Recently, I penned an intimate love letter to Chinese dumplings. Boiled, steamed, or fried, these tasty little morsels are without a doubt my favorite thing about going out to eat in China. It’s not all smiles at a Chinese dinner table, though, so today we must tell the other side of the story.
Binge Drinking at Dinner
Unfortunately for men, a big part of dining out in China is the heavy drinking that comes along with it (ladies are spared). And it’s not just beer (啤酒 – pí jiǔ) that we’re talking about. Hell, it’s not even red wine (红葡萄酒 – hóng pú táo jiǔ) or whiskey (威士忌酒 – wēi shì jì jiǔ). If it were any of the above, this American with plenty of Russian and Irish blood flowing through him would have no problems tipping back a glass or ten at the dinner table with his Chinese dudes (哥们儿 – gē men er). In China, you do things the Chinese way, and that means drinking glass upon glass of baijiu (白酒 – bái jiǔ).
“White Wine”… LOL
Often translated incorrectly by Chinese people as “white wine,” this stuff is far from it – no grapes are harmed in the making of baijiu. A far cry from its East Asian counterparts – Japanese sake and Korean soju – baijiu is in fact a very strong spirit distilled from sorghum, usually in the 40-60% alcohol range. A wine it is not. A closer, more accurate comparison would be vodka, but I’d hate to insult that fine beverage from my Russian ancestors.
After years of living in China and countless experiences drinking the stuff, I feel that baijiu is best described as rocket fuel. In fact, I’m not sure what the whole hoopla is with alternative energy these days – just dump a bottle of baijiu into your car and it’ll probably go. This stuff packs a punch, both with the smell and the taste. Think Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman” smelling the Sex Panther cologne – “It’s a formidable scent… It stings the nostrils.”
For folks used to throwing back shots at the bar, a little glass of baijiu may not seem like much. Upon drinking it for the first time, however, many will likely compare it as a “mix between cheap perfume and cleaning agents.” Thanks for that one, CNN (click here for the full article about the white stuff). It’s a deep burn all the way down, and it doesn’t stop there – the baijiu aftertaste lingers with you for quite some time, and it’s not pleasant.
Straight, No Chaser
The way to drink baijiu is straight, no chaser, in a small glass. It is served at room temperature, and don’t expect any ice cubes or mixers to accompany it. Get ready for countless calls of “Bottoms up!” (干杯 – gān bēi), and a seemingly bottomless glass of the stuff. If you’re not around Chinese people, feel free to experiment with baijiu drinking, but don’t expect any great results. We’ve tried chasing and mixing it with just about everything under the sun, but that strong, distinctive baijiu taste always rises to the top.
A short dialogue in Chinese about drinking bai jiu. Good for listening practice.
Show Me Your “Baijiu Face”
Whenever friends visit China or I head back to the US, I make sure a bottle of baijiu is around. Watching someone drink the stuff for the first time is one of my favorite things to do in the world, and I always make sure to have my camera ready to capture the always-hilarious “bai jiu face.” See for yourself…
300 Shots in A Year
American writer Derek Sandhaus recently published a book titled “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.” After extensive “research,” he finally developed a taste for the Chinese rocket fuel. You can read an interesting interview with the author here. Admittedly, I probably haven’t given baijiu a fair chance, but I’m not sure I would survive a year in which I drank hundreds of shots of the stuff. With a crackdown on lavish Chinese banquets and gift-giving amongst officials, baijiu makers are looking to make more sales overseas. We’ll see if the Western palate can ever gain an appreciation of baijiu. As for me, I’ll stick with my beer and vodka, thank you very much.
Bloomberg News talks with the author and tries out some baijiu.
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