When in Yangzhou, breakfast with crab-roe soup dumpling and shredded tofu in soup

Ye Chun Teahouse's xiehuang tangbao, or crab-roe soup dumpling.
Ye Chun Teahouse's xiehuang tangbao, or crab-roe soup dumpling. PHOTOS: CHINA DAILY
Ye Chun Teahouse's tanggansi, or shredded tofu in soup.
Ye Chun Teahouse's tanggansi, or shredded tofu in soup. PHOTOS: CHINA DAILY
Elderly men and women practice taiji in the early morning at an open area in front of Ye Chun Teahouse, a popular eatery in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.
Elderly men and women practice taiji in the early morning at an open area in front of Ye Chun Teahouse, a popular eatery in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.PHOTOS: CHINA DAILY

(CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - I am not normally one for early starts. But the breakfast in Yangzhou is something to wake up early for, I am assured by my Chinese colleagues.

And so, on a brief trip to the historical city, I find myself up before the sun, preparing to tuck into something I have never tried before - zaocha.

Zaocha, or early breakfast tea, is something of an institution in Yangzhou in Jiangsu province. It is an early-morning meal where delicious small treats are served with a variety of steaming hot teas.

You might say it sounds similar to any other breakfast ritual that takes place throughout the world - that is where you would be wrong.

Zaocha in Yangzhou is a traditional, cultural and overwhelmingly social event.

As the soporific effects of the night before wear off, I descend a case of winding steps which take me to a sunken quadrangle, hemmed in by ornate Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) buildings.

I am immediately struck by how many people are crammed into the space below - my interest is piqued.

Over to the left, a squadron of elderly men and women, probably fitter than me, perform taiji in unison. To the right, another hefty group sits on benches chatting and listening to Yangzhou ditties. Straight ahead is what they are all here waiting for, the true purpose - the Ye Chun Teahouse.

Ye Chun was first established in 1877 as a place for Yangzhou locals to enjoy good tea and good food. Over the years, the restaurant has become synonymous with zaocha, with people lining up in the early hours to get a table so they can enjoy the food, the hot tea and, most importantly, a good chat with friends.

Luckily for me, a Chinese colleague managed to wangle us a table and we were able to go straight inside.

Just as the decor of the restaurant carries a distinct and intricate woody theme, so does the aroma, the smell of earthy steeped tea filling the air.

At the table, a squat clay teapot, the size of a softball, sits on a wooden board. Our waitress informs us of the many varieties of tea available, including unique blends served only in the restaurant.

Not being a tea sommelier, I take a pot-luck pick and am pleasantly surprised by its strong but not bitter flavour.

The first food to arrive is tanggansi, or shredded tofu in soup. The thoroughly enticing dish of thin-sliced tangles of tofu looks like a mini mountain, floating in a lake of boiling broth, adorned with small shrimp snowflakes. Its salty and slightly umami taste is right up my street.

The next dish is sandingbao, or three-diced bun. This looks more familiar to me, seemingly just a baozi, a soft steamed bun with some sort of filling - a particular breakfast favourite of mine.

But sandingbao is no ordinary baozi. It is stuffed with sliced pork, chicken and bamboo shoots, then steamed and served. Ye Chun's soft dough is made even softer from the use of a traditional method of fermentation, which I am told is a trade secret.

The final dish to arrive is what I have been secretly waiting for all morning, xiehuang tangbao, or crab-roe soup dumpling. Appearing on a stout pedestal and looking more like a cocktail than a breakfast snack, it is only apt that this dish comes with a straw. Staring up at me is a large bag or pouch made of the thinnest of thin dough. Inside the delicate orb is a fresh and fragrant crab roe soup.

Now, every soup I have ever had has come in a bowl and swiftly moved, via a spoon, to my mouth or down my shirt - not in a small bag. This is where the straw comes in. By carefully piercing the skin of the dough, you are able to slowly suck the delicious crab contents from within. This dish is truly a delight to behold and well worth a wait. Its fresh, aromatic flavour pervades the palate, leaving me with a sweet aftertaste.

After filling my belly and feeling utterly content with my delicious meal, I ascend the steps and look back down on the courtyard full of people still queuing to get a taste of what I had just had.

As I walk to work, the morning sun crests the tops of the trees in the distance and it dawns on me why so many people wake up every day for Yangzhou's zaocha. I think I will start getting up early more often.