Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017
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Breakfasts of champions

On your travels, the best culinary discoveries might just happen first thing in the morning

The reason that breakfast isn't my favourite meal of the day is that, well... you shouldn't be drinking wine at seven in the morning. Too bad. There's such magic in the day's first light and first bite; it's that psychic new beginning and the jolt of fuel that kick-starts a sense of being fully alive and worlds waiting to be explored.

A few months ago, I was out in China's westernmost Xinjiang Province, at the very geographic centre of Asia and in the middle of world's second-largest desert, the Taklamakan. One morning I arrived at the customary round table in the hotel restaurant to gape at a humble repast of congee (rice porridge), velvety corn soup, garlicky green beans, fermented tofu, fried green chilies, salted red chilies, boiled peanuts, fried "Chinese doughnut," salted beans, shredded pickled radish, steamed buns stuffed with spiced lamb, lamb dumplings and chicken broth redolent of the heady aroma of five-spice. Compared to this procession of flavours and textures, the Western breakfast that some tourists still demand abroad is just a dull cholesterol hit.

I quickly reminded myself that I was on the Silk Road, in the food-steps of Marco Polo, and that a feast of such majesty should be nothing new in this territory. If silk travelled the great caravan road between East and West, between Europe and Cathay, so too did food, fusing and evolving all the way. And here in Xinjiang, the food of the local Uighurs -- a Turkic-speaking Muslim population -- melds with Chinese from east of the Great Wall. This was breakfast as culture.

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against bacon and eggs. I remember Paul Rush, who edited the Financial Post Magazine when it was about more than money, talking about his breakfast obsession.

From his boyhood, he'd heard of a "rasher" of bacon and thought it must be the most wonderful thing in the world: a great whack of bacon. But there were no rashers in Canada. His quest eventually took him across the Atlantic where, upon arriving in England, he ordered one. It left poor Rush crushed, since it's simply the English term for one measly slice.


Sinful Irish Breakfasts
This is not to say the English cannot turn out a fine breakfast. It's just that the Irish do it better. Last year, I was in Dublin and breakfasting at the Four Seasons, whose moss-green restaurant, Seasons, went the distance for authenticity. Irish past met Irish present in the form of white pudding -- a "pudding" being a sausage in local parlance -- made from pork offal, and discreet little rounds of black pudding darkened with pig's blood.

The ideal Irish breakfast should include plump pork sausages, spicy sausages, blood sausage, thick slices of back bacon, Cashel blue cheese from the Republic and farl, the Irish potato scone crisped in butter, when there's no bacon fat to pump up your cholesterol.

My favourite is pork sausage stuffed with apple and double-wrapped in what they so quaintly call "streaky" bacon, a dish so full of guilt and sin that it might fuel a week in the confessional.

Crossing the Channel to mainland Europe brings other morning treats. The Dutch breakfast will leave you sagging with deeply-smoked cold cuts, pâtés, cheeses and ferocious coffee. The French breakfast isn't much at all, since that would get in the way of lunch. But coffee and buttery croissants and people-watching on the boulevards of Paris remain a treat to beat. In Spain, I went to breakfast with a friend who owns a small castle in the south. He ordered thickly sliced toast, drenched it in olive oil and sprinkled it with coarse salt. "That's it, amigo," he said.

Yet I never really grew up breakfast-wise until I got out of Western culture. Congee provides get-up-and-go to hundreds of millions of people at first light. It's one of the great comfort foods of Asia, extraordinarily versatile as it acquires condiments -- as pizzas do toppings -- from shredded chicken to blood "Jell-O." It transcends borders, allowing Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysians and Thais to call it their own.


Get in the Congee Line
At its best, Cantonese congee is a princely production of creamy consistency, dressed with shredded chicken, ginger, scallions, shiitake mushrooms and peanuts, ideally served with jasmine tea. When I lived in Toronto, I would haunt the restaurant Rich Congee which boasts not two, not 10, but 60 varieties of congee, including shrimp, frog, duck, geoduck (a large variety of clam) and one type filled with big chunks of juicy Atlantic salmon.

On the other hand, Vietnam offers belly-filling congees reliant on deliciously intense broths, although Westerners may balk at the "heart, blood, intestine" special. In Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I swooned over a cauldron of steaming porridge flanked by crocks of chicken dumplings, tofu croutons, ginger, shallots, garlic, red and green chilies, and spicy Thai sausage flavoured with lemongrass. It wasn't just to die for -- it was to kill for.

Vietnamese breakfast is more likely to be pho, (pronounced "feu," as in pot-au-feu). A rip-snorting beef broth piled high with thinly sliced rare beef and brisket, roaring with sweet basil, star anise and cinnamon -- it's vastly more than what's implied by a description of it as "beef noodle soup."

Down in the Mekong Delta, they do seafood pho, a delicate, sesame-scented broth chock full of squid, sea legs, shrimps, whitefish, fish balls and noodles, and smattered with watercress and green onion. Their secret weapon might be polygonum (also known as knotweed, Vietnamese coriander or, mistakenly, Vietnamese "mint"), a peculiarly addictive Vietnamese herb of the buckwheat family with a near-soapy flavour.

Nor is the Malay breakfast, nasi lemak, to be scoffed at. This is a central mound of coconut-milk rice surrounded with garnishes: fresh cucumber; roast peanuts; tiny, salty little dried fish called anchovettas and a fiery sambal, the Malay chili sauce. You spoon these condiments onto the rice and plan for a pleasurable hour at the table.

My first Indian breakfast, in the temple city of Madurai 25 years ago, was an incredible jolt of energy and a revelation -- spice, for breakfast. After consuming a juicy red papaya the size of a basketball, I ate my first dosa, that feathery, billowing rice-flour crêpe that speaks for the racy Tamil cooking of the South.

The dosa may arrive crisp or soft, plain or stuffed, most commonly masala, with spiced potato stuffing. Traditional sidekicks are sambar, a lentil broth or stew, and coconut-chili chutney. The sambar comes hotly seasoned, thick and chunky, the way I've eaten it in Madras, Madurai and Pondicherry.

As many as four different chutneys (coconut-chili, coriander-chili, tamarind and tomato-lentil) vividly evoke the subcontinent. The best I've ever eaten was in the coffee shop of the Taj Hotel in Delhi, and it came with all four. Another Indian fave is uttapam, a straight-forward lentil- and rice-flour pancake laced with fiery green chilies and served with the same wonderful sambar and chutneys.


Cream of the Crop
I've been asked what was the best breakfast I've ever had. Typically with a "best ever" kind of question, I'm at a loss. But not in this case. The runner-up for all-time best was in the Indian Ocean isles known as the Maldives, at yet another Four Seasons: This was reef lobster Benedict, an amazing riff on the classic in which crisp potato rÜsti subs for the English muffin, and the poached egg comes topped with juicy chunks of lobster and chorizo.

The best? It was in St. Petersburg a decade ago, as I lingered before boarding the now-defunct Bolshoi Express, a train that transported tourists to Moscow and the Caspian Sea out to Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. The hotel was the Marco Polo Nevskii on Nevskii Prospect. Its restaurant was operated by an itinerant brigade from Canada.

Breakfast, included with my room, was a sumptuous buffet. I shot past bowls of cereals, which seemed for birds. I didn't stop at the prosciutto and gorgonzola either, which tells you I was driven.

Instead, from a huge silver platter, I heaped my plate high with thick slabs of smoked salmon. Then, still more amazingly, from a large silver terrine, I spooned fresh salmon roe onto my plate, a mountain of it, to accompany the salmon.

The fish was unctuous -- it must have been Norwegian -- and rich-tasting. The tangerine-hued salmon roe popped and burst across my tongue. I returned to the buffet and did it all over again. I even contemplated the notion of ordering Champagne and ending my journey right there where I was starting it. But the piano player -- yes, a piano player at breakfast -- got around, inexorably, to that maudlin classic "Feelings" and forced me to flee the room with a memory that lingers to this day.

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