A couple of months ago, while on vacation on the internet-free deck of a small boat in the Galápagos, my wife, my sister, and I started playing the old "If you were shipwrecked on one of these islands and had nothing but marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies to munch on for the rest of your life, what breakfast would you miss most?" game.
You've all played that, right?
I quickly came to realize that almost all of my choices were on the savory side. I rarely order dessert when I eat out for dinner, and I pretty much never order sweet breakfasts. That's not to say I've never had incredible lemon ricotta pancakes or pain au chocolat, but they simply don't move me in the way that savories do.
So what is on my list? Here it is, fully fleshed out and in (almost) no particular order. It's important to note that I'm including only breakfasts that I have eaten firsthand, in situ, in their home countries or regions. It seems only fair, but it does mean that my list is limited by the number of places I've visited. Have an incredible breakfast in your home country that's not on this list? There's a good chance I just haven't been there, but please spout off about it. I want to know, and I'm willing to travel great distances for great food.
My All-Time Favorite: A Fresh Everything Bagel, Untoasted, Scallion Cream Cheese
Best Eaten in: New York
A bagel with cream cheese is the breakfast I have eaten more times than any other. In fact, other than a slice of pizza, it might be the single food I've eaten the most in my life. When I was growing up, my mom, my sisters, and I would stop at the bagel shop several times a week on our way to school. My mom would wait in the car while she'd send one of us in to Columbia Bagels (a sad casualty of Columbia University's massive expansion in Morningside Heights). Our mission was to feel the glass display case in front of the large wire baskets of bagels to see which were the warmest (and thus freshest).
The best days were when the everything bagels were in the hot basket. I'd always order mine with scallion cream cheese. That triple hit of allium—fresh scallion in the cream cheese, dehydrated garlic and onion on the bagel—along with the crunchy pretzel salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and caraway seeds (yes, a good everything bagel should have caraway!), never fails to bring me back to childhood every time I taste it.
I know that in most parts of the country, and in less respectable quarters of NYC, toasting bagels is the norm. It has to be, as a bagel has a half-life of around 30 minutes out of the oven before it loses its magical crisp-chewy texture (and I've written extensively about this issue). But, if you are eating a bagel in its native territory, I implore you to try it the way nature intended: warm, fresh, and untoasted.
NYC Honorable Mention: A Bodega Egg and Cheese
Egg and cheese sandwiches can be had almost anywhere, but it is a particularly New York thing to grab them from the corner bodega. It's not that the quality of the ingredients is anything special—you're getting battery-farmed eggs on a generic English muffin or roll with economy bacon and slices of deli American cheese—but, between being cooked on not-too-clean flat-tops imbued with years of flavorful bacon grease and wrapped in deli paper so that they steam on their trip from the flat-top to the register, they have a softness and melding of flavors that you can't get anywhere else.
My Current Favorite: Arepa de Huevo
Best Eaten in: Colombia
In a country ruled by arepas, the thick corn cakes that form the backbone of the Colombian diet, the arepa de huevo is Supreme Leader. The first one I had was in the open-air courtyard of the Hotel Charleston in the beautiful old walled Spanish-colonial center of the seaside city of Cartagena. It was the same hotel where my Colombian wife, Adri, and I would hold our wedding reception a few years later. I watched as the old black lady in her brightly colored coastal attire pressed yellow corn masa between her practiced hands, forming a round patty about a quarter inch thick before slipping it into a pot of hot oil.
As the exterior of the patty started to set, the arepa puffed, the steam building inside it forcing its sides to balloon out like good pita bread. The woman fished out the arepa, made a small slit along one edge, then deftly slipped a spoonful of seasoned ground meat and a raw egg into the resulting pocket before sliding it back into the oil. A few moments later, I brought it back to my table and bit into it, the soft egg yolk dripping down the side of the crisp golden disk. The only thing that slowed me down was taking the time to spoon a little suero (the funky Colombian sour cream) and a tomato-based ají (Colombian salsa) into the opening before taking the next bite.
Since then, I've eaten arepas de huevo everywhere—from street vendors in Cartagena (you have to get up really early to get one that isn't cold and stale) to fancy restaurants in Bogotá (good, but you miss the atmosphere of Cartagena) to thatched-roof shacks in Parque Tayrona (make sure to stick with juice or beer if you value your guts). Turns out I lucked out on the best from the get-go, and I make it a point to eat breakfast there every time I visit.
Colombia Honorable Mention: Changua
Hailing from the cold, mountainous central Andes of Colombia, changua is a divisive dish (at least in our household). Adri can't stand the stuff. I love it. If the concept of a poached egg in milk, flavored with plenty of cilantro and onions and occasionally topped with melted cheese, turns you off, this is not the breakfast for you. But if you, like me, are comforted by warm milk and creamy broths, come sit by my fire and we'll share a bowl or two.
Best for a Hangover: A Full Irish Fry-Up
Best Eaten in: Ireland
The British Isles get an unfair reputation for having bad food. And, unfortunately, the first dish people often mention when trying to sell you on the country's food is the full breakfast (a.k.a. fry-up). I think it's a poor strategy to defend an entire cuisine with what is essentially a cheap thrill. That said, a hot plate of sausages, fried eggs, toast, hash browns, broiled mushrooms and tomatoes, baked beans, and bacon is the kind of cheap thrill I can happily partake of again and again.*
Irish fry-ups differ from English fry-ups in detail only—the exact type of sausage, white pudding versus black, et cetera. So why an Irish over an English? Only because, whether through accident or providence, I found myself more often in need of restoratively greasy, salty, fried foods on Irish mornings-after than I did in England.
You want non-cheap-thrill great food in the UK or Ireland? It's hard to go wrong at any pub that doesn't have laminated menus. Or just go to Ireland and find yourself some seafood. Along with their dairy, it's some of the best in the world. The folks all over the British Isles are experts at wrapping delicious things in pastry, and British-Indian food is nothing to scoff at, either.
UK and Ireland Honorable Mention: Soft-Boiled Egg and Soldiers
Runny yolks and toast is not a dish that's unique to the UK or Ireland, but nowhere else in the world do they have such an ingeniously simple method of serving it, or such a cute name. Take your soft-boiled egg and lop off the top to expose the yolk, then cut your toast into long fingers, line them up like soldiers, and dip 'em into that yolk.
The Airporter: Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit With Hash Browns From McDonald's
Best Eaten in: McDonald's
I have no reservations when I say that McDonald's serves the best widely available breakfast sandwiches in the world. Sure, that mom-and-pop or corner bodega may have a better one, but when I'm in unfamiliar territory (particularly in airports), there's nothing more comforting or hangover-destroying than a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit.
Actually, that's a lie. Take the hash brown and shove it right into the sandwich, and that's the ultimate constitutional restorative.
The Egg McMuffin is not quite on the same level as the Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit, but it has the advantage of being easily made at home.
For When I'm Craving Dairy: Biscuits and Sausage Gravy
Best Eaten in: The South
Even to this Yankee, the appeal of flaky, buttery biscuits topped with creamy sausage gravy was obvious, but it wasn't until I visited Stella in Kentucky for the first time, a number of years ago, that biscuits and gravy really clicked.
Oh, I said to my used-to-Northern-"biscuits" self. Biscuits are supposed to be light and tender, and cream gravy is not supposed to pour like wet concrete. Don't live in the South? Don't worry—our biscuit and sausage gravy recipes will help you get what you need.
The South Honorable Mention: Shrimp and Grits
Another hard-to-grasp-until-you-try-it-in-situ situation, shrimp and grits is the perfect way to eat dinner for breakfast. It's really easy to find bad shrimp and grits, even in the South. Great shrimp and grits starts with the best-quality, slow-cooking, extra-creamy grits, and they've got to be topped with shrimp that are not just flavorful and plump but tender, almost crisp to the bite, with enough buttery, shrimp-flavored juices to really soak into those grits, saturating them with shrimp-y flavor.
Take Daniel Gritzer's advice and throw some bacon, mushrooms, and Gruyère cheese in there for a nontraditional but super-delicious take. We can call it Shrimp and Gritz(ers), maybe.
Nachos for Breakfast: Chilaquiles
Best Eaten in: Mexico
If you're the kind of person who relishes the last few nachos on the plate—the ones that have been soaking in salsa and are just on the verge of going totally soft, but still retain a hint of their crunch—if you love the way that the chip swells up and bursts with spicy, tangy salsa flavor grounded with toasty corn, then chilaquiles are the breakfast for you. Topped with a fried egg and a sprinkling of crumbled Cotija cheese...man, do I love me some soggy nachos.
If you can't get to Mexico and want the very best, make them at home, starting with some home-fried tortillas.
Mexico Honorable Mentions: Huevos Rancheros and Migas
Huevos rancheros—fried eggs served with a spicy tomato-based salsa and tortillas—is one of those dishes that seem a little off texturally when you think about it. Am I really supposed to be eating this with a fork? you might say to yourself. Soft-cooked eggs with runny yolks and a loose, almost soupy salsa, typically served with runny black beans—it's an exercise in futility to try to sop it all up with a couple of corn tortillas. But what a delicious exercise in futility it is!
I'd also add migas—crisp tortillas crumbled and sautéed with salsa and eggs, generally served in soft tortillas (basically, tortillas wrapped in tortillas)—to my list of "this form factor doesn't quite make sense, but boy, is it delicious" foods. The migas tacos I had at Veracruz All Natural in Austin were the tacos that finally made me come around on the concept of breakfast tacos. Now I make sure to grab some every time I swing through town.
Only Good When It's Great: Eggs Benedict
Best Eaten in: Fancy Hotels via Room Service
Ah, eggs Benedict. King of the brunch table. I love everything about this dish, from making it (thanks to a few tricks, poaching eggs and whipping up a hollandaise have become two of my favorite, and most foolproof, techniques) to consuming it. I love the way the liquid yolk from a soft poached egg mingles with that buttery, creamy hollandaise. I'd lie down and fall asleep on a bed of eggs Benedict, and I wouldn't even shower in the morning.
Mind you, I'm not talking about the goopy, curdled, sludgy eggs Benedict you get at most greasy-spoon diners, with its congealed (or, worse, powdered!) hollandaise. But properly made eggs Benedict—with golden, liquid yolks; crisp and buttery English muffins; nicely browned and crisped back bacon; and light, creamy hollandaise—can't be beat, especially when you're snuggled in a bathrobe with some fancy hotel's logo stitched into it.
Best Street Eats: Pho Ga
Best Eaten in: Vietnam
I am partial to any country where foods we'd consider lunch or dinner in the West are eaten for breakfast, which means that I love traveling through Southeast Asia. Keep your cereal, yogurt, and measly pastries. I'll take a hearty bowl of noodles first thing, any morning of the week. The best breakfast that Adri and I ate during our time in Vietnam was a hot bowl of pho ga, consumed while perched upon child-sized plastic chairs, huddled over a picnic table in a dingy back alley in Hanoi. The broth was rich, creamy, and aromatic; the rice noodles slippery and satisfying; and the big pile of herbs in front of us as fresh and flavorful as could be.
Vietnam Honorable Mention: Bo Ne (Vietnamese Steak and Eggs)
Nobody does steak and eggs like the Vietnamese. You'll want to make sure to find a place that serves their fried eggs and seared marinated steak on a sizzling cast iron platter, so that they're nice and hot as you stuff them into a crisp and crackly bánh mì–style baguette.
Wish I Could Get 'Em Here: Jian Bing
Best Eaten in: China
I first tasted a revelatory version of jian bing when I was traveling in Beijing a couple of years ago, so I'll let my Chinese travel diary do the talking here:
This morning we had jian bing, China's version of the French crepe, for breakfast. It's a dish so damn delicious that I can't fathom why it hasn't become a staple food in Chinatowns all across the U.S. It's essentially a batter-based crepe cooked with an egg smeared into one side, along with cilantro and scallions, that then gets brushed with a few sauces (a thick soy sauce, a hoisin-like bean sauce, and a ground chile sauce), then folded up, often with a baocui inside. The baocui is a puffed, crisply fried cracker that's a specialty of Beijing.
Essentially what you've got is a bit of crisp carb wrapped in soft carb action. We ordered ours with a piece of battered fried chicken wrapped up in there with the cracker. As the whole thing steams, the inner cracker softens a bit, but you still get an awesome mix of texture and flavors, especially with that chicken, which had a bit of an 11-secret-herbs-and-spices thing going for it.
Since I wrote that, jian bing have made some headway in the US. This is certainly good news for everyone involved.
China Honorable Mention: Dim Sum
Dumplings, steamed buns, fried things, and, if you're actually in China, plenty of hocking, coughing, and tons of tea. What else could you possibly want for breakfast?
Slurpiest and Crunchiest: Soft Eggs and Kaya Toast
Best Eaten in: Singapore
Sometimes I think Singaporean kaya toast and soft eggs were invented just for me. The toast, made with thin-sliced, soft white bread, is cooked over an open flame without any sort of fat, so it comes out a bit dry and crunchy, which is fine since they use it to sandwich a massive amount of softened butter and kaya jam, a mildly sweet jam made with coconut, palm sugar, and eggs. (Check out my friend Yvonne's recipe right here.) Even so, it helps to dip it into the super-soft-boiled eggs that you break into a small dish on the side.
For years, one of my favorite late-night snacks has been a soft-cooked egg that I break into a bowl, drizzle with soy sauce and pepper, stir up, and slurp down as silently as possible in the dim light of the kitchen, trying not to wake Adri. I always thought I was a little weird in loving it so much, so I felt vindicated that morning when I realized that I had an entire country full of soft-egg-and-soy-sauce-eating brethren on the other side of the planet.
Perhaps I've belonged in Singapore all along.
Most Likely to Remind You of a Muppets Song: Menemen
Best Eaten in: Turkey
The Turks do breakfast right. The full spread comes with olives, cucumbers, cheese, eggs, bread, and a half dozen plates of assorted pickled, preserved, and fresh treats. They've also got kaymak, a delicious cheese somewhere between mozzarella and butter that's often doused in honey. But, even after a full week and a half of eating awesome stuff all over Turkey, menemen, the dish of soft scrambled eggs cooked with chilies, tomatoes, and plenty of good olive oil, was the one dish that continued to haunt my dreams—both sleeping and waking—long after we got back home. I even bought a few sahans, the tin dishes traditionally used to cook and serve menemen, so I could make it at home. (And don't worry: You can, too, with this recipe.)
My First Brunch: That Thing Where You Cut a Hole in the Bread and Fry an Egg in It
Best Eaten in: Your Bathrobe
This is the first brunch-y dish I learned how to make. I learned by watching a friend do it, using a cup to punch a hole out of a piece of bread, which he then fried in butter with an egg cracked straight into the center. Oh, man, I thought to my college-aged self. This is going to be my go-to morning-after move to impress girls. I didn't get too many opportunities to practice it, which meant that in reality, I associate this dish more with standing-alone-in-my-bathrobe-in-the-kitchen mornings than with dashing acts of gentlemanliness. Doesn't matter. Still delicious.
Not for the Queasy: Saengseon Hoe
Best Eaten in: Korea
If waking up at the crack of dawn to poke around a Korean wholesale fish market, complete with escaping octopuses, fish-tossing, and angry fishermen, is your cup of breakfast tea, then you'd probably appreciate the pleasures of spicy food and raw fish for breakfast. We ate this meal at the fish market in Seoul, South Korea, where we first picked our live flounder out of a huge tank before it got deposited into a Styrofoam bucket attached to the front of an R2-D2–shaped pallet-lifter that zipped down to the back of the market. Ten minutes later, at around 5:45 a.m., Adri and I were slipping back slices of still-quivering flounder dressed with soy sauce and doenjang, chasing it with alternating shots of soju and a spicy soup made with the bones. Nothing like fish guts and rice liquor to get your blood flowing on a cold Busan morning, am I right?
Laziest Breakfast: Leftover Tortilla Española
Best Eaten in: Spain
The thought of eating a cold omelette is not particularly appealing...unless that omelette is a Spanish tortilla, left out on the counter overnight and served with allioli for dipping. Hot tortilla española is great—the warm exterior giving way to the loose, custardy center—but as it sits overnight, it gets even better, the potatoes and eggs softening and melding together into a perfect, creamy, olive oil–packed bite.
Kid in a Candy Shop: Breakfast Buffets at Fancy Hotels
Best Eaten in: Fancy Hotels
What can I say, I'm a sucker for fancy breakfast buffets. I'm not just talking about the continental buffet at La Quinta (though, it's true, I love being in continent). I'm talking Disney World–style, everything-you-could-possibly-dream-of-plus-an-omelette-station buffets. The kind where you take one plate and grab your potatoes, bacon, sausage, and fried eggs, then realize you forgot to leave room for the fruit, and, oh crap, is that really congee with fried shallots they've got over there, and, oh man, what about that cheese and charcuterie plate, and yes, I'd like more coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice, please, I'm milking this for all it's worth (and, while you're at it, I'll have a glass of milk and some yogurt, too, please), and does that ding! mean my toast is done? Nope, that was my soft-boiled egg, the toast doesn't ding because it's on one of those conveyor belt–style toasters with the dials that are so much fun to play with. Belt goes fast! Belt goes slow. Belt goes fast! Belt goes slow. Okay, maybe no more coffee refills for me.
For My Inner Hipster: Avocado Toast
Best Eaten on: The West Coast
Yeah, I've become an avocado snob since moving out west. Remember those days? I say to my wife. Back when we lived in New York and we got excited because we found the one single ripe avocado at the supermarket? Out here, it's hard to find an avocado that's not perfectly ripe, with just the right amount of give for smashing with the back of a fork onto a thick slice of toasted sourdough. Oh, right, I think I've become a sourdough snob, too. My sincerest apologies, please accept this avocado with a single brown, mushy spot as a gesture of goodwill. (I have no use for such avocados anyway.)
N.B.: And before anyone gives me guff, I know the avocado in the stock photo above has a mushy brown spot. Unfortunately, I'm too busy eating my avocados to photograph them.
Best Childhood Throwback: Tamago Kake Gohan
Best Eaten in: Japan
Tamago kake gohan, or tamago bukkake meshi, was a staple for me growing up and is also having something of a moment in the world of Foods the Internet Obsesses Over (the kids are calling it TKG). It's about as simple as breakfast gets: good-quality rice, whipped together by the diner with a raw egg, a splash of soy sauce, and a few mild seasonings of your choice. (I go with MSG and a shake of furikake.) Got an extra-busy day ahead and need a bit of a boost to the ol' constitution? Do what I do and add an extra egg yolk. You barely need a recipe, but here it is.
Japan Honorable Mention: Tarako With Rice
Of all the foods I grew up eating, tarako—salted cod roe—reminds me most of my grandmother. She'd grill it over a small charcoal flame, the soft sac of roe turning firm, almost crumbly, and intensely smoky. Perfect for stirring into a hot bowl of rice (with or without raw egg!).
Spiciest: Bami Goreng
Best Eaten in: Indonesia
Fried food, carbs, and spicy food are my favorite things to eat for breakfast. We do fried and carb-y pretty well here in the States, but we could work on our spicy. We could also work on our noodles-for-breakfast game. This Indonesian dish has all of the bases covered. Made by stir-frying yellow Chinese-style noodles with sweet soy sauce, garlic, shallots, spicy sambal, and meat (typically chicken or shrimp in the Muslim-dominated region, though, if you find yourself on the Hindu island of Bali, you can get it the best way: with pork), it's a great any-time-of-day meal. I like to have it for breakfast, topped with a fried egg, of course.
Mini-Fridge Breakfast: Cold Pizza
Best Eaten in: College Dorm Rooms
Not all pizza is great pizza, but all pizza is pizza, and pizza, even when it's bad, is good. The good thing about bad pizza is that it turns into great cold pizza with very little effort on your part. Your only obligation is to completely ignore it for the entire night and have a couple of drinks too many. (Many of us are already practiced in this skill.) In return, that cold pizza will comfort you, console you, and nurse you back to health with its time-softened crust and semi-solid cheese.
College Dorm Honorable Mention: Instant Ramen
To be honest, I was rarely awake in time for any meal that one could reasonably call breakfast when I was in college, but, on those cold Boston-winter late mornings when I found myself without stale pizza to rely on, a pack of instant ramen was my constant companion—boiling water optional.
Look at Mr. Fancy Pants Over There: Omelette
Best Eaten in: France
I know I just published a couple of recipes for American-style omelettes, talking up just how awesomely hearty and flavorful they are, but if push comes to shove, the classic French omelette is the one I'm taking with me to the desert island. Eggs in their purest, most technique-focused form (and delicious to boot).
Man, all this breakfast talk has really whetted my appetite. When's lunch?