Breakfast, while being lauded as a necessity is still twisted in the malice of consumer manipulation. As with transient diet regimes, the first meal of the day gave in to fashions. Why is breakfast so important? More. Can a breakfast tell who we are?
Pancakes were made since prehistoric times. Mashed reported that “Otzi the Iceman, the world’s oldest naturally preserved human mummy, is thought to have eaten a wheat pancake as one of his last meals.” Was it his breakfast?
Today, next to snacks, the most commercialised of all meals, breakfast was corrupt even by the Western doctors. Their recommending of bacon and fried eggs for a healthy lifestyle rises endless question marks. All I can advise with a pinch of realism is: do not be fooled, and stick to nutritionally balanced, seasonally varied and unprocessed modesty.
Breakfast is the accent on who we are and what we do
The daily first bite is the loudspeaker to our lifestyle. The compass of your focus, social status, values and personality.
A friend sipping on a ‘superfood‘ smoothie is health-conscious, often a staunch workout enthusiast.
A shot of espresso on an empty stomach with nothing until lunch reveals go-go high achievers, journalist or a writer on a deadline.
A ceremonial cup of tea savoured mindfully – likely a yogi, a minimalist artist, an eastern-wound massage therapist or a zen master. A splash of milk into the bitter cuppa? Hello ladies and english gentlemen. A full english, please, with bacon, of course.
An açai bowl? A surfer, a Cali dude or a Carioca.
A green, cold-pressed biodynamic juice delivered to your door is for diet-freaks of the Gwyneth Paltrow detox tribe or maybe it is not anymore, there is a new slim it trend on the horizon – soup anyone? Back to eggs, organic, no fruit, please.
Caviar? A Russian oligarch. Yet, some billionaires prefer a vegan personal chef catering adhering to their ultra-lanky girlfriend Instagram protocols. No judgement, just stating pure observation (London-Paris-Monaco) and statistics. Nevertheless, breakfast lends itself to stereotyping easily.
If you eat anything at all in the morning may well depend on your job. Additionally, for globetrotters like myself whether you are at home or traveling. Most laissez-faire eaters eschew any am meal until noon. They brunch.
What is breakfast for?
Naturally, the first waking hours set us up for the entire day. Our mood can be wound up to a ‘happy’ mode. Ideally, we nourish the body and the intellect through our diet. For a great start, Marta Greber, the author of ‘What Should I Eat for Breakfast Today?’ dedicates her blog to the the tasty small hours. She urges us to “stop” before setting off.
I have an urge to fuel myself with some blood-sugar-rising substance in order to function with a zestful pace in that most productive part of the day for me. Still, it must be an uncomplicated meal so it does not distract me from my work. Breakfast, as its name suggests, is about breaking a fast. After dinner (cena) or an afternoon supper, a long night’s sleep, and the next meal, there is usually the widest gap between the caloric mouth bites – fasting period.
The food does not have to slip into your belly right after waking though. Breakfast for most signifies comfort, home and happy snippets from childhood. It bridges dreams into the day’s reality. It is the most emotional meal of the day.
Breaking fasting is followed in most cultures by a celebratory, lavish, almost sacred and multi-sensorially appreciated meal.
Healthy or pampering dualism of the am meal imprinted in our lifestyles
Countless articles, even books were written about a healthy breakfast. I won’t go into the fleeting guidelines of nutrition as Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan are better certified to advise on that aspect of the morning meal.
What is intriguing is the French accent on an indulgent, but small breakfast treat. Most Michelin chefs still pack an irresistible cake or pastry to go after an exuberant gastronomic dinner at their restaurant. We ravished in Joel Robuchon‘s citrus cake and the exotic mix of agrumes from La Vague d’Or. La vie est belle. In an updated three star tradition, the swiss chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York packs a jar of sweet crunchy granola. Often, I brake the fast before even starting. Too tempting.
On holidays we are more loose. Plus, the hotel and resort buffets nudge into indulgence. At home, breakfasts are more regimented, plain and often purely utilitarian. A bowl of watered oatmeal for a healthy start. Until recently mainly on the in the West, a box of processed cereal sealed in plastic has defined the Western family gathering prior to their school/work dispersion.
Globally though, traditions vary, offering tantalising choices. I scooped some pre and post-industrial national habits to stir your curiosity, and perhaps shaking up your breakfast routine at home. Inspiration is not vanity.
Breakfast tables: a dissonant history of breaking the fast
Bread, beer and pastry, plus some wine?
Historically, there was not much abundance at breakfast, and in Europe food was religiously driven. Christians had eaten different meals at Lent (fish, bread, beer and wine were ok), out of Lent (plus butter and eggs) and the “flesh days” (meat). If any, a typical peasant breakfast in Europe was bread and beer, occasionally butter. There was no time for the poor to prepare elaborate meals for themselves. Depending on your elite status, you either ate once or twice a day or feasted according to the current fashions. C.M. Woolgar writes in Food: The History of Taste that in England lunch (prandium) in the Middle Ages was eaten from 10am onwards. Trends were for the rich.
Importantly, breakfast gathering was a time for the industrial age family before they scattered to school and work for the day.
The rise of cheap breakfast cereal over the past century was a democratising symbol of the consumer age. The after war years in America wrestled a glass of milk into regular morning routines of baby boomers. It made the masses feel like belonging in the affluent global society. Still, the preposterous few can order caviar and champagne at luxurious hotels, but not many of us have the urge to breakfast like Russian nobility or the millennial oligarchs.
Breakfast customs differ profoundly. It does not even have to be eaten in the sunlight. Muslims during the Ramadan go without food all day and feast upon the darkness and coolness at night. What and when we eat is more a social or commercial construct than a personal need or a distinction of religious zeal.
Trends: Commercialisation of breakfast
Advertising influenced us before the online bloggers and Instagrammers took the rule over our palates. The Greek unctuous yogurt with generous streaks of honey was commercially exploited in such an extreme that it became what it is not – a processed, low fat, sugary dessert. As a commercialised culture, we lost the authentic connection with the first meal of the day. Further, CAFFEINATED LIFESTYLES shifted the gears of breakfast. Coffee sped the start up like a car’s sports mode.
Granola and juice were most commercially exploited breakfast fast foods of the urban world circling eastwards to trendy pop-ups in Tokyo. Ganori blends locally unique organic twists with gobo root, kuromame black soybean, black sesame, et al. There is even Japan Granola Association stamping local producers. In Zurich, a muesli concept store was set up in the historic centre as a souvenir from your swiss wandering.
Ironically, the orange juice am pick up did not start at the Mediterranean orange groves. The refreshing citrus ripens only in winter. Florida’s sun, and the marketing machine of America spread the convenient, pasteurised symbol of a healthy start globally. Nevertheless, the Italians invented the most alluring machinery for extracting its essence, so even at gas stations the vitamins loaded the travelers’ bodies. Nowadays, the luxuriantly freshly pressed immune-booster is replaced with more complex combos of fruits, vegetables, added ‘super’ powders even nuts and seeds in smoothies.
Once again, we crave a more wholesome meaning in our food. As if we were robbing ourselves from caring, we have turned to breakfast meetings with friends – to the avocado toast, banana bread, kronuts and cinnamon buns trending at urban cafes globally. Australia’s avocado toast (Bill’s in Sydney) is a global phenomenon popping anywhere from Brooklyn to Prague.
Additionally, the slow food, eat-locally-movement spur anti-mass market sentiments. At Rosendaal Tradgaart in Stockholm contemporary level of garden-to-plate quality attracts families and happy lifestyle seekers in its garden shop set up. Everything is baked and prepared in-house, much grown on the surrounding soil.
Gourmandise entered out-of-home breakfast feasts, with many cafes and restaurants opening all-day or specifically for an all-day breakfast offer. From creative comfort bowls at 26 Grains in London, hip SQIRL in Silver Lake to Pierre Hermé indulgences at the Royal Monceau Hotel in Paris, the reasons to venture out in the am have never been more convincing.
Second millennium breakfast in Europe
bread, pastry, porridge, smoked fish, eggs and cheese, plus coffee and orange juice
Northern and Southern Europeans often eat sweet pastry with coffee, a frothy cappuccino or a Bicerin (chocolate, espresso and whipped cream) in Northwest Italy. The Portuguese pasteis do nata regained popularity. Not only the nuns bake them. The cardamom (kardemumma) or cinnamon (kanel) “bulle” of Scandinavia scent local bakeries with spices. Breakfast feels and fills your senses. Next to tulips, Dutch waffles are its most famous export, but rarely eaten daily today. Still, the Swiss stick to their overnights Bircher muesli with Alpine milk. ‘Superbowls’ with chia and other seeds infiltrated trendy cafe across Europe.
In Norway, where smoked fish like salmon on rye bread or crisp dry bread are served with a generous slab of butter, local lingonberry jam accompanies much of the Scandi fare. Like cold cuts in central Europe, Iberian ham enters Spanish and Portuguese plates.
Baguette is more of a side dish than the day’s starter. Before globalisation a loaf of freshly baked bread stretched over the table axis in central and northern European countries. Butter, dairy-based spreads, preserved fish or hard boiled eggs laid on a slice of bread are quick made-do before a long day’s work. A bundt cake was for a Sunday treat. Far from the daily load today, sugar broke all week’s fast. Yet, sweet pastry pairs well with coffee, and who travels to Paris without having a croissant or Pain au chocolat? In Vienna, you are likely to eat a hard-boiled egg, a marmalade, bread and butter with your morning coffee.
Eggs going global
Chickens usually lay eggs in the morning, so they were at their freshest for the am meal. There are as many breakfast egg dishes as there are countries where chickens roam on farms. My favourite are poached, a creamy scramble or Benedict with salmon. In the Baltics, fried eggs with fresh vegetables or in omelettes are typical as are ham and cheese sandwiches or porridge washed in milk, fresh curd, cottage cheese or fermented milk kefir. The Fins hard-boil them to serve with cold potato dill salad, mushrooms and herrings. Eggs are not reserved to breakfast as the Spanish frittata and French omelette are served at lunch or as a supper.
Breakfast now is an intercontinental mash up of globalised cravings. Somewhat the least cultured breakfast to me is the British mash-up of fried stuff. I am nauseating just thinking of the full English served at hotels and pubs – fried eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, black pudding, bread, potatoes and beans – all at once just after waking up! Restraint won’t harm.
North America changed what we ate in the 20th century. Commercial food production, advertisement and trade ushered global trends into most households where a TV and magazines infiltrated the tastes of the consumers. The Peanut Butter and Jelly aka PBJ National Day celebrates this Depression era’s preferred breakfast sandwiched in the new hit of sliced bread. Doctors also infiltrated our breakfast choices. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was the puritan culprit behind the sugary granola and highly processed corn flakes bowl. A billion dollar company today.
A blend of European, native American and Mexican food cultures – corn, potatoes, eggs, sugary pancakes, the New Orleans French Toast (Pain Perdu) made for the am meal. The jewish delis of New York iconised the bagel with cream cheese, cured salmon and condiments (capers, onions) in the rushed metropolis. Greasy doughnuts with coffee ready for the sweet toothed population. Huevos rancheros, once served mid-morning on the Mexican farms, feature at most American brunch spots.
Shakshouka, with its disputed origin, is most associated with Israel. A cast iron pot of eggs poached in a tomato sauce, chilli peppers, onions, and spices, the warm and substantial breakfast or an evening meal is served also in Tunisia. Menemen in Turkey is a similar dish made with scrambled eggs. Tea is traditionally more prevalent than coffee. In Iran sweet black tea comes with bread, butter, feta cheese, and sometimes fresh fruit and nuts. In Lebanon, Manakish flatbread spiced with za’atar and sometimes cheese with tomatoes. In Turkey as in Morocco, cheese, olives, honey, jam, bread, an omelette and fruit. Sweetened black-mint tea or coffee are sipped. Ethiopia with its ancient coffee culture brews the earthy beverage daily.
In the rest of Africa, if anything, a breakfast varies from tribe to tribe. Cornmeal, bean cakes, yams and fried eggs, and fried plantains. Basically, what the season thrust upon the region, usually meatless.
Porridge, rice, fish in Eastern food cultures
In Asia, the Chinese fill up with a congee – watered rice porridge or noodles, soy milk with Jian Bing egg pancake (Shanghai), dumplings, fried sponge cake or steamed custard bun. A cup of tea – a fermented pu-er or green tea are most common sips.
The Japanese start with a miso soup, pickles, Nattō 納豆 (fermented sticky soy beans), nori seaweed, an egg roll, an assortment of seasonal fish paired with a bucket of white rice seasoned with umeboshi or vinegar.
South Indian breakfast includes idli and sambar, a vegetable stew, served with steamed lentil and rice bread. Also popular is dosa, a thin crunchy legume crepe with spicy potato filling. In central India, uttapam, a thick pancake with baked-in vegetables, is served with chutney.
The british Kedgeree (flaked fish like smoked haddock, boiled rice, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder, butter or cream, and occasionally sultanas) evolved from the Indian kitchari, a warm legumes-and-rice bowl made with dry-roasted spice mixture.
In Thailand, depending on the region, a rice flour and coconut milk pancake with onions or durian paste, deep fried omelette with sweet chilli sauce, grilled meats like moo ping and gai yang, pinched in chunks on a stick for convenience, the ubiquitous sticky rice or savory rice porridge known as joke (โจ๊ก) warm you up. Street fruit stands cut watermelons, papaya, rose apples, mango, pineapple, jackfruit, guava with a chili and sugar dip kick any hot day on a refreshing and spicy note.
Vietnam‘s rice noodles with ground peanuts and herbs cross the am / pm boundary. French and Thai influence blend in.
Filipinos indulge in Tapsilog, rice with dried meat and fried egg.
In Cambodia, Kuy Teav, rice noodle soup with meat and vegetables.
In Indonesia, rice and fried fish, or Nasi Goreng of fried rice and a fried egg, or chicken porridge fuel for the day’s work.
South America and the Pacific – oceanbound blend of cultures
Fish is eaten all day in many seaside countries. In Guyana baked dough and fried saltfish (whitefish preserved in salt), while the Francophile Tahiti serves fish with baguette and papaya.
Pão de Queijo (cassava-based bread roll baked with cheese and eggs) served with milk mixed with little coffee, but for more than three centuries the Minas Frescal unpasteurised semi-soft cow’s cheese and butter with Pão Francês (a white bread roll copy of Parisian bread) filled the Brazilians. Papaya often ‘fruitifies’ the am starter. Frozen acai bowl sweetened with guarana sirup, bananas and granola freshens up the beach goers and surfers.
No fuss, zero-waste approach in Colombia, where a mixture of leftovers from the night before in a soup or cereals fill the morning hunger. As in Venezuela, arepa, a flat corn cake often filled with cheese or ham, chicken, fish is also popular.
Myths: your first meal of the day must… what?
The myths and trends surrounding your first meal of the day are as perplexing as the latest Hollywood diet. The corporate influx into boxed and bowled breakfast somewhat diminished its cultural value. Yet, in a globalised world, any breakfast really is a blend of cultures and fashions. Creativity knows no boundaries. At Joseph in Vienna I got salmon, avocado, cottage cheese, poached egg, sprouts piled up on toasted bread, plus a side of muesli with yogurt. In California, today the burritos wrap raw and vegan world, while in Tokyo American and French pastry meets local flavours in matcha doughnuts, adzuki croissants et al.
For the curious, in Tokyo World Breakfast All Day contrasts multinational convenience in highlighting national identity through country-specific breakfast offer changing every two months.
Some myths are debunked with travel. I visited Norway and learned that not just the Belgians and Dutch gorge on waffles, but the descendants of the Vikings breakfast on them too. With local cream cheese, lingonberries and smoked butter, breaking yet another boundary, they were served at the end of a gastronomic dinner at Maaemo.
The truth is that there is not a straightforward, simple approach to breakfast today. In fact it probably never was an unambiguous cultural phenomena. Breakfast can become the most important, main meal of the day. My favourite breakfasts while on the road are reason to travel in themselves.
Breakfast has awakened our appetites so much so there are national, international days, even entire months dedicated to signature breakfast items. Check Mr Breakfast blog for more baffling breakfast days spanning the annual calendar.
Rise and shine!