The Pig’s Inn is a tiny guesthouse in the mountain village of Xidi, about five hours’ train ride from Shanghai. Restored in 2008 by a couple who are poets, the inn consists of a series of interconnected houses with open courtyards that are typical of ancient Hui architecture. The style will be familiar from the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was filmed in the nearby village of Hongcun.

Mornings at the Pig’s Inn often start with a feast. The full breakfast menu includes green Huangshan vegetable rice with pickled mustard greens, steamed pork bao, hard-boiled eggs, fried bamboo shoots with mustard greens, eggs scrambled with green peppers, dumplings with vinegar, spring onion pancakes, fried dough sticks, steamed sweet potato and tea. When food writer Michael Zee – best known for creating the Instagram account
@symmetrybreakfast – lived in Shanghai with his husband Mark, they occasionally escaped to the Pig’s Inn for restful nights followed by its lavish breakfasts. “Walking through the courtyards to a morning ritual of oohs and aahs and shuffling plates as more food arrived was always a source of happiness,” he says.

A selection of dishes served at the Pig’s Inn
A selection of dishes served at the Pig’s Inn © Michael Zee

The morning spread at the Pig’s Inn features in Zee’s new book, Zao Fan: Breakfast of China (Bloomsbury) and epitomises the kind of breakfast we only permit ourselves when we travel and have time and inclination for such a leisurely repast. For me, next-level breakfasts are one of the prime joys of travel and there’s something about the breakfasts I’ve consumed abroad – over and above other meals – that makes them stand out.

Even the humblest breakfasts conjure up fond memories: the café au lait I sipped from a bowl for the first time on an exchange trip to France; the steaming hot idli (rice cakes) with sambar dal and coconut chutney that marked my first day in India; the spinach pie and freddo cappuccino grabbed on the way to the beach in Greece; and the American diner breakfasts that have become a rite of passage on every trip to the States.

Brioche and gelato from Italy
Brioche and gelato from Italy © Haarala Hamilton
The Dutch dish broodje hagelslag
The Dutch dish broodje hagelslag © Haarala Hamilton

There are few things finer than a fine hotel breakfast, whether wheeled into your room and enjoyed in your robe or arranged in a spectacular buffet. Food and travel writer Anya von Bremzen resides in Jackson Heights, New York, and starts most days with half a piece of toast (if that). But when she travels, a five-star-hotel dining-room breakfast is an indulgence she never forgoes. “I’d rather skip lunch,” she insists. “People are not quite awake and you’re surrounded by oligarchs and Gulf-state families in a context you don’t normally find yourself in.” It’s sightseeing over your coffee cup.

Nai ai pi and nai cha – black tea poured over milk skin in Xinjiang
Nai ai pi and nai cha – black tea poured over milk skin in Xinjiang © Michael Zee

Opting for the hotel breakfast, however, means missing out on more authentic experiences. Especially in China, says Zee, where the morning rituals offer a unique insight into modern Chinese sensibilities. “Breakfast is one of the most interesting times of the day,” says Zee. “There is a walk-as-you-eat culture that would be unheard of for lunch or dinner and a lot of innovation including how vendors share premises.”

Zee’s book contains nearly a hundred recipes from across China in categories including noodles, rice, bread, tofu, soya, egg and meat dishes. About 45 recipes come with QR codes that link to videos showing Chinese cooks preparing dishes in situ – “glimpses of cultures and techniques that may cease to exist in the next century”, says Zee. 

Xibonese breakfast items, from Zao Fan: Breakfast of China by Michael Zee
Xibonese breakfast items, from Zao Fan: Breakfast of China by Michael Zee © Michael Zee

Breakfasts in Italy offer a different window. Often a sweet pastry with espresso, they hardly reflect the country’s rich culinary heritage. But they do speak to a culture where people eat late into the evening and only require a short sugary kick in the morning. They also reflect Mussolini’s efforts to push espresso to bolster a then new Italian industry in aluminium espresso makers.

Hawaiian breakfasts are typified by dishes such as loco moco (hamburger with rice and gravy), pog (passion fruit, orange and guava juice) and saimin (egg-noodle soup topped with a Japanese fish cake), which capture its confluence of American, Asian and island cultures. Meanwhile Oaxaca in Mexico is one of the great breakfast cities, says von Bremzen, because like many farming cultures, work starts early and is followed by breakfast feasts made up of various tortilla dishes and mole that have become social events. “When people invite you out, they invite you for breakfast,” she says.

Champorado, chocolate rice porridge with salted fish from the Philippines
Champorado, chocolate rice porridge with salted fish from the Philippines © Haarala Hamilton
Emily Elyse Miller’s Hawaiian noodle soup
Emily Elyse Miller’s Hawaiian noodle soup © Haarala Hamilton

The point about breakfast, though, is people are creatures of habit and have strong views about what they will eat. Westerners used to muffins and cornflakes may struggle with the levels of spice or garlic contained in some Asian breakfasts. I baulk at a Xibonese dish (noted in Zee’s book) called nai ai pi and nai cha, which consists of salty milky tea with milk skin. I also sympathise with von Bremzen when she steers clear of khash – a sheep’s head and tripe soup dish and hangover cure found in Georgia and Armenia.

Emily Elyse Miller is the author of Breakfast: The Cookbook (Phaidon), which contains more than 350 global recipes, including my new favourite from the Netherlands, broodje hagelslag or bread and butter with chocolate sprinkles. Of all the breakfast items she tried, it was a Filipino dish called champorado that stumped her most: “It’s an amazing chocolate rice porridge but it comes with salty dried fish,” she says. “Unless you grew up with that flavour combination, it’s hard to get your head around.” Working on the book, however, reminded her how breakfasts are made up of “comforting dishes with simple ingredients that make people feel nostalgic whether they’re from that part of the world or not”. It’s why breakfast hits the spot whatever the time zone. 


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