The Drinking Customs in China vs. America
If authentic indigenous food is an introductory course leading people to a new culture, then their drinking customs should be a far advanced one.
Thanks to the Himalayas, the drinking culture exchanges between China and the West, among all others, have been blocked for thousands of years. Even today one can’t find Chinese baijiu or white liquor anywhere in American stores. Therefore, the code of appreciating baijiu, dietetically and culturally, by American people remains to be cracked. As a baijiu and wine aficionado, I believe both American and Chinese people can understand—and even learn to savor—each other’s rich drinking customs alongside their own.
Baijiu, a Chinese alcoholic beverage made from grains is generally between 50% and 60% ABV. Historically, people have traced its roots going back as deep as China’s civilization. Differences in ABV aside, baijiu and wine have a lot in common. You always drink it with food, mostly at dinner time.
When I was a schoolboy living in Northern China, my aha moment for baijiu started with my father’s daily ritual. He put a small baijiu pot in a hot water jar to warm it up before supper. The distinctive, baffling aromas filled the room instantly, drawing me out from another room like ringing a bell. Often times, my father would let me sip a little and I enjoyed it tremendously. Baijiu is opulent, potent, and fiery passing down the throat. Its finish creates instant warmth throughout the body.
Like wine, baijiu has many different brands, flavors, and produced in various parts of China. Their prices range from around $10 to above $100 for a 500ml bottle. But unlike wine, it pairs with any food impeccably well, even a plate of roasted peanuts. It produces the same ecstatic effect on discerning palates.
To embark on this baijiu exploration without paying top dollars for a quality bottle, you could start with reputable baijiu makers for their lower-priced kinds. Among many of them, Luzhou Laojiao could be the one to try first. The company has 400 years history making the same style of baijiu and won numerous awards for its high quality consistently throughout. It’s located in Luzhou town, Szechuan province. If you like Szechuan food, the chances are you would like this beverage as well. Its distinctive aromatic hint with a spicy touch.
From its wide price-range selections, a bottle that costs between $20 and $40 would be good enough to start.
Baijiu can work its magic, more so with a hot and meaty meal in a cold, dreary day. Warming up baijiu pot slightly before serving it would make it serener when touching the tongue, but producing clean, vibrant and mesmerizing aftertaste. Another deciding element, my favorite, is whom you drink it with.
For the pioneers who like to sample the old-time charm off the beaten path, one could find it near Mt Qingcheng. It is 40 miles south of Chengdu, Szechuan and takes about a one-hour drive. Getting off the gleaming highway from the modern megacity, the village town is too surreal to absorb all at once. Almost completely frozen in time, this place remains the same for hundreds of years. The merchants sell self-made baijiu by the ounces from the barrel priced at $1.00 per kilo. Fresh pork cuts from the family raised pigs hanging along the walkway for any way you want. A dinner for four in a farm-eatery includes a chicken running in the backyard right before you order, freshly picked veggies and, of course, a pot of home-made baijiu. Total cost is less than $20.00.
Baijiu and its drinking customs in China carry much emphasis on its social functions. A well-selected bottle for the dinner with the locals would be indicative how well the day has been going on—business or leisure. Being fully in the spirit would be a way of bringing out candidness and camaraderie in the air.
The rules are tacit at formal occasions. The host usually raises the glass first, and guests follow in raising their glasses but to a slightly lower level when clinking glasses with the host (or someone with more respectable social status). If the host drinks half a glass or bottoms up, the guests will follow suit.
If you want to make a toast, and say “Ganbei” as “Cheers” in Chinese, it straightforwardly means “bottom up”. Some local people may take it that way, so be prepared for that.
Indisputably, the most renowned brand of baijiu in China is Moutai. Mao Zedong served Mautai at state dinners during Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in the early 70’s. It was irrefutably the historical ice-breaking event between the two nations. Henry Kissinger once commented to Deng Xiaoping, who opened up China to the West in the early 80’s, “If we drink enough Moutai, we can solve anything.”
Getting to know a new drinking customs can be an enlightening cultural expedition. It could even mean world peace if enough people do that.