How To Eat Brunch (The Chinese Way)
Left: the Laundry Full breakfast. Right: co-founders Mses Peiran Gong and Tongtong Ren. Photographs courtesy of Chinese Laundry
One of the co-founders of London’s restaurant Chinese Laundry shares her secrets to a successful – and satisfying – start to the day.
In cities such as Jingzhou in China, where I lived until I was 12, breakfast is crucial to the food culture – you can’t start the day without it. All the breakfast cafés and market stalls would normally serve breakfast until 11.00am, but by 9.00am all the good dishes would be gone. At Chinese Laundry – our restaurant in Islington, London – we think that breakfast, or brunch, is the most important meal of the day.
There is a saying in China about needing to eat more than 10 different ingredients (from grains to beans to vegetables, and meat) to have a balanced breakfast. So at Chinese Laundry, we have a lot of different side plates – such as pickles, lou mei (dishes simmered in a soy-based stock) or vegetables to serve with a baozi (steamed bun), congee (rice porridge) or a cong you bing (a spring onion pancake). To celebrate the restaurant’s one-year anniversary, we are now serving a new brunch menu. Below, we share the five-step guide to a great Chinese brunch experience.
My grandma had to cook for the whole family (there were 10 of us in total) on a budget of about £2. Sometimes she would bring back a live chicken from the farmer’s market, and cook every single part of it. In our restaurant, we try to limit the wastage by only buying what’s necessary: we use crab shells to make stock for our crab congee dish, and cod cheeks in our seaweed pork and cod big baozi. We also serve a chicken carcass rubbed with spices as a drinking snack.
In Jingzhou, everyone would go for a breakfast feast before work or school, and debate which places were good for particular dishes, and where they sourced their ingredients – if the egg was free-range or not, for example. It makes such a difference to the taste of the food, so we like to use the best producers – ones who we trust. Our fish comes from Moxons Fishmongers and our meat from Swaledale Foods. In China, every town has a different special dish for breakfast, but some things are universal, and have to be freshly made in the morning – like tofu curd and baozi. We make both of these, along with pancakes, every day at Chinese Laundry.
Our dishes are inspired by our experiences growing up in 1980s and 1990s China. Back then, Chinese families would always eat out for breakfast because the dishes are so labour-intensive. We are hoping to bring back this Chinese breakfast culture to London. Many of our customers say they cannot find a Chinese breakfast anywhere else in the city. We have a section of the brunch menu called the Tofu Battle. I grew up eating sweet tofu when I was little. Peiran, my business partner, lived in a different area of China and grew up with the savoury one. I think the savoury tofu curd is disgusting, and she hates the sweet one. So we put them both on the menu and stopped fighting.
We like to have fun with things – you can see in our interiors and on our menu with dishes like the Tofu Battle (see above). It makes things light and relaxed when you come and visit. We like to use ornaments that we collect on our travels in antiques markets and in China. They don’t have to be smart or expensive, just something that we feel works, like a flipper I once found that now hangs on the wall, or green plastic baubles that remind us of our grandparents’ house.
Half of our customers are Chinese, but we also like to appeal to more Western tastes. The Laundry Full uses very traditional Chinese cooking methods – but the name (and its appearance) makes it feel familiar to Westerners. It has all the regular components, but the mushrooms are pickled, the egg is tea-stained, the bread is made into milky buns, the “hash brown” is made to look like spaghetti and is cooked with chilli. The bacon is the same, however, which we know makes everyone happy.