post for reference. 🙂

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