New York's Chinatown is a popular feeding ground at lunch and dinner time, but I recommend it for breakfast, too. Below I describe the what but not the where. The main types of offerings are:
- Dim sum, now a familiar event in the culinary repertoire of New Yorkers. Ideally, it is a brunch or afternoon tea snack served along with a pot of good plain or flower-infused black tea. The "sum" is correctly pronounced somewhat like the English word sum; don't change the vowel to the English short oo.
- Congee and/or dumplings and/or another starch. In traditional Chinatown one generally gets the Cantonese and Chaozhou forms of these things. On East Broadway ("Fúzhōu Street"), Division St., and Eldridge St. these days there is also the Fúzhōu version of the same, which is quite distinctive. Congee is a word of Malay origin, from the same generation of East Asian vocabulary — which entered English in the time of Captain Cook — that supplied us with catty and bamboo, among others.
- The bun and pastry experience, also associated with tea or coffee but less distinctive than dim sum and the venues generally less genteel.
Dim sum is too well documented to need discussion here. It is suited to groups of three to ten people, although there's nothing quite like a nice table for two. I like to think that dim sum is more a tool to stimulate conversation than a kind of food.
Buns and pastry are easily figured out — the most unusual may be the fried sesame ball or jiānduī 煎堆, a ball of glutinous rice dough, filled with red bean paste or the less-sweet yellow lotus-seed paste, deep fried and coated in sesame seeds.
The middle group — congee, dumplings, and starches — are immensely diverse and grade into the normal range of Chinese cooking — meat and vegetables, and so on. Since I typically walk to Chinatown for breakfast and am more thirsty than hungry when I arrive, I tend to have soup with dumplings in it. There's a lot to say about the soup-offerings, but in a few words here are the most distinctive choices:
- shrimp/pork dumpling soup (many venues; these are various called yúntūn 雲吞 or húndùn 餛飩 "wontons" or shuǐjiǎo 水餃);
- white pepper-seasoned dumpling with fish-based rather than flour-based skin (Cháozhōu, one venue at breakfast-time, "yúpíjiǎo 魚皮角);
- celery-tinctured pork or mutton maw soup (Fúzhōu, one venue I know of, zhū/yángdǔguàn 豬/羊肚罐子 — you will probably hear 肚 rendered dù);
- glutinous-rice dumpling balls filled with highly seasoned pork (Fúzhōu, much the same place to place because not made in-house, yuánxiāo 元宵)
- dumpling with pork-based rather than flour-based skin (Fúzhōu, much the same place to place because not made in-house, yànwán 燕丸);
- cornstarch based floppy noodle-like thing (Fúzhōu, "yànmiàn 燕麵");
- pork dumplings with shepherd's purse (jìcài 薺菜, though you may hear 薺 as qí) or the strong-tasting Chinese "leek" (jiǔcài 韭菜); these are northern, and there are several venues right now, all very low-end — your soup is served in a plastic take-out container, rather than a bowl.
Good soup of course depends primarily on good stock, and part of my pleasure in exploring the breakfast offerings is sampling what different chefs can do with bones and water each morning before the restaurants open.