Close your eyes and think of breakfast… What comes to mind?
You’re thinking of eggs and toast; pancakes or waffles; sausages or bacon; a bowl of cereal, or granola, or muesli, or oatmeal if you’re among the new age health nuts transplanted from California. (If you’re anything like I was back in forever, you may even scoff at the very idea of eating in the morning – because breakfast? Who needs it when you could be getting that last minute of sleep before being bodily thrown out of bed to go to school?)
You may be one of those people to whom breakfast involves a fast food drive-thru, but since I don’t count that as food, you don’t get representation. Sorry I’m not sorry.
It is very typical of most people in this get-up-and-go-to-work world that breakfast is a rushed affair of something that can be eaten in one hand so the other is free for getting dressed. The foods mentioned above are typical of pretty much everywhere in America, but it matters much less where you are in the world than it used to – everybody seems to be eating the same thing. (Huzzah, globalization.) Naturally, most Americans will assume that these breakfast foods have been exported from America to the rest of the world like McDonald’s.
Naturally, most Americans will be wrong.
That pancake you’re eating in your Thai hotel that you’re telling yourself is America’s gift to the world? Yeah, that started out in Ancient Greece. There are records in poetry of the 5th century BC that talk of tagenites (from a Greek word meaning ‘frying pan’; the literal mother of pancakes. A tagenite was even made from very familiar ingredients – wheat flour, milk (though the milk was curdled), olive oil and honey – and eaten for breakfast. They survive as the modern Greek tiganites, which are similar crepes and most other European pancakes, but don’t think that punches any holes in the argument – our own word ‘pancake’ comes from Middle English, with the first use showing up in the 1400s, and Scottish pancakes, called ‘drop scones’ are basically the same as what we know today.
The waffle, you say, surely the Eggo is an American institution. Well, yeah, the Eggo is. But it comes from real waffles, and the word ‘waffle’ comes from the Dutch word ‘wafel’, which itself is a derivative of wafele – Middle Dutch from around the 1200s. And the Middle Dutch is preceded by the French word ‘walfre’ from somewhere in the 1180s. Even then, it’s considered that the waffle actually comes from communion wafers, or similar products – around the 10th century; that’s certainly when we find the first wafer irons, featuring biblical scenes, which eventually morphed into the waffle irons we know today. (You think you like waffles? The French kind Francois I had waffle irons made out of pure silver, and his successor had to enact waffle legislation in 1560 to settle fights over them.)
As for eggs, they’ve been eaten since the beginning of humankind – probably quite literally. Consider that most birds lay them, and if a nest is left unprotected it’s easy enough to reach in and grab them. By 3200 BC fowl had been domesticated in India, and by 1400 BC there are records from China and Egypt depicting egg-laying fowl in much the same situation as they’re in today; specifically laying eggs for human consumption. And those breakfast foods we make from eggs? Well, ‘omelette’ came into use in the 16th century and is French; but the dish may have origins as far back as Ancient Persia. There is certainly a 14th century dish out of Britain, called herbolace, which is as precursor of the omelette. The Romans definitely scrambled their eggs, aside from other ways of eating them, like deviled eggs. And bacon & eggs? That’s got its roots in Britain.
There is one kind of egg that I will concede to being American: the egg Benedict. There are several stories told about the creation of Eggs Benedict, but we will probably never know the truth. All we know for sure is that it involved the 1890s, the Waldorf Astoria or Delmonico’s, and some wealthy people with the surname Benedict.
But sausages! Bacon! Meat at breakfast – surely that’s American-born? After all we eat more meat a day, on average, than any other country does. And yet, meat at breakfast is not at all unusual. Consider the ‘English breakfast’, the ‘Irish breakfast’ and the ‘Scottish breakfast’, all of which have sausages in some form. Let’s not forget that as a country, Germany boasts over 1200 types of sausage. The word itself comes from the Old French ‘saussiche’, which itself comes from the Latin ‘salsus’. Sausages can be found in Homer’s own epic Odyessy, Aristophanes wrote a play wherein a sausage-vendor is elected leader, and a Byzantine emperor in the 10th century had to outlaw blood sausages after a rash of food poisonings. But even before Homer and Aristophanes, early man was making sausage by stuffing roasted intestines into animal stomachs. Not even bacon can be counted as truly American – pigs aren’t native to America and weren’t introduced to it until, probably, Columbus showed up with 8 of them in 1492. The Middle English ‘bacoun’ referred to all pork in general, and the Romans ate a kind of bacon that they called petaso.
Grains for breakfast are certainly not American, either. It’s unlikely the Egyptians ate oatmeal in the way we do, but oats have been found in tombs dating back to the 2000s BC. They were likely mixed with other grains for consumption, as oats weren’t domesticated for almost another thousand years. It’s not until the beginning of AD that we see oats being grown as a purposeful crop; they are popular among Germanic tribes in particular – the Greeks and Romans thought them only fit for animals – and the warriors who toppled the Roman empire were known to have eaten oat-cakes after the day’s fighting. The term oatmeal comes into use around 1400, meaning oat-flour, and though oats come to America in the 1600s, they come in the hands of Scottish immigrants, who had been making oatmeal for decades at that point.
And there you have it. The next time you’re in a hotel restaurant by the fjords of Norway, eating that waffle or those scrambled eggs and thinking ‘God bless America’, just remember that China, Egypt, Greece and Rome all got there first.
In most Asian countries breakfast is a family affair. It may be an array of small dishes laid out for all to pick at buffet-style, or individually presented on a tray, but it composes a meal meant to be eaten together. In Korea this may include grilled short ribs, spicy seafood salad, kelp, soup, bean sprout rice, radish strip kimchi, and some kin of stewed fish. In Japan it’s typically miso soup, rice, seaweed, broiled fish (a whole, small fish), raddish salad, and small plates of pickled vegetables and hijiki. Occasionally you may be offered a raw egg to mix into your rice with some soy sauce (this option varies by person but is quite safe to choose the food standards are incredibly strict).
From China to most Southeast Asian countries, congee (a type of rice pudding) is the stuff of choice. (Also considered comfort food or food for the sick, it’s a very typical breakfast.) Congee varies by region as much as by country, and may be enhanced with meats, noodles, vegetables – plain or pickled, salted duck eggs, bamboo, century eggs, onions, and cabbage. In addition to congee, North Indians may reach for paratha (an unleavened, fried bread), which has many variations of stuffing (potato and cheese to name but two) and is served with vegetable curry, curd, and pickles. South Indians have their own special breakfast cakes that are made by steaming a batter of fermented black lentils and rice and eaten with chutney or sambar.
In Egypt the most popular breakfast is fuul-pureed chickpeas and onions – which is usually eaten on a flat bread of their own making.
Moving around the rest of Africa you may find fried cakes made of ground beans, or wheat flour which has been soaked for a day before being fried, as in Nigeria. The cakes are served with porridge and sugar. In the south of Nigeria a corn porridge served with evaporated milk is the more popular traditional breakfast choice. (Naturally, due to the great western influence on Africa, you can also be boring go in for tea/coffee and pastries, which have gained great popularity over the years.)
Even among European countries you can find some offerings that may not be quite what you expect breakfast to be. In some cases it’s simultaneously familiar and ‘why would you do that?’
Many European countries consider breakfast to be an open sandwich (such as in Latvia and Hungary) which may be topped with fish, cheeses, eggs, or various spreads. A Turkish breakfast is made up of bread, cheese, butter, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, jam, honey, and kaymak (a kind of cream). There may also be sucuk (spicy sausage), pastirma (air-dried, cured beef), börek (pastries in the same family as baklava), simit (similar to a poppy seed bagel), and soups. Cheeses, breads, jams, cold cuts, sausages, and cereals are popular for breakfast in Germanic countries, and Polish breakfasts often consist of kielbasa, tomatoes, cold cuts, meat spreads, sliced pickles, eggs, and cheese. In Russia they have their own kind of pancake called oladi (or oladushki), and a kind of crepe called blini. These can be eaten with jams, butter, and honey, but they can also be (and are) eaten with sour cream and fish roe.
And then England. And Ireland. And Scotland. Apparently between them they’ve decided that all people are equipped with stomachs of two-tonne capacity. You’ve probably heard of the English Breakfast, or the Irish version called the Ulster Fry, but you may not know what it is. The English Breakfast is: Eggs, sausages, toast, beans, cheese, bacon, potatoes, and fried tomatoes. The Ulster Fry is all that but with the addition of black pudding (a sausage made from meats and by cooking blood with filler until it congeals when cooled. You’re welcome) or white pudding (like black pudding, but without the blood) or both. In Scotland you’ll get your English breakfast but with a helping of haggis! (For the uninitiated, that’s a pudding of sheep’s heart, liver, lungs and stomach. You’re welcome.)
You may wonder what these exotic foods that sound more like lunches have to do with a New York magazine. Well, just that: We’re a New York magazine. Why would you go traveling to far off lands for breakfast when you can just find them throughout the city? So the next time you’re out for breakfast and you’re tired of your eggs and coffee, why not go out for some broiled fish and seaweed or a plate of spicy sausages? You’ll find all of these and more if you look around long enough.