My big fat Asian breakfast

In the photo there is a Flipino dish, stewed pork and chicken in soy sauce and garlic, usually eaten with steamed rice and a serving of salad. (Please email to know more about my menus and catering services.)

I am impressed with your ingenious ability to make herring part of your sushi Iris. You got me salivating there. Herring is one of the things I have learned to appreciate through the years living here. But some things have taken a bit longer to get used to.

Not too long ago, when my (Dutch) partner, Maurits, and I were undecided which city we thought we should settle down and start a family, we moved from city to city, country to country months at a time renting homes if not living out of hotels. Maurits’ work as a project manager for a German company asked this of us for quite a long period in our lives.

But when we came to visit his family in the Netherlands, we were welcome to stay with his family. Maurits’ parents, then in their late sixties, lived in a home next to the forest, and a house that could fit a family of eight if they wanted.

Marion, Maurits’ mother, was a good cook. She stuck to the basics but whatever she did, she did well.
When you live in someone else’s home for a few days, you of course, adapt to what is already there. It was at least better company than hotel breakfast cereals and businessmen on business trips ignoring your existence. But breakfast was my biggest challenge in their home.

Smells of fried garlic and pork sausage swirling in the warm, tropical morning air was the morning wake-up call.
This was of course not the story in Marion’s home. Like a signature in every Dutch home, coffee seemed to be the clue to wake in the morning. Although both smells are pleasing to me, I happily stretch and make my way to the breakfast table where Marion and Pieter have a cup of their fresh brew each, and both with the paper in front of them: one reading the headlines, the other busy with a crossword puzzle. They lower their reading glasses to look up to me and say "Goedemorgen!! Heb je goed geslapen?"
After three mornings in their home, I realise it is a standard line, but well-meant and sincere.

When, finally, I settle with my cup of coffee, I notice a bread basket, a tub of butter, and an assortment of cold cuts spread, pindakaas, peanutbutter, and jam in front of me. The couple put their newspapers aside and we all help ourselves to bread, butter and cheese. A boterham.

The kind of Asian that I am, I will give a boterham a try for a few days, refusing to disturb what’s been done all their lives. On occasion and on weekends, Marion gets a head count the evening before for soft boiled or hard boiled eggs.

Scrambled eggs with cheese and chives, and bacon on the side, I suggest wishfully to myself.
Or congee, can you make congee?
I’m happy to eat last night’s dinner, left over Chinese noodles.

But of course not.
"A softboiled egg for me, please." I say politely, the timid Asian that I am.

I love my in-laws for the lives they live are constant, calculated, planned in advance. And breakfast is minimal. It is not a complaint. Just an observation, and I am sure our European counterparts might find my idea of a big, warm, savoury breakfast quite ridiculous.
To each his own, I say.
One day I might learn to do as they do. It might just be the more practical way of doing things. No fuss. No frills. Just a boterham for breakfast.

One morning, during one of our weekend visits to the parents, not even too long after my breakfast of two slices of peperkoek, a boiled egg, orange juice and two cups of coffee, I collapsed in the supermarket. Maurits stares at me and watches my olive skin turn pale, and before my knees get too weak, catches me and I am for a quick moment, unconscious.
A proper breakfast is what I actually need, I later on admit to Maurits as I fan myself dramatically, like they do in Asian soap operas, just one to warm the stomach, (and the soul) and make me feel like I’ve enough to start the day.

In places like Hong Kong, in the early hours of the morning, your senses will lead you through a dark alley of markets to the simplest eatery. Like finding light at the end of the tunnel, the linoleum floor, white and blue tiled walls and glaring bright florescent light encapsulates a breakfast dimsum corner. And by the entrance, a man with his head wrapped tightly in a wet towel, shuffles dimsum baskets to take buns, bapao or what we know there as siopao, and a big bowl of congee or rice porridge to his hungry customers. The cloud of steam from boiling pots of broth whenever the lid is open to ladle a bit for soup is pure gastronomy. This is a morning ritual. The one I am accustomed to. And in the far corner, leaning against an old tiled wall, an elderly lady lowers her head to the bowl, with her lips puckered she carefully slurps her rice porridge with a slice of century egg. She blows the next spoon of porridge until it is cool enough for her young companion, her grandchild, to enjoy the same breakfast, like a ritual taught for the child to enjoy and nourish herself for the day. Spoon after spoon, like a passing down of blessings from generation to generation, it seems.

But Iris, this is perhaps my own made-up sentiment.

When Maurits’ city-hopping career comes to an end, we decide we would find a home in Eindhoven, build a family, where we now raise our child.

Years after, I still write my mother about the breakfasts they probably take for granted, the ones I am often missing.
It is years since I’ve learned not to hope for a bowl of congee for breakfast, I find myself sitting before a wooden board with five slices of bread, with pindakaas, kaas, appelstroop, hagelslag, and honey smeared on top of them. I have succumbed to the simplicity of a boterham to be the easier option. And for my young son, I cut the boterham into bite-size pieces and feed him one piece at a time, just like the old lady in the dimsum breakfast place, a passing of good wishes, a blessing of a new day.


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