Breakfast tends to morph and evolve as you move around China. Down south folks might start the day with a clear soup of rice noodles, or a warming bowl of congee with chicken or salty preserved egg. Northerners fortify themselves on steamed buns filled with pork or egg and Chinese chives, fried dough sticks (youtiao) with a hot cup of soy milk; and any number of pancake-like bing. But it wasn't until an assignment took me to Inner Mongolia of all places, that I tasted what I declare to be... (dramatic pause) ... the best breakfast in China.
This is the boss of one of several branches of 背头稍美 (Baotou Shaomai) a small chain of eateries that specialise in a single dish - mutton shaomai. These golf-ball sized parcels of lamb, ginger, green onion and seasoning are wrapped by hand using the thinnest sheets of unleavened dough, then steamed.
The sheep that graze the plains of Inner Mongolia are said to be the tastiest in China. This chain of restaurants butchers its own supply from a central kitchen to ensure quality. Beyond good sourcing, the skill seems to be getting the skins super thin without breaking - ours didn't - impressive! Diners each get a little single serving tube of dark vinegar as dipping condiment - delicious with a touch of chilli mixed in.
But the food is only half the story. To counter such a rich, oily, gut-busting breakfast (about 5 for one person sets you up until lunch), locals order a pot of 砖茶 (zhuan cha), or brick tea. Favoured by nomadic people for centuries for its portability, these compressed, geometric slabs of black tea (made down south, sold up north) have a particular refreshing bitterness that cuts through the oil beautifully.
It's the perfect accompaniment to the shaomai experience in that the more pots you get through, the more dumplings you seem able to eat. Well, not perfect for dieters, but handy if you've going to be outside in the cold all day.
This eater did the Shanghai xiaolongbao trick of nibbling a dainty hole in the side to slurp up the juices. I say gobble it down it in one for the full effect.