What's for breakfast?

The sun is up and you scramble down to breakfast. What'll it be? Fried eggs? Cereal? Somewhere in China a boy wakes to the smell of his congee (rice porridge) and a girl in the Netherlands is hungry for some groene haring ("green" herring, or small pickled fish). When it comes to breakfast around the world, one child's fish eggs is another's peanut butter.

Every hour of the day, children around the world wake up and ask, "What's for breakfast?" Let's follow the sun to see what kind of food the world starts its day with.

Australia's yeasty bread spread

For Aussies, "brekkie" might be as fancy as a traditional "fry-up" of "snags" (sausages), bacon, hash browns, and tomatoes. (That's right - fried tomatoes.) Or breakfast might be as basic as buttered toast spread thinly with Vegemite. This strong-smelling spread is made of brewer's yeast and malt extracts (from beermaking). It looks like shiny chocolate spread, but beware: It's like nothing you've ever tasted before. It's very salty and smells like soy sauce - though some would say that's putting it politely. Imagine sucking on a beef bouillon cube and you'll get the idea. Invented in 1923, Vegemite is Australia's favorite spread.

A 1940s ad campaign for Vegemite featured healthy, happy children singing a catchy jingle that included the line "We're happy little Vegemites!" Australian kids are still sometimes called "happy little Vegemites."

Vegemite may sound awful to us, but remember: Many people around the globe are disgusted at the thought of peanut butter and jelly.

Don't slurp your breakfast in Japan

Most Japanese - at least those in cities - eat quick Western-style breakfasts of eggs, toast, and juice. But in traditional families, children have green tea and a bowl of steamy miso soup. Miso soup is based on dissolved miso paste (fermented soybeans), but the recipe varies from province to province and even from family to family. Common ingredients include abura age (fried bean curd), wakame (seaweed), niboshi (dried baby sardines), and scallions. Some cooks add slivers of eggplant or noodles that swirl and hide at the bottom of the bowl.

A family quiz show on Japanese TV once tested how well a group of children could identify their own mother's miso soup. Blindfolded, five children sipped from bowls of soup. Could they single out which one was their mother's recipe? Amazingly (and to the relief of their mothers) each child identified mama's miso soup correctly. (Do you think you could pick out your mom's meatloaf?)

Today, though, more and more Japanese eat store-bought miso soup or make it from a mix. This is a far cry from the days when a young bride would give up her own childhood miso soup recipe to learn the recipe of her new husband's family.

Rice, rice, rice in China

It's a good thing that Chinese children like rice, since many of them eat it three times a day. For them, breakfast is a warm bowl of congee, a watery rice porridge or soup. Chinese children may eat it plain or with bits of meat, fish, or eggs.

Congee, also called juk, is made of about one part rice to 12 parts water or stock. An ancient Chinese legend says that congee was first made when a stingy man, who was forced to entertain many guests, asked his cook to water down the rice.

Start the day with an Egyptian 'ful'

In Egypt, you'd be foolish not to try some ful (pronounced "fool"). Ful medames, a brown bean stew, is a traditional early-morning meal. The ancient recipe uses dried ful beans that have been soaked and cooked. The dish is flavored with lemon juice, olive oil, coriander, cumin, and other spices.

Egyptian street vendors also sell ful as fast food. Another popular breakfast item is bread wrapped around different fried vegetables. In fact, the ancient Egyptians were the first to make yeast bread 8,000 years ago. Bakers used to mix the ingredients with their feet! Workers who built the pyramids were paid in bread.

Bulgarians love their yogurt

Breakfast in Bulgaria may consist of sesame bread, cheese made of sheep's milk, honey, olives, tomatoes, boiled eggs, and - most important - yogurt.

Historians believe that yogurt was eaten by Bulgaria's earliest inhabitants, the Thracians. The Thracians were shepherds. Yogurt was first discovered way back in 1500 BC, when a Thracian put sheep's milk into a lambskin bag carried around the waist. (Don't try this at home, please.) Body warmth caused the milk to ferment and become yogurt. Today's yogurts have been improved and taste much better.

While homemade yogurt is still popular in Bulgaria, Bulgarians are eating less of it than they used to. In the 1980s, the average Bulgarian ate 88 pounds of yogurt every year. As of a few years ago, Bulgarians had cut their yogurt consumption in half, to 44 pounds per person per year. Americans, on the other hand, ate about 10 pounds of yogurt per person in the year 2000 - not counting the delicious frozen kind.

Swedish fish eggs from a tube

In Sweden, a morning is not complete without a knäckebröd (hard bread) with Kalle's Kaviar - a pale pink fish-egg spread that comes in a toothpaste tube. One of the joys of eating Kalle's Kaviar is squeezing it out in squiggly lines on bread. Kalle's Kaviar has the texture of mayonnaise but tastes (to this writer) like a mouthful of seawater.

Swedish children grow up with this bright blue tube with Kalle's smiling face on it. Kalle is the 6-year-old boy whose image was put on the tube in 1954 by the Abba seafood company. He's been there ever since. At the time, Kalle became so famous in the little village where he lived that his classmates nicknamed him "The Tube." Today, enough Kalle's Kaviar is squeezed out of those tubes each year to make a squiggly line that could go around the world more than twice.

France's debt to an Austrian baker

French children love croissants spread with butter or jam. But while everyone agrees that this bread - or is it pastry? - is delicious, not as many can agree how it came to be. Some say the croissant was created in 1683 in Vienna. Working late one night a baker heard digging sounds. He ran to warn the Austrian Army that enemy Turkish soldiers were tunneling under the city walls.

The baker had saved the city! All he asked in return was the right to bake small breads in the shape of a crescent moon, which was the symbol on the Turkish flag. The croissant was born. But it didn't reach France until more than 100 years later, when the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette (she later married Louis XVI) introduced the croissant to the French.

The truth about croissants, however, might not be nearly so interesting. Some say that the croissant was first baked in France and probably not until after 1850.

Chocolate sprinkles - and fish

Breakfast in the Netherlands might include groene haring (small, pickled herrings). Children eat them just as you might imagine: They pick one up by the tail, tilt their heads back, hold the fish over their mouth, and drop it in. They might wash it down with anijsmelk (warm milk flavored with licorice). And if you thought that chocolate sprinkles were just for ice cream, come to Holland. There, children scatter hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) on their breakfast bread.

New, improved 'nectar of the gods'

A typical breakfast in Central America is eggs, chorizo (sausages), tortillas, fried plantains (from the banana family), pan dulce (sweet bread), and fresh fruit. Another well-known specialty is chocolate. The cacao bean originally grew in this area and was thought to be the "nectar of the gods" by native Americans living there. Only aristocrats and priests could drink the beverage made from ground cacao beans, which was unsweetened, grainy, and heavily spiced with ... chile peppers.

Hot chocolate, developed in Europe, migrated back to this region. The version now served here is thicker than you're used to in North America and is often flavored with cinnamon, rather than chiles.

On the Yucatan peninsula, huevos motuleños (eggs in the style of the town of Motul, Mexico) is a popular breakfast dish. It's easy to make: Spread refried beans (dried beans that have been cooked, then mashed) onto warm corn tortillas. Now pile on fried eggs, diced ham, shredded cheese, and peas.

So what's for breakfast this morning in your part of the world?

You can find recipes for many more international breakfasts in 'Breakfast Around the World,' by Richard S. Colhoun (Peach Tree Publications, 2002).

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