x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Breakfast is a lifelong learning curve

It takes years to master the art of starting the day right but you can gather some interesting memories along the way.

A friend with good intentions once invited me to take part in her morning aerobic Nia class. "I think you could benefit from a little morning exercise to jump-start your day," she wrote.

I was open to the idea until I made the mistake of doing a YouTube search on the dance form, which led me to a scary - and scarring - video. Men of Nia was a montage of three of my least favourite things: technofunk, barefoot strangers and touchy-feely phrases such as: "Touch the earth with your feet, the feet: the hands that touch the earth!"

If there was a reason for my morning time inertia, I suspect it had less to do with a lazy spirit than a dysfunctional relationship with breakfast.

Some romanticise the act of eating in bed, which I'm convinced works better in theory than in practice. The lucky few can luxuriate over The New York Times in a bathrobe, or dreamily come to life over tea and toast in little sunlit breakfast nooks. Many of us gulp down tepid coffee or slosh it into a travel mug while rushing out the door. Some of us eat in the car, spilling crumbs on our suits. The worst degenerates, like me, are often tempted to skip breakfast entirely.

I am not proud of this proclivity, and I certainly don't recommend it. It's a rare day that I feel any appetite in the morning.

During Ramadan, the formula for suhoor is viewed by some Muslims as optional, and by others as a vital part of the discipline and intention that defines the fast. I'm a fan of using discretion to make one's choices for oneself, but doing so requires familiarity and honesty with one's mental and physical stamina, and its limitations.

Breakfast is part sustenance, part ritual, and wholly necessary for most people. We've been referring to breakfast as the most important meal of the day for decades. Studies have shown that people who skip breakfast are far more likely to have problems with concentration and metabolism; I have a friend who spent his life assuming he was merely cranky in the mornings until he began eating breakfast. Turns out his irritability and low energy levels were symptomatic of hypoglycaemia.

I once read somewhere about an innovative tradition instilled by the chef Mario Batali in his home kitchen. He had created a limited breakfast menu called the Batali Boys' Breakfast Book, from which Batali's young sons were allowed to order whatever they liked. It seemed like a brilliant way to enliven family mornings while offering the children a sense of choice, within reason, when it came to how to start their days.

While breakfast is not an à la carte dining experience in ordinary households, people tend to form routines, especially early in the day when a structured timeline is typically at its most crucial. In our home, breakfast had a relaxed do-it-yourself pace to it based on necessity alone; we were radically different eaters, and we had two working parents who passed on the values of autonomy, independence, and above all, speed. While my sisters scooped up labneh with pieces of Arabic bread, I'd filch the last of the coffee my father had brewed, then quickly assemble a turkey sandwich to eat later, after my breakfast-fearing stomach had settled somewhat. I'd eat the sandwich during midmorning break at school, at around 10:30.

For as long as I can remember, I've preferred to wait for breakfast. By high school, I was aware that an empty stomach was a more effective delivery system for the caffeine I loved, and I got used to arriving at school with the jitters.

Eventually, I began to worry that my poor choices would catch up with me. In graduate school, my classmates raved about how energised they felt after a breakfast of congee (rice porridge). I decided it was time to grow up and start eating better, so I tried my hand at oatmeal in the mornings, toasting the raw oats in a hot pan and soaking them overnight in filtered water, then cooking them slowly in the morning with butter, tea-poached apricots, maple syrup and pecans. Tired and ravenous an hour later, I gave up porridge and began having just a handful of nuts for breakfast, finding that the protein did me better without the albatross of oats.

The most convenient breakfasts are nirvana for carb-loaders: bagels, pancakes, muffins, waffles, cereal, granola, muesli, oats, hash browns, croissants, doughnuts, coffee cake, toast, fruit. The breakfast chain IHOP is known for pancakes and omelettes to which it advertises adding pancake batter. Advertisements on American television consistently display huge bowls of fortified breakfast cereal as "part of a complete breakfast" that includes fortified milk, fortified orange juice and buttered toast made with fortified bread.

One classmate made congee look passé by bringing in delicious-smelling dinner leftovers for her breakfast: risotto with pesto, roasted chicken, hot soups in a vacuum flask. She inspired me to ignore traditional ideas about appropriate breakfast foods and to begin exploring what worked best for me. Because of her, I began making protein-heavy breakfasts like foul medames (fava beans), and taking it to school with me so that I wouldn't feel forced to wolf it down before heading out. I'd make quinoa salads, carrots and hummus, tofu scrambles; anything that was high in protein, easy to transport, tasty and safe at room temperature.

September in New Mexico means the air is filled with the scent of roasting chillies and burning juniper. Nowadays, my favoured breakfast is huevos rancheros with red chilli and turkey sausage, and I usually skip the corn tortillas that come on the side. Instead, I bring them home so I can make tacos for lunch.