The British used to lead the world at breakfasting. The Victorians refused to start their days without first grazing on fish, cold meats, pies, kedgeree, eggs, toast and jams. They dedicated recipe books to the meal with titles such as Breakfast Dishes for Every Morning of Three Months. They had stoves installed at the end of their tables just so that they could fry bacon and eggs. The 19th-century writer, Leigh Hunt, was moved to reflect that "breakfast is the forecast of the whole day. Spoil that and all is spoiled".
Yet the British breakfast was spoiled, drowned in bowl of soggy Rice Krispies. Mass-produced breakfast cereals first became popular in the mid-20th century – and have remained stuck to our national palate ever since, like a congealed Weetabix. While lunch and dinner have been transformed by their exposure to other cultures, breakfast has got stuck in a rut. It has become, in the words of Dr Kaori O'Connor, anthropologist and author of a biography of the English breakfast, "a kind of service operation, requiring neither thought nor enjoyment".
One morning, while chasing a gnarled hazelnut around my bowl, I decided enough was enough. It was time to see what the rest of the world had to teach us about breakfasting. Somewhere, somebody had to be starting their day with something better than this.
First stop Italy. Few countries have done more to undermine the British determination not to enjoy food; to disabuse us of the notion that there is no higher pleasure than sourcing the cheapest ingredients available. I get in touch with Giorgio Locatelli, owner of the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, Locanda Locatelli. "In Italy there isn't a great culture of breakfast," he says. "Espresso and a cigarette is most popular."
It's not an inspiring start. I wake early and walk to the nearest cafe. By the time I get there I can't work out whether I'm hungry or just panicking at the thought of not eating until lunchtime.I order an espresso, which hits the back of my throat like something toxic – but I can't think of a good analogy because I feel so awful. I don't smoke, and now seems like a bad time to start.
An Italian breakfast may make you appreciate your lunch, but it's no way to begin the day in the harsh British climate.
It's time to widen my search. I call Vivek Singh, executive chef of the Cinnamon Club in London. His restaurant is committed to adapting and updating classic Indian cuisine. It also serves breakfast. He suggests I try uttapam, which are pancakes made from fermented lentil and rice flour. "They are made and served pretty much all over south India, in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh," he says.
Making uttapam from scratch takes quite a while, but thankfully Vivek is a pragmatist as well as an experimentalist. He tells me to buy dosa mix from an Asian supermarket, pour a few tablespoons into the centre of a pan, add chopped vegetables and coriander, cook over a low heat for four minutes on each side, and then serve with chutney. I do so, and the results are really rather tasty as well as very healthy. An excellent way to start your day – although cooking the uttapam does take a bit of practice.
I push on into south-east Asia. Tom Kevill Davies, a writer who goes by the name of "the Hungry Cyclist", is currently pedalling and eating his way along the Mekong. Thankfully I manage to catch him by email before he goes into "the wild" for a few weeks. He suggests I try pho. "Traditionally a Vietnamese dish as well as a national obsession, the simplicity of this aromatic noodle soup has ensured that it is not only a favourite breakfast in Vietnam but in Cambodia and Laos as well," he writes promisingly.
The secret of pho is a good broth, so I make mine the previous evening. Tom instructs me to boil up some stock with onion, fresh ginger, cinnamon, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, star anise, salt, brown sugar and fish sauce. This is then left to simmer for an hour or two until it is absolutely delicious. The next morning, I simply boil up some rice noodles, put them in a bowl, add tofu (you can use raw beef if you prefer), pour on the reheated broth, and sprinkle with bean sprouts, chillis, fresh herbs, soy sauce and a few other bits and bobs from the kitchen cupboard. The result is sensational and just what's needed if, like me, you have a cold.
I head north into China. Here, as in many other parts of the world, the Western breakfast is expanding its empire of stodge, with many of the country's new middle classes going to work on tea, coffee and pastries. I turn to Ching-He Huang for help. A TV cook and entrepreneur, she says her main culinary influence is her grandparents' cooking. One of her favourite Chinese breakfasts is congee (rice porridge) with fried egg and a splash of light soy sauce, sprinkled with salted roasted peanuts, pickled cucumbers, pickled bamboo shoots and a small cube of fermented bean curd. "This is the kind of breakfast I was brought up on, and it always reminds me of home," she says. I'm willing to give it a go.
Making congee is pretty straightforward. You add three quarters of a cup of long grain rice to nine cups of water and simmer for an hour or so. Eventually, the rice grains give up their struggle for individuality and can be stirred into a porridge. Then it's just a question of frying an egg and sprinkling on the other ingredients. The resulting dish is not for me, although it certainly wakes you up.
It's the end of the week. I've been around the world and I'm still struggling to find a nation which really knows how to breakfast; a people who like to start the day by setting their taste buds on fire. And then I hear back from Thomasina Miers. I'd asked the MasterChef winner and founder of the Wahaca restaurants if she had any thoughts on breakfast, and she does. "Mexicans do breakfast better than almost any country in the world," she says. "I think they vie with Australia for great breakfasts. The choices are endless, the flavours intense. I love it all. There's something for every mood, every state of hunger, whether you are fighting fit or feeling under the weather. It is almost worth a trip there alone."
Just give me a recipe Thomasina, I cry. And so she does. The Great Mexican Breakfast, she calls it, the secret of which is using a lot of fat. You cook up some tomatoes, onions, garlic and chilli in lard for half an hour to make a sauce. Then dip some corn tortillas in lard and put them in the oven to keep warm. Then fry some eggs in lard and serve the whole lot up together with cheese on top. It's utterly delicious and oddly similar to the great Victorian breakfast – only with more chilli.
Intercontinental breakfasts: Recipes to try
The great Mexican breakfast
Cooking time: 50 minutes
For the tomato sauce
5-6 tablespoons lard or dripping
1 large onion, finely chopped
1-2 red chillies, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tins plum tomatoes
Sea salt and black pepper
1 teaspoon piloncillo or demerara sugar
A few generous splashes of Worcestershire sauce
A small handful of chopped tarragon
4 corn tortillas, chapattis or other flat breads
60g Lancashire cheese
First, get the tomato sauce cooking. Heat 2 tablespoons of the lard in a wide saucepan and add the onion and chilli. Let them sweat over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the garlic, cook for a few minutes more, and then add the tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, sugar and Worcestershire sauce, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon to make a roughly textured sauce. Leave the tomatoes to gently cook over a low heat for half an hour, adding a little water if they get too dry.
When you are ready to eat, melt 1 to 2 tablespoons of the lard in a frying pan and gently turn the flat breads in the fat. Put them in a low oven, wrapped in foil, to keep warm, along with four plates. Add the tarragon to the sauce and stir. Melt the rest of the lard in the frying pan and turn the heat right up until the fat is sizzling. Fry the eggs, two at a time, spooning the lard over the top of them so that they turn a golden colour at the edges and absorb some of the flavour. Season the eggs well with salt and pepper.
Put a flat bread on each plate and top with the tomato sauce. Put a fried egg on top and scatter with the grated Lancashire cheese.
Taken from 'Mexican Food Made Simple' by Thomasina Miers, published by Hodder & Stoughton £20.
A perfect Mekong breakfast, Pho Bo (beef noodle soup)
For porridge and cornflake fans a bowl of soup may not sound like a great way to start your day, but in south-east Asia millions go to work on a bowl of pho.
For the broth
2.5 litres of good beef stock (the best is always homemade with beef bones from the leg and knuckle)
a good finger of ginger cut into in thick slices
1 cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods
1 large pinch of coriander seeds,
4 star anise
200ml of fish sauce
50 grams of brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
For the pho
one large packet of rice noodles (if you can get the soft, fresh ones from an Asian supermarket, all the better)
500g of skirt steak or sirloin
a healthy bunch of the following herbs: fresh mint, cilantro (coriander), basil, morning glory (if you can get it)
4 spring onions, just the bottom half, well chopped
2 limes, quartered
4 small chilli peppers, sliced
200g of bean sprouts, rinsed
fish paste (a punchy flavour, so be careful)
To prepare the broth
Add your stock to a large pan, then add the onion, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander seeds, star anise, salt, sugar and fish sauce. Simmer uncovered for an hour or two. Strain the broth of the onion, spices and any scum with a slotted spoon and taste. Adjust with a little more fish sauce or salt as you like, and keep it simmering on the lowest heat.
To prepare the pho
1. Slice your beef as thin as you can across the grain, and set aside.
2. Bring a separate pan of water to the boil, and following the directions on your noodles cook accordingly. Fresh noodles need no more than a five-second dip in boiling water, others might need up to a minute. Once cooked, strain and divide among 4 deep soup bowls.
3. After the noodles, equally divide the raw beef among each of the bowls, along with the spring onions.
4. Bring your broth back to a boil and carefully ladle it into each bowl to completely cover the noodles and beef. The hot broth will cook your raw beef slices.
5. Having placed all the herbs, chopped chilli, sauces and bean sprouts on the table, give each guest their bowl of noodles and beef and they can now customise their pho. Plenty of fresh herbs, a small handful of bean sprouts, a few squeezes of lime juice, a couple of shakes of fish sauce and soy sauce, some chilli, and 3 or 4 twists of ground black pepper should all be added, before grabbing your chopsticks, leaning over your bowl and slurping.
Recipe by Tom Kevill Davies. Aka the Hungry Cyclist, Kevill Davies is a travel and food journalist now cycling and eating his way along the Mekong River. See www.thehungrycyclist.com/mekong
Uttapam (rice-flour pancakes)
It was the southern Indians who first popularised this simple dish. As with pancakes, half the fun is in experimenting with your own toppings.
200g/7oz packet of dosa pancake mix (available from Asian shops)
a little vegetable or corn oil
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1/3 red pepper, finely diced
1/3 yellow pepper, finely diced
1 tomato, skinned, deseeded and finely diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander
Serve with sambhar
Make up the dosa mix according to the instructions on the packet. Spread a little oil over a large, heavy-based frying pan or a flat griddle and place over a medium heat. Pour 2-3 tablespoons of the batter into the centre of the pan and, using the back of the ladle, spread it out quickly with an outward, circular motion to form a pancake about 10cm (4 inches) in diameter.
Dot the edges of the pancake with a little oil and sprinkle with some of the chopped vegetables and coriander to form a colourful topping.
Cook over a low heat for about 4 minutes, until golden underneath. Turn over and cook the other side for another 3-4 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter to make 8 pancakes altogether.
Serve with sambhar.
Sambhar (South Indian lentil broth)
This broth makes a hot, slightly sour accompaniment to the otherwise dry and slightly bland dosa-based breakfast dishes. It has the consistency of a medium-thick soup and can be just as successfully served on its own with plain bread.
150g/5oz/7/8 cup toor dal (yellow lentils)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vegetable or corn oil
1 sprig of fresh curry leaves
1 red onion, sliced
10 small shallots, roughly chopped
50g/2oz/1/4 cup green beans, cut into 2.5cm/1 inch lengths
2 carrots, cut into 2.5cm/1 inch chunks
2 baby aubergines, quartered (otherwise use ordinary aubergines)
2 tablespoons sambhar masala spice blend
3 tablespoons tamarind paste
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable or corn oil
1 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 dried red chilli
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida
1 sprig of fresh curry leaves
Wash the lentils in cold running water, then leave to soak for 15 minutes. Drain well and put them in a heavy based pan with 600ml/ 1 pint/2.5 cups of water. Bring to the boil, skim off any scum from the surface, then add the turmeric and half the salt and simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a separate pan, add the curry leaves and onion and sauté until the onion is soft. Add the shallots, green beans, carrots and aubergine and sauté for 5 minutes.
Now add the sambhar masala, tamarind and chilli powder and cook for another 5 minutes. Add this mixture to the simmering lentils, adding a little water if the mixture is too thick. Simmer until the vegetables are soft, then add the sugar and remaining salt.
To temper the mixture, heat the oil in a small pan and add mustard seeds. When they crackle, add the dried chilli, asafoetida and curry leaves, give them a stir and pour the mixture over the broth. Mix well and serve.
Recipe by Vivek Singh, executive chef and CEO, Cinnamon Club