Asia’s best breakfasts: From hoppers in Sri Lanka to Vietnam’s banh mi
Posted on March 30th, 2021


Breakfast is considered by many to be the most important meal of the day. What you eat in the morning replenishes those sleep jaded energy reserves and fuels your mind and body for the day ahead.

Unfortunately, as our lives become increasingly busy, many of us opt to skip or skimp on breakfast and the traditions and culture that go with it. Modern Western options such as cereals, toast or even granola bars now rule many a breakfast roost.More from AsiaOneRead the condensed version of this story, and other top stories with NewsLite.

Morning dining routines around the world often stem from deep roots. Breakfast culture is alive and kicking in many parts of Asia, even as fast-paced Western alternatives muscle their way in.

Being such a huge and varied continent, Asia is home to culinary and cultural extremes, richly reflected in its choices and attitudes towards breakfast.

1. Turkish delights

Many nations claim to have the best breakfast, but when it comes to traditional morning meals, you would be hard-pressed to upstage the sumptuous Turkish spread.

Straddling the ancient Silk Road has greatly influenced Turkish cuisine, and particularly its breakfast choices. Over about 600 years, it has gradually evolved to embrace elements and ingredients from the distant reaches of historical trade routes and the far corners of the Ottoman Empire (1299 – 1922).

The traditional Turkish breakfast, known as kahvalti (meaning before coffee”), is made up of tapas-sized dishes, and is designed to be shared, bringing together families and friends for a slow easing into the day.

ALSO READ: Foreigners in Singapore share where to go for authentic Taiwanese, Vietnamese cuisine and more

Most modern Turks lead busy lives and often breakfast on a simple simit (a bagel-like hoop of bread covered in sesame seeds), observing the traditional kahvaltionly at weekends and family get-togethers.

Breads, ripened tomatoes, cucumber, fruits, olives, several cheeses, cured meats, eggs, honey, jams and copious amounts of strong Turkish tea are laid out like a banquet fit for a sultan.

You’re unlikely to ever see exactly the same make-up of a Turkish breakfast twice, as each is dependent on available and preferred ingredients.

The kahvalti is decadent and healthy in equally copious measures, and once experienced it’s never forgotten.

2. Top hoppers

PHOTO: Instagram/food_n_love

Heading east towards South Asia, flatbreads and pancakes gradually find their way onto breakfast tables.

A couple of the more unusual breakfast treats are Sri Lankan hoppers (appam) and string hoppers (idiyappam). The origins of hoppers are unclear, although they are believed to have arrived in southern India almost 2,000 years ago with either early Syrian Christian or Jewish settlers.

Hoppers are made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk, which is mixed into a batter and fried in a bowl-shaped pan. An egg is added and softly cooked to finish the crispy bowl-shaped hopper, which is served with sambal (spicy coconut chilli sauce) or curry sauce.

String hoppers are made by mixing rice flour with salt and water and then pressing the dough into noodles, which are knitted together to make small cakes and steamed. The dish is usually served with fresh coconut and curry or sambal.

Both styles of hopper are synonymous with breakfast in Sri Lanka but are also popular in South India and are eaten too at other times of the day.

3. Fusion frenzy

PHOTO: Pixabay

Tracking with the trade winds along the old spice routes brings us to Malaysia, which is perhaps Asia’s greatest culinary melting pot. With bread and dairy produce blending into rice and spice, Malaysians proudly and regularly breakfast on what can be termed their national dish, nasi lemak, and national bread, roti canai.

Fragrant rice (nasi) is cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaves to give it a rich, creamy texture. Traditionally it comes with a hard-boiled egg, anchovies, peanuts, sambal and a side of rich rendang curry (usually beef or chicken), although there are many other variants.

The combination makes for an inspiring fusion of contradictory flavours.Read AlsoThe 5 best Asian restaurants in Singapore

Its origins are unclear, but nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf in a triangular-shaped package can be found on most morning restaurant tables and at the top of most Malaysian five-star hotel breakfast menus.

The mighty roti canai is another fusion wonder. Early Tamil immigrants discovered that a dough of maida flour, oil and water, swirled around like a pizza base and cooked on a lightly oiled hotplate, then folded, could build in pockets of air.

This process gives the pancake-like bread a crispy yet soft and chewy texture.

The roti is ideally torn apart and dipped in dhal for the perfect simple breakfast. Some diners choose to add ingredients such as an egg (roti telur), a banana (roti pisang), ghee and sugar (roti boom) or even Milo (roti chocolate).

4. Baguettes at dawn

PHOTO: Unsplash

Colonial influences also reflect on the breakfast tables of Vietnam and Laos. Both were once part of French Indochina and inherited the baguette from their former colonial rulers.

The fast food” breakfast of choice in Vietnam is the banh mi, a small baguette that must rank as one of the world’s best sandwiches, sold on stalls across the country.

This Franco-Viet taste bomb came around in late 1950s Saigon, when Vietnam was sliced in half. This was when the Vietnamese were first officially permitted to modify French cuisine, and so Mr and Mrs Le – refugees from the north – decided to add local ingredients to their morning baguettes.Read AlsoTravel through Southeast Asia by dining at these 10 restaurants

The Le family still have a restaurant, called Banh Mi Hoa Ma, serving sandwiches to the people of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

A typical Vietnamese banh mi might include local ingredients such as cha lua (pork sausage), coriander leaf, cucumber, pickled carrots and pickled daikon combined with French condiments such as pâté and mayonnaise. Added extras may include chopped meat, cheese, eggs and spicy sauces.

Across the border, you’ll find the near identical Laos sandwich.

Pho and bun bo Hue noodle soups are also popular breakfast dishes in Vietnam, while khao soi (flat noodles, ground pork, fresh herbs and vegetables with chilli in a soup) hits the spot for breakfast – and almost any other time of the day – in Laos.

5. Congee convenience

Variations on congee rice porridge are served as a breakfast staple in most of Southeast Asia. In Thailand, the most popular is jok (pronounced joke”), which has a thick, fine consistency.

Minced pork balls and chicken are the meats of choice for most jok eaters, along with an egg and a garnish of ground chilli, coriander and shaved ginger.

The exact origins of jok and regional variations are unclear, although rice porridge in China has been documented as far back as the Zhou dynasty, in 1000BC.

6. Miso-a-gogo

PHOTO: Unsplash

For the most pungent breakfasts, head to Japan. The traditional repast to greet the rising sun is based on several key dishes and is designed to be both healthy and stimulate all five senses. It is the kind of meal you would consider eating at other times of the day, too.

Steamed rice, miso soup (based on fermented soy bean), grilled fish, tsukemono (preserved vegetables and herbs) and omelette are all popular components, although the list of ingredients varies.

Even though travel is not possible right now, you could always kick-start the day by taking your taste buds on a sensory journey around Asia’s finest breakfast tables.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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