April 2024: Zao Fan: Breakfast of China Cookbook

April 28, 2024

Sichuan guokui in Chengdu

Vicarious Culinary Travel

Greetings, Friends of The Mala Market 

Fongchong and I are headed to China next week for the first time in five years(!), but before we go we want to leave you with a new way to vicariously travel there yourself.

It's pretty clear that most Americans—unless they have family or business there—are not traveling to China nowadays. Pre-pandemic there were 300 roundtrip flights a week between the U.S. and China. When we booked our flights in December that number was 70 per week, and it now stands at only 100 flights a week—a mere one-third the number of flights as the Before Times.

That's two-thirds less business, cultural and vital personal exchange between our two countries. On a macro level, those numbers might make people who want to see a healthy U.S-China relationship lose a bit of hope, but on the micro level it makes our goal to share the best of China's food culture and heritage products feel even more necessary and meaningful. If you can't visit China, then China can visit you in the form of Sichuan pepper, Pixian doubanjiang and Zhongba soy sauce!

It's in that same spirit that we present Zao Fan: Breakfast of China, a new cookbook and travelogue that may be the most transporting cookbook we have ever seen. Keep reading to understand why I say that. 

🌶 Taylor & Fongchong 🌶

P.S. Please note that The Mala Market will remain open in May, but will have a skeleton staff, so it may take longer than usual to ship orders and to answer emails. Please be patient as we take this month to find even more Sichuan heritage products for you. We'll be using your many suggestions as our guide. If you have more ideas for Chinese ingredients you can't find elsewhere, now's the time to send them!

Zao Fan: Breakfast of China (Cookbook by Michael Zee)
Zao Fan: Breakfast of China (Cookbook by Michael Zee)


We've been eagerly awaiting this book (which was simultaneously published in the U.K. this week) by British-Chinese photographer and author Michael Zee.

Like many cookbooks, Zao Fan has recipes, context, well-researched history and enticing photographs of the dishes and people who make them. Unlike most cookbooks, each recipe also includes a video clip of those expert cooks rolling, filling, shaping, frying, composing, pulling, steaming and stir-frying. It's one thing to read how someone folds a dumpling or composes a noodle bowl, it's quite another thing to look over their shoulder as you attempt to make it yourself. And all you have to do is point your phone camera at the QR code that comes with the recipe to see quick video tutorials for each one.

Besides the practical benefits of the video, there are also the emotional ones as the video takes you back to the time when you too stood in line at a street stall in China to get a shengjianbao or jianbing or a bowl of Xinjiang breakfast noodles. Or perhaps it will take you forward in time to when you will finally be able to do so. 

If you have your own Chinese breakfast memory, I bet you'll find the video and recipe here. If you don't have that memory, you may be surprised to learn that breakfast in China includes not only dumplings, bao and all manner of bread and dough snacks but also noodles, soups, congee, tofu, egg dishes, pickles and more. Breakfast is the beating heart of street food in China, and it is palpable in Zao Fan

Michael Zee grew up in Liverpool, England, working in his dad's Chinese restaurants before studying photography at university. He eventually launched the Instagram-famous site SymmetryBreakfast, which led to a cookbook of the same name. In 2017 he moved to his grandfather's old stomping grounds of Shanghai and spent five years researching and documenting a vast array of breakfast foods from the shops and stalls of China. 

Here is Michael quoted from the book:

"Ultimately, I want you to use this book as a multi-functional tool. Take it as a jumping off point to perhaps one day go and visit these people in the photos and taste their food for real (they are wonderfully friendly and kind cooks and hosts). Use it as an enhanced instruction manual to bridge the gap in knowledge between descriptor and practice, the word and the hand. Or, read it as pure entertainment – just sit in an armchair and explore one of the greatest cuisines in the world, through the greatest meal of the day."

This book uses almost every pantry item in The Mala Market:

  • Build an instant primo Chinese pantry with one click here.
  • Or start with a complete Sichuan pantry here
Zao Fan: Breakfast of China

Shanghai Scallion Noodles

The book first enticed me with Shanghai scallion noodles. I was excited by Michael's (nontraditional) method of roasting a large batch of scallions in oil in the oven instead of babysitting the wok. Worked like a charm and I had scallion oil for days! 

When you make this dish you are totally going to want our dried alkaline wheat noodles for the right size and chew and our Zhongba light and dark soy sauces for the intense umami flavor. And that's really all the pantry you need for these Top 10 Chinese Noodles. (Whose Top 10? My Top 10!)

Here's my slightly adapted version of Zao Fan'Shanghai Scallion Noodles
  1. Clean and trim 1 pound of scallions and cut in 2-inch pieces 
  2. Put in a roasting or baking pan and cover (or almost cover) with 1.5 cups neutral oil 
  3. Cover pan with foil and roast at 350°F for about 90 minutes, or until partially browned and caramelized, turning once half-way through; (this will be enough oil and scallions for several bowls of noodles, so store unused portion in the refrigerator)
  4. Boil 200 grams alkaline wheat noodles until just almost done, then rinse very well in running water
  5. In the pot you cooked the noodles in, heat 4 tablespoons of the scallion oil with 2 tablespoons light soy sauce, 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sugar until dissolved, then add 4 tablespoons of the caramelized scallions
  6. Add the noodles to the sauce and mix well until heated through. Serve in large serving bowl or individual bowls and garnish with more scallions

Zao Fan video of making guokui

Sichuan Guokui: See How It's Done

One of my favorite Chinese street foods is guokui. While guokui is kind of an umbrella term that encompasses several snacks, the fried meat pastry called Juntun guokui is the most ubiquitous. (See my photo from a Chengdu shop at very top of this letter.) The Sichuan version is always quite numbing from a generous amount of Sichuan pepper dispersed throughout the pork (or beef). Eaten on the street, straight out of the fryer, it is a fried-dough super-delight.

This recipe from Zao Fan is also the perfect example of how much a video delivered via QR code can help when you go to actually make these yourself. It's kind of tough to envision the process without a visual, but seeing the roll out and roll up and hearing the slap of the dough against the counter instills confidence that homemade guokui is within reach!
Red and green Sichuan pepper powders

Blog Spotlight: How to Cook With Huajiao

You can't make a proper Juntun guokui without Sichuan pepper. In fact, you can't make a lot of Sichuan food without huajiao. For an introduction or a refresher course on the numbing spice, check out the section of our new and improved blog called How to Cook With Huajiao. There you'll find info on varieties, usage and storage as well as tons of recipes using Sichuan pepper. 

For example, never buy pre-ground Sichuan pepper if you want the full flavor and power. Simply grind a small batch like these red and green powders for use within a few weeks. 
Sichuan Pepper Sampler (Szechuan Peppercorns)
Sichuan Pepper Sampler (Szechuan Peppercorns)
Shelsky's Brooklyn Bagels

How Do Chefs Use Sichuan Pepper?

Most of our chef customers use our huajiao in Sichuan dishes, but we have also seen a few wildcard uses for the numbing spice. 

Peter Shelsky, co-founder of Shelsky's Brooklyn Bagels in Park Slope and Shelsky's of Brooklyn in Cobble Hill, is a longtime Mala Market customer. For years he has been serving up a Sichuan pepper bagel with chili crisp cream cheese, cilantro and cucumber at his shops. Doesn't that sound divine? Shelsky's ships its bagels nationwide. 

Recently the shops were named among the best bagels in NYC by both Eater and The Infatuation, so it seemed like a good time to introduce him and his bagels to you and thank him for his business. 

Watch this space for more chef shout-outs!