Breakfast is a meal that divides diners. Creatures of habit will stick with cereal, patisseries and the odd fry-up. But those who’ve been hungering for more variety – welcome to the new breakfast club, Eastern style.
We are talking, of course, about the Asian-breakfast trend – with the London conduits for the food of Japan, China and the Indian sub-continent bringing something very fresh to the table.
The well-travelled may have dabbled at the hotel breakfast buffet in dim sum or congee (the savoury rice “porridge of the East”), but beyond the hotel circuit, Asian elements are increasingly featuring on London’s morning menus.
While most Japanese restaurants in London specialise in lunch and supper, Koya Bar opens doors early to serve steaming bowls of innovative breakfast udon, appeasing Anglo tastes with an “English Breakfast” offering: noodle broth topped with fried egg, bacon and shiitake mushrooms.
The jet-setting pack at Monocle were early exponents of the Asian-breakfast trend. The global travellers’ magazine set-up shop on Marylebone’s Chiltern Street in 2013, serving a Japanese breakfast-set of rice-cubes stuffed with tuna, tofu “cheese” with sesame, egg rolls, pickles, miso soup and salad.
A similarly Nippon-inspired breakfast is available at Raw Duck, near London Fields. Try their brown rice and miso porridge with bonito (fired kelp), kombu (a fish similar to mackerel) and topped with a poached egg. Meanwhile, Granger & Co in Notting Hill delivers a sweet-treat spin on miso porridge, styling theirs with coconut yogurt and mango.
Southeast Asian breakfasts are plentifully represented in London by the multiplying purveyors of Vietnamese banh mi (baguettes) and pho on Kingsland Road, as well as at Keu! in Soho, whose Pan-Asian array of baguette fillings includes kimchi BBQ pork, slow-braised mackerel, chicken curry and smoky aubergine.
Few Indian restaurants in London offer a breakfast menu with choices as extensive as that at Dishoom, which now has branches in Covent Garden, Kings Cross and Shoreditch. Unique to Bombay (and now London), its cross-cultural culinary-splicing is a homage to the Persian tea-room culture of old Bombay.
Every effort has been made to replicate a sensory trip to India, from the faded elegance of the restaurant’s interior – dark wood furniture, marble table tops and sepia photographs – to the intoxicating scent of sweet chai and spices.
The breakfast menu combines British dishes such as omelette with Indian ingredients to create inventive breakfast hybrids. Their crowd-drawing naan rolls, in the spirit of cultural and culinary fusion, give the English breakfast butty a dose of Eastern charm. Egg, sausage or bacon (sourced from the unparalleled Ginger Pig) comes wrapped in freshly baked naan, oozing cream cheese and chilli-tomato jam.
Other egg-heavy options include the spicy Bombay omelette, fried eggs on chilli-cheese toast, Parsi-style spicy scrambled eggs, and mince and liver topped with fried eggs. For a light snack, try the classic bun maska (a toasted roll stuffed with a slice of butter), designed to be dipped into steaming masala chai.
The elder statesman of Indian dining in London, The Cinnamon Club, is a classically handsome restaurant located inside the former Westminster Library; and was one of the first in the capital to serve an Indian breakfast.
The regularly changing menu may include uttappam (South Indian rice pancakes) served with shredded coconut sides and lentil sambar broth, kedgeree, spiced omelette and Bombay-style scrambled eggs with layered paratha (flatbread).
Representing Sri Lanka, the island jewel of the Indian subcontinent, The Pavilion Café in Victoria Park is delightfully out-of-place. Nowhere else in London will you find string hoppers (dainty rice-noodle patties), served with sodhi (a coconut-milk sauce) and sambol (a juicy side zinging with lime and laced with red chilli), beyond Sri Lankan-strong Tooting and East Ham.
Founder Rob Green spent several years in Sri Lanka cultivating an obsession with tea and brought back with him a zeal for the island’s spice-intensive cuisine. Egg hoppers are tipped to join the menu this summer, and – trust us – these are not to be missed.
A taste of breakfast in China is on offer at the bustling Far East Restaurant in Chinatown, which has its own bakery and is open early for traditional Cantonese and Sichuan breakfasts.
Try their fried dough fritters in sweet, glutinous rice or red-bean varieties. And pair with tapioca-milk bubble tea, hot plain soy milk, or savoury soy milk with preserved vegetables, dried shrimp and spring onions. There are also a few varieties of congee, as you’d expect, the most adventurous being the thousand-year egg (quail or duck eggs preserved for two months in a mixture of salt and clay).
Outside of the British Isles, a few Asian breakfasts have profoundly piqued our interest; like the crab frittata served at the buffet breakfast at Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok, charged with scud chillies and fragrant with lime and coriander, and egg hoppers in Sri Lanka – in my eyes, the ultimate Asian breakfast – rice flour and coconut pancakes with an egg poached in the middle and topped with spicy coconut and onion sambal or curry sauce. Another Sri Lankan favourite, chilli eggs served at The Sun House, a boutique hotel in Galle, also sticks firmly in my culinary memory – fried eggs with tomato, green chilli, red onion, coriander, and topped with sea salt, white pepper and grated Neal’s Yard Keen’s cheddar – see our version of the recipe here: Phil’s City Kitchen: Cooking with Kale.
The Asian-breakfast trend is yet further encouraging evidence of the internationalisation of London dining. Finally, Asian food is being represented in all its diversity, and breakfast is just the beginning…