Hundreds of millions of Chinese begin their day with one or several kinds of food mentioned in this article. The stories behind these foods are equally appetizing.
1. Fry the devils!
Chinese oil stick, or youtiao, is a staple Chinese breakfast. When it first appeared, however, it appealed more to people’s hearts than their stomachs.
Youtiao is also known in some areas across China as Youzhagui, or “fried devils.” In 1142, Yue Fei, a famous general and icon of Chinese patriotism, was killed in a scheme by traitorous Qin Hui (China’s answer to Benedict Arnold in the American Revolutionary War) alongside his wife, Wang. Outraged by the news of Yue’s wrongful death, the owner of an eatery serving fried food kneaded a ball of dough into the shape of a man and woman, stuck their backs together, and threw it into the frying pan, while calling out “Come eat fried Qin Hui!” Upon hearing the words, people sharing in the anger thronged around the owner, helping him make more of what would later be called Youzhagui, crying aloud so that more people would become aware of this timely invention, while tucking into the sticks with relish.
2. Every “dog” has its day
The best-known brand of steamed buns in China is Goubuli (officially called “Go Believe” in English), or The Snubbing Dog. The “dog” in the title actually refers to a man called Gao Guiyou who was born in 1831. His father, hoping that his cherished child would be as easy to bring up as a puppy, gave Gao the nickname “Little Dog,” which has been very popular among rural children until quite recently.
When Gao was 14 years old, he was sent to a diner that served steamed foods. With adroit hands and a humble attitude, he quickly mastered the art of making steamed buns. After completing his apprenticeship, Gao opened his own establishment. Business took off thanks to his excellent culinary skills and dedication to serving customers only the best steamed buns possible. As more and more people came to buy his food, Gao would get so busy that he had no time to greet or talk with anyone. This brought him the moniker Snubbing Dog, which lead to people forgetting the original name of his diner.
3. An emperor’s quick-thinking servant
For Cantonese (locals of Guangdong Province in south China), having morning tea, a meal that consists of snacks such as dim sum, is part of daily life. In fact, morning tea is more of a social occasion than a hunger-quenching occasion. Cantonese usually spend more than an hour enjoying delicate snacks together with relatives and friends.
Although having morning tea is a relaxed situation, one rule of etiquette is often observed: People whose cup is being filled by another would tap the table with two of their fingers to say “Thanks”, or “Xie Xie”, in a respectful way. This practice originated from a story about Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty. During one of his many trips to south China in the guise of a common man, the emperor once poured tea for one of his entourage when he apparently forgot about the gap between their statuses. Royal palace rules stated that the humbled servant had to kneel after accepting the tea. But to do exactly that would blow the cover of both the servant and his master. The former kept his calm and bent his index and middle fingers as if they were legs and tapped the table with them in lieu of actually kneeling.
The servant surely wished that such a simplified version of etiquette would catch on upon their return to the palace in Beijing, but probably to no avail.
4. A future emperor saved by rats
Congee is frequently featured among breakfasts in China. Eight-treasure congee, or babaozhou, for example, is widely consumed across the country.
A legend about the origins of this congee involves Zhu Yuanzhang, founding emperor of the Ming dynasty and protagonist of one of the most incredible rags-to-riches stories in Chinese history. Born to a poor family, Zhu had to herd cattle for a landlord when he was young. One of the cattle fell down a bridge and broke its leg one day. To punish Zhu, the landlord locked him up in a room and gave him no food. A starving Zhu saw a rat hole and found in it the rodent’s food stash. He promptly cooked a life-saving congee with the grains, beans and fruits he found.
The sweet taste of the congee was so deeply etched on Zhu’s memory that one day after becoming emperor, in a bout of nostalgia, he told his chefs to make a congee with a wide range of grains, beans and other mundane materials. The recipe subsequently spread to common households and eight-treasure congee is now among the most popular breakfast choices that energize Chinese for the day ahead.