Archive for December, 2006

Frozen Surf: a drink for a Scandinavian Christmas

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

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A couple of nights ago I dropped into the recently opened Henry’s Brewpub in Shanghai. The beer there is US style. It is nothing like the English beer brewed at Galbraiths in Auckland, but it isn’t too bad. The prices are also reasonable, only 30 RMB a glass, compared to at least twice that for the Bavarian wheat beers at the Shanghai Paulaner. (more…)

Crabs, Chinese wine, and a KTV toilet

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit Yang Chen Lake to try the famous crabs. Yang Chen Lake is located near Kunshan, halfway between Shanghai and Suzhou. The crabs from this lake sell for fantastic prices in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The high prices create an incentive to pass off product from other lakes as Yang Chen crabs and in response the local crab farmers association introduced a system of tagging individual crabs. Before long people were faking the tags and everyone was back to where they started.

My ex-flatmate from Taiwan was on a business trip in Kunshan, so on Sunday morning I hopped on the train to Suzhou to pay him a visit and enjoy the crabs at source. Rather than joining the huge ticket queue inside the station I found the little kiosk selling platform tickets and bought one of those for 1 RMB. Once you have a platform ticket you just need to find your train, jump on, and hope there will be a free seat. Eventually the conductor will find you and sell you a real ticket. If you are unlucky you can end up without a seat but for short distances it doesn’t really matter. Queuing in the station for half an hour to make sure you have a seat on a half hour train ride makes no sense.

I arrived in Kunshan after half an hour or so and took a motorcycle taxi to my friend’s hotel. There were no ordinary taxis available. It is a little weird to be deposited off the back of an old motorcycle outside a hotel and then have liveried doormen open the door for you, but not in a bad way.

I had a quick minibar beer with my friend, A-Guo. The cheerful cleaning lady who pointed me to the room had enthusiastically gushed that on such a clear day I’d be able to enjoy some fine views from the 20th floor. While A-Guo used the bathroom I stood at the window and took a couple of moments to appreciate the grey apartment blocks, grey sky, and grey canals of Kunshan. I was strangely reminded of Chinese ink landscapes on paper scrolls. A semi-demolished sports ground directly below provided a splash of color, though the debris strewn grass suggested a future more in keeping with its grey surrounds. As I surveyed the scene I thought back to the cleaning lady and had the sense that I was missing something. Perhaps you really need to be Chinese to get the beauty of such a scene.

We headed downstairs and jumped in a taxi, a real one this time, to go and try the crabs at Yang Chen Lake. While the Yang Chen lake crabs (also known as hairy crabs) are a famous delicacy in China, personally I don’t rate them that highly. The flesh is sweeter than most crabs, but they are also smaller and more fiddly. The flavor doesn’t seem special enough to justify the hassle and I’d just as soon eat a larger sea crab. I also imagine that sea crabs live in cleaner water than the Yang Chen lake. Kunshan is a massive industrial area and while the lake is some distance from the factories you have to wonder how clean the water is. I’ve heard rumors that crab prices follow the movements of heavy metals futures. Actually I made that rumor up myself just now, but I think it’s a fine one and worth repeating.

Near the edge of the lake you reach a big strip of crab restaurants. They all have unimaginative names like ‘Crab King’, ‘Golden Crab’ etc. As we walked along the strip I thought of my own name for a crab restaurant – 蟹谢你*.

The restaurants all back on to the lake, so you get to investigate the crab holding pens and choose your crabs before deciding where to eat. After wandering up and down the strip we selected a restaurant with healthy looking crabs. Not being experts on crab health our choice was completely arbitrary.


The idea is that each diner eats both a male and a female crab. I can’t taste any big difference between the two, but the male is bigger than the female (or possibly it is the other way around). You dip the crab in sweet vinegar flavored with ginger, and accompany the meal with warm Shaoxing wine. Shaoxing wine is a rice wine made a few hours away in the small city of Shaoxing. You can drink the wine straight, but people tend to infuse it with a little ginger and sour plum. We drank a ten year old bottle; it was decent but not exactly Lagavullin.

The lunch was good. I thought the simple and cheap chicken marinated in Shaoxing wine and sesame oil was tastier than the expensive and potentially radioactive crabs. The crabs were good though, and much cheaper out at the lake than they would have been in Shanghai.

By the time we finished lunch it was close to dusk so we just took a quick walk around the lake and headed back to Kunshan. We were going to take a bus back into town but a guy in a van picked us up at a discount to the standard taxi fare. Back in Kunshan we checked out a couple of little bars but found them extremely dead. A-Guo then decided we should go for KTV since his company was entertaining a group of local suppliers. KTV is not really my thing, especially KTV for business people, but once in a while it can be OK so off we went.

If you go to KTV with a group of friends you sit in a private room with a TV and sound system and sing songs. There generally is not a lot of drinking because everyone is having too much fun fighting over the mike to bother with finishing their drinks. If you are a foreigner people will expect you to sing the lamest songs from the English song list. You inevitably have a mike shoved in your face as The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More starts up. Chinese people are socially and culturally clued up enough to realize that all foreigners love singing Yesterday Once More – “especially the part where he’s breaking her heart” and then there is that other good bit that goes “shing a ling a ling”.


KTV for business people is slightly different. You sit in the same private room but the group is normally male only, and each member of the group is supposed to have a hostess sit with them and chat. The hostesses make sure your party spends lots of money on alcohol by playing drinking games. If necessary the hostesses also help individual group members stay sober by drinking their share of the booze when they lose in the drinking games. The whole set up with the hostesses is thus a little weird. The hostesses will compete against the guy she is sitting with and challenge him to drinking games, but when her guy gets involved in a drinking game with another guy or another hostess, she will step in and help him out by drinking his share. So your hostess is highly dangerous but simultaneously your guardian angel. Most of the hostesses will also come home with you at the end of the night if you want them to, though this varies according to the individual. Obviously there is singing as well, but since the hostesses are keeping everyone busy drinking nobody has much time to fight over the mike.

A-Guo and myself arrived later than everyone else, at about 9pm or so. KTV usually starts at around 7.30pm and the real aficionados get there very early to pick the best looking hostesses. We sat down, a group of about eight hostesses were sent in, and A-Guo sentthe first group away. Sending the first group away seems to be a bit of a ritual. The customers get to look discriminating and the shop gets to look like it has a ton of hostesses on hand. Everyone gets to looks good,  the hostesses. A second group came in and after A-guo picked one from that group I did the same.

A KTV joint usually aims to have more hostesses than there are customers on any given night. The hostesses pay a small stipend to come in to work each day. If they don’t get chosen then they not only don’t get paid but are out of pocket for the night. Provided they get regular business though the money is very good compared to what they would get elsewhere. Most of the girls are pretty but uneducated and would otherwise be working in a factory or a small shop earning maybe RMB1000-1500 per month. In KTV they can earn RMB200 a night simply to drink with customers, and maybe four times or more if they go home with them. It is lucrative and easy work for the attractive and personable. For the less naturally gifted the KTV can be a viciously competitive and unfair workplace. Obviously a lot of the girls end up hating each other, and after a few drinks you might get to listen to a convoluted tale about why Brilliant Jade from Anhui is a certifiable bitch.

The girl sitting with me, Yawen, was from some town I’d never heard of in Jiangsu. She had come to Kunshan to work in an electronics factory, left the factory to work in a small fashion boutique, and then left the boutique to work in a KTV and save money to open her own boutique. She was nice but had few topics of conversation besides money – natural enough when you are short of it, but awfully boring to listen to.

We played some drinking games, mainly 猜拳 (or ‘guess fists’), which involves two people simultaneously flashing their hands at each other and guessing the total number of fingers extended. The loser has to drink. I’m very bad at it because I never play, while Yawen was very good because she plays every night. Naturally I ended up drinking a fair bit. Luckily the booze was mixed quite weak.

In KTV you usually drink Chinese wine, or 白酒(baijiu), which is a clear spirit. Baijiu is usually distilled from grain, typically sorghum, but can be made of almost anything. Baijiu is something like a very fragrant vodka, and not necessarily fragrant in a good way. The flavor can include some bizarre esters. In KTV people often pour the baijiu into jugs packed with ice cubes, stir to chill it and let the ice melt a bit, then decant it into small pouring jugs. I have no idea why this has become the practice in KTVs and nightclubs. You never see people drinking baijiu this way in restaurants. I think the custom is a vague take on the cocktail (sometimes they add lemon wedges, wasabi nuts, tea or other flavorings), and has taken off in KTVs, bars and nightclubs because Chinese see these venues as ‘westernized’ (to westerners of course they are very foreign), and hence appropriate locations for a mixed drink. In contrast, restaurants are seen as more traditional and Chinese venues. Thus in restaurants people drink baijiu straight, possibly warming the bottle in a bowl of water during the winter.

Later we played a very dangerous dice game with hazy rules in which the loser was going to have to drink a largish jug of baijiu. I was within one dice throw of being the fall guy but saved myself with a triple six on my last throw. I think a double six would have been enough to save me, but regardless everyone was very impressed. My hostess asked for my phone number after seeing my dice throwing skills. Seeing the number of sixes people were throwing though I had to wonder whether or not the dice were weighted. I’m sure they were, and I guess lots of sixes makes the evening exciting.

The group I was with was mixed Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese. Overall the Taiwanese were reasonably restrained with the hostesses, while the mainlanders were getting involved in some heavy duty groping and pawing. One of the Mainland guys came over to my side of the room and challenged me to drink. I joined him in a glass. As I put my glass down he grabbed my hand and sort of forced it onto my hostess’s tit. Needless to say she absolutely loved this. I’m not sure what he was thinking. Maybe he had seen lots of western porn movies and expected more enthusiasm from me? I apologized to the hostess while continuing to drink with the guy. He calmed down a little but then began asking for my number, saying we would go out together in Shanghai and he would pay for everything (“何先生! 我埋单. 我埋单…”). I gave him the number hoping he would go away. He was plastered and drinking far too fast. I drank a glass or two more with him, then let my hostess keep him company for another glass or so. He just wouldn’t stop drinking though.


I decided to pop off to the toilet, partly because I needed to take a pee and partly in an attempt to lose this idiot. I didn’t bank on him jumping up and following me into the toilet. So I unexpectedly found myself in the toilet with a drunken moron. He was grabbing me by the shoulder still talking about how we would go drinking together in Shanghai and he would pay for everything, while checking and rechecking that my phone number was correct.

This was all getting very tiresome, but more disconcertingly I was wondering what the hell he was doing in the toilet with me. A room in an upscale KTV joint usually has its own toilet, accessed through a door inside the room. This means that you don’t need to go out into the corridor to get to a toilet, and also that everyone in your group knows who is in the toilet, with who, and for how long. Besides being annoying the situation was thus getting embarrassing. First I act less than enthusiastic about groping a strange woman’s tit, then seconds later I disappear into the toilet with another man. If I didn’t get him out of the toilet fast everyone was going to assume we were enjoying a booze fueled quickie. Now some people can probably adopt a relaxed attitude to all of this, maybe thinking “So we had knocked back a few drinks and were feeling pretty loose. Hell, who hasn’t had a homosexual experience?” I admire this attitude. Admiration is precisely where I draw the line though, and at the end of the day I leave this attitude to others.

I needed to get him out of the toilet and fast. I tried vainly to end the conversation. It didn’t matter that I called his mobile to demonstrate that the number I had given him was in fact correct, he simply refused to shut up and leave the toilet, and kept grabbing my arm and talking about going drinking. So what did he want? Was he in fact gay? There was only one way to find out. Groping for some clarity I reached into my pants.

He fled.

Ahh! A heterosexual!

I heaved a sigh of relief and used the facilities in peace.

When I walked back out he was no longer sitting beside my seat and had moved back to the other side of the room. The unsophisticated approach to resolving awkward social situations is underrated.

The rest of the evening was uneventful enough. At around midnight the hostesses all disappeared, changed out of their uniforms, and returned in normal clothes, giving the signal that it was time to go. We paid up and left, some alone and some with their ‘girlfriend’. To keep the crab theme going we went to a restaurant for crab flavored rice porridge.

The crab porridge restaurant was Taiwanese style and it was interesting to see that most of the KTV girls, who came from all over China (Sichuan, Dongbei, Shanxi, etc.), knew how to make Taiwanese style tea (also known as Minnan style tea or Gongfu Tea). There was a tea set sitting on the table and they immediately got to work with it. The Minnan style of tea-drinking is very specific and forms the basis for the Japanese tea ceremony. The tea is very potent and served in tiny cups, making it tea’s answer to espresso. The etiquette for brewing the tea is fairly relaxed, unlike the complicated Japanese tea ceremony, but it still isn’t something most young Chinese women seem to know how to do. Outside of Taiwan, Fujian, and parts of Guangdong, where everyone makes tea this way, Minnan tea drinking is more a hobby for retirees. Obviously the KTV had lots of Taiwanese customers, which with Kunshan being full of Taiwanese was no surprise.

After the crab porridge I found a taxi and headed back to Shanghai, finally getting home around 4am or so after the driver got lost crossing Shanghai. For some reason the driver spoke Mandarin with me and Kunshan dialect with everyone he stopped to ask directions from in Shanghai. The problem was that nobody in Shanghai could understand his Kunshan dialect and I ended up ‘translating’ into Mandarin for him. It was odd.  He spoke perfectly fine Mandarin, so the back and forth was all very unnecessary.

* ‘Crab’ in Mandarin is pronunced ‘xie’ in a rising tone, while ‘thank you’ is pronounced ‘xie’ in a falling tone. So ‘蟹谢你‘ would mean either ‘the crab thanks you’, or maybe ‘thank you crab’, but would sound very similar to a simple ‘thank you’ (谢谢你). It is a little laborious to explain but kind of clever.

The Sleigh Flip: or Santa may not make it. . .

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

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The theme for this week’s Mixology Monday (hosted at Spirit World) is Drinks for a Festive Occasion. I was a little stumped about what to contribute. I had been thinking about something using my homemade Pimento Dram, the Jamaican allspice liqueur. Allspice evokes the holiday season more than most tastes do. I am not entirely happy with how my Pimento Dram has turned out though. The only over-proof rum I could find was Bacardi 151 which may be the reason my Pimento Dram is a little harsh, and the allspice taste is more ‘hot’ than fragrant. However, rough Pimento Dram is better than none.

I was still thinking along the lines of Pimento Dram when I wandered down to the supermarket looking for some cider. The plan was to do mulled cider with a shot of Pimento dram in it. It turned out the supermarket no longer stocked cider, but they did have something unexpected and even more seasonal – Samichlaus Bier from Austria.

Samichlaus Bier (Santa Claus Beer) bills itself as the strongest lager beer in the world. For a while it was the strongest beer in the world but with all the microbreweries opening up in the U.S. over the last decade some U.S. brewery now claims that title. Samichlaus Bier is brewed each year at Christmas and released in time for the following Christmas, meaning it counts as an aged beer. The beer itself is a deep copper color, with a sweet and winey taste, relatively little bitterness, and a staggering 14% alcohol by volume. It used to be made in Switzerland, but now seems to be from Austria.

I don’t know how easy this beer is to buy internationally, but must be widely distributed if it has turned up in Shanghai. It used to appear in New Zealand each year before Christmas. I remember one year walking into a wine shop and being surprised to find the stuff. The woman who owned the shop waxed lyrical about how fantastic it was and I bought a couple of bottles. A year later I happened to walk past the same shop and saw the same beer, now at a give away price, complete with a sign reading “The most revolting beer in the world! Please help us get rid of it!” I think I bought a case.

The Austrian version seems to have less character than the original Swiss version but is still a pleasant beer. It is a bit sweet and you wouldn’t want to drink it too often, but it is definitely not revolting. I thought it would be fun to use Samichlaus Bier to make an ale flip.

A flip is a very old fashioned winter drink that simply involves mixing hot alcohol, an egg, sugar, and maybe something spicy. A Samichlaus Bier flip seemed perfect for the holiday season, and since a flip is vaguely punch-like you could mix this stuff up in a large batch to serve a crowd. Note that I’m not suggesting in any way that this would be a good idea and obviously you should check the details of your home and contents insurance policy first. Alternatively just serve it at a friend’s house and observe the fun.

The recipe. . .

Sleigh Flip (or Santa May Not Make It)

250ml Samichlaus Bier

1 egg

30ml St. James amber rum

2 teaspoons Pimento Dram

4 dashes Angostura Bitters

2 dashes orange bitters

1 teaspoon dark muscovado sugar

If the egg is from the fridge, first warm it in a bowl of hot water to bring it to room temperature or thereabouts. Warm the beer on the stove or in the microwave to just below boiling point. Be careful not to actually let it boil, since it will likely foam up and spill everywhere. In a warm bowl (the bowl you just warmed the egg in would be easiest) beat the egg with the rum, Pimento Dram, bitters and sugar until slightly frothy. Add the warm beer and beat together. Pour into a mug and serve.

This doesn’t have to be made with Samichlaus beer. Any reasonably full bodied beer would work nicely. Samichlaus is a lager but generally ales would work better. Samichlaus works well because it is an extra strong lager with plenty of flavor. You might want to adjust the ratio of sugar depending on the beer you use. Samichlaus is very sweet so you need no more than a teaspoon – in fact you could probably even dispense with the sugar entirely. A drier beer might demand more sugar.

St. James or some other Martinique rum seems an appropriate spirit addition because it has complex but not too assertive flavors and relatively little sweetness. Whiskey would also be interesting too but may be a little dominant. Brandy would be nice but would be less traditional than rum. Rum was often used in flips when they were still popular (in the 19th century and earlier), perhaps because it was cheaper than brandy or whiskey, and a better fit than gin. I am ready to try most things, but a mug of hot gin, beer and an egg? Hmm. . . maybe after a mug of hot rum, beer and an egg.

 

Benedictine makes a nice substitute for the Pimento Dram, though in this case consider leaving out the bitters and upping the ratio of Benedictine since Benedictine is relatively subtle. If using Benedictine consider substituting honey for the sugar. You could even consider trying Chartreuse. It sounds a little crazy, but why be shy when dealing with half a pint of hot beer and an egg? A drink like this calls for heavy flavors.

Enjoy!

Queue jumpers

Tuesday, December 5th, 2006

What is it with jumping queues in the supermarket in China? And why are middle aged female queue jumpers far and away the most evil?

I headed down to the supermarket to pick up some stuff for dinner, in a good mood because I was making 烧酒鸡 (chicken with rice wine and herbs) using real Taiwanese 米酒 (rice wine) – from the iconic pink bottle.

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The Taiwanese stuff in the supermarket is all on shelves labeled “imported goods – country of origin China” by the way. You have to wonder. If the stuff is really Chinese then why is it in the imported foods section? And if it comes from Taiwan, and if Taiwan is a part of China, then why do they need to plaster ‘China’ all over the shelves? Practically everything in the supermarket is Chinese, but only the Taiwan section gets put on shelves specifically labeled ‘China’. Why is Taiwan getting special treatment?

Also, would it kill them to actually incorporate the word ‘Taiwan’ in there somewhere? They seem desperate to make the point that Taiwan is a part of China, while being allergic to the word ‘Taiwan’ itself. There is something slightly irrational about all this. The word ‘Taiwan’ in itself does not imply that Taiwan is a country. The Chinese themselves refer to ‘Taiwan province’ after all. I’m sure the manager of Carefour could use the word ‘Taiwan’ in his imported foods section without being trucked out to Xinjiang and shot – and if somebody really does have to be shot I’m sure the manager could arrange for it to be one of the shelf stackers.

While probably isn’t worth anybody getting shot over, it would be nice to be able to buy Taiwanese produce from a shelf that said ‘Taiwan’ somewhere. Or if the Taiwanese shelf has to say ‘China’, then logically shouldn’t ‘China’ be plastered across every other shelf too? At least we would get some consistency.

Anyway, I get to the checkout with my bottle of Taiwanese rice wine from China, or if you prefer Chinese rice wine from Taiwan, or PRC rice wine manufactured under the illegal supervision of the bandit government of the ROC on Taiwan but in China, or however you want to phrase it. As I’m queuing I inadvertently let a foot or so of free space open up between me and the woman in front, and into the gap slipped a middle aged dragon.

I really can’t be arsed accusing her of jumping the queue and listening to the inevitable denial. For some reason Chinese women of middle age and above usually deny having jumped a queue, while men usually apologize. Anyway, rather than talking I just tap her on the shoulder and indicate with my thumb that she should be behind me. Incredibly she says that she is queuing and asks what I want. Well fuck me sideways with a chainsaw. . .

I ask her what she thought I was doing standing in a queue if I wasn’t queuing? Did she think I was waiting for spring to arrive? Another denial, and she adds that me having a big nose (i.e. being a foreigner) doesn’t give me any right to tell her what to do. That remark pissed me off no end. Why do Chinese introduce some racial or international dimension to every minor dispute with a foreigner?

Things were soon deteriorating badly. Before long people were turning round to watch and she was screaming that I’d assaulted her (the tap on the shoulder), injuring her arm. Unbelievable. Anyway, before the thing was finished I well and truly lost my temper. There was the inevitable (and unfortunate) 干你娘* and it was all downhill from there. There were insinuations that she had learned all about queue-插ing** on her back and was a real 北港香炉*** (a phrase which nobody in Shanghai seems to understand). People were getting out cameras and taking pictures and stuff, so I am probably going to end up on some Chinese hate site with a death threat or something.

After she started screaming assault I suggested we go find a doctor and I cover her (undoubtedly enormous) medical bills. I guess the idea was calling her bluff or whatever. It was a bad idea of course because if we had got as far as the doctor it would likely have ended up with me forking out a few hundred RMB, to say nothing of wasting hours of time. Luckily one of the managers stepped in and defused things a little. Still, I may avoid that supermarket for a few weeks.

The previous week in a different supermarket an elderly man tried the same trick. Admittedly my own approach was slightly different and rather than do the shoulder tap I just asked him where he thought he was going. His own approach was slightly different too though, since had cut in using the non-confrontational ‘I’m a little lost but maybe I’m in the right place’ strategy. Anyway, he politely got back in the queue behind me and before long we were having the friendliest of chats. He checked carefully through my shopping (it was a bit disconcerting to watch him but he’d been so amicable about the queue jumping I felt obliged to let him have a rummage) and told me I shouldn’t be paying extra for skinless chicken thighs when it would be so easy to skin them myself, and that I should really be drinking Chinese wine instead of foreign stuff.

So a potentially heartwarming Shanghai story was derailed at the outset because a middle aged dragon couldn’t admit she was trying to jump a queue, and instead we ended up with a completely disgraceful scene getting recorded on film. It makes you wonder.

At least the chicken turned out pretty well.

* This means “fuck your grandmother”.

** This is a verb meaning ‘to stick (into)’, and happens to be part of the phrase ‘to jump a queue’ in Chinese. Of course since it also applies to other meanings related to ‘stick’ it has potential for impolite double meanings. What I said was she must have learned about 插-ing in a 理发店 (literally a barber’s shop, but the reality is that most of them are brothels).

*** This phrase literally means ‘north harbor incense burner’ and comes from Taiwan. Taiwan has a big temple to the goddess Mazu in a place called North Harbor. The temple is one of the busiest in Taiwan and every day thousands of people stick joss sticks in the incense burner there. Thus the phrase ‘north harbor incense burner’ is less than respectful when applied to a woman in Taiwan because it means that everybody has stuck their joss stick in her. Mainlanders tend not to understand this one though.

A Shanghai thought – or two

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

I have had a bad cold for the past few days. I was walking back home just now after a leisurely dinner with a book. The route home was more interesting than usual.

My dinnertime book was an excellent volume on Xinjiang history. I had got to the last few pages before the restaurant closed and I had to leave. So I was wandering home, unfinished book in hand, my head a dull haze of illness and sympathy for the unfortunate Uighurs.

As I passed the Big Bamboo I noticed a cluster of Chinese laborers working on some carpentry on the pavement. They had taken a break from their work and were pressed up against the glass of the pub watching the goings on inside. On account of the book I was not feeling very sympathetic towards Chinese in general, but still I could not help feeling sorry for this group. These guys who sawed up wood on the pavement in the dead of night, I doubted they had ever paid 40 Renminbi for 500ml of beer. But there they were, pressed up against the invisible glass, gazing into another world, and so far unnoticed by those within. In a moment one of the bar staff would probably appear and tell them to move away. The laborers would then make a self conscious retreat. Maybe later they would celebrate the end of their shift with a convenience store beer drunk on the sidewalk. It was a scene that would have moved Dickens from writers block to his typical verbal diarrhea.

I wandered on my way, suddenly feeling strangely philosophical, though not so philosophical as not to be distracted by the shapely rear of a girl walking her own way home in the distance. I never did get to check out her face though, because a moment later I was to be experience yet another thought-provoking Shanghai moment.

A short distance past the Big Bamboo there is a collection point for food waste. Guys come on bicycles and drop off plastic drums of greasy smelly food scraps, which are then picked up by blue trucks and taken elsewhere. Who knows what these greasy food scraps end up as? Pig feed? Cooking oil? Some questions, like the existence of God and the contents of convenience store BBQ pork buns, are probably best left unanswered.  But I digress. As I approached this smelly and slippery section of the street, a blond western guy (yes, a real foreigner) coming from the opposite direction, slipped head-over-heels in the mess. His out of control leg shot a glorious arc of noxious smelling droplets up into the air, only for them to rain back down on the scene of the accident a second later. I thought he might have broken something but he seemed fine except for some very nasty stains on his clothes. He sprang up off the pavement almost as quickly as he had hit it, cursed a little and went on his way.

So why was this unfortunate guy’s pratfall so thought-provoking? First, lost as I was in philosophical thoughts about the wealth divide in China, his fall reminded me how close foreigners in Shanghai live to the muck of poverty. Relative wealth buys only the most imperfect protection. Putting the idea less philosophically: watch where you are walking, OK? At this point, I made sure to detour round the slick of food scraps. Second, I thought about how the laborers across the road, glued as they were to their cheerfully lit window-frame world of beer and pool, had totally missed the pratfall of the century. The entire entertaining spectacle had occurred behind them. These unfortunate guys, desperately in need of a bit of free entertainment, had completely missed the once in a lifetime sight of a ‘laowai’ (an entertaining species even at their most mundane) giving a regular Buster Keaton display. The pratfall had been the highlight of my day and I consider myself something of a sophisticate. If they had realized what they had missed I’m sure it would have killed them. I felt really sorry for them as I passed the grease patch because I know they don’t get much fun. Having successfully circled the slick of food scraps I was struck by the third thought-provoking part of the whole incident. I suddenly realized that the girl with the attractive rear had totally vanished, making the exciting possibility that her comeliness could extend to her face even more academic than is normal for such things.

I began to feel the weight of my cold. I slogged the rest of the way home, reached my apartment, and took off my shoes. In a gesture the Uighurs may not have approved of I poured myself a whiskey as I settled down to finish my book. Before diving back into the book I paused to give a perfunctory toast to Uighurs, laborers who spy on bar patrons, and foreigners who slip in the street.

The Autumn Frogman

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

This was actually written for November’s Mixology Monday but since I shifted my blog I am reproducing it here.

The topic of this month’s Mixology Monday is bitters. On a recent trip to Cambodia I happened to pick up a bottle of Suze. I had heard of Suze before but never tried it. From what I could make out of the label it seemed to be flavored with Gentian, an ingredient I’d only vaguely heard of before. The shop where I bought it was Phnom Penh’s largest French supermarket so I was fortunate enough to be able to ask a passing French woman what Gentian tasted like. ‘Aniseed’ she said. That didn’t sound entirely right to me since I had a feeling Gentian was something different. However, given that aniseed is such a divisive flavor I figured her description meant Suze had some kind of interesting taste and so I grabbed a bottle.

The French woman clearly was not much of a Suze drinker, or perhaps was as confused about aniseed as I was about gentian. When I finally got the bottle back to Shanghai (along with my other Cambodian finds – St. James rum and Marie Brizard Apry) I tasted no aniseed. I found the Suze rather like Campari, but less intense and without the orange taste. Apparently gentian is some kind of bitter flower. Suze is lighter bodied than Campari, less bitter, a little floral, and apparently has a wine base. I like it.

Suze tastes great with a splash of soda or tonic, but I wanted to find some Suze cocktails. I did a little research but came up with nothing. There were a few cocktail suggestions on the Suze website, but none of them grabbed me. The standard cocktail websites don’t mention it much.

So in honor of the approaching Mixology Monday I did a little experimentation myself. Because of Suze’s similarity to Campari I took the Negroni (a favorite of mine) as my starting point.

I tried mixing 1 part Suze, 1 part gin and 1 part French Vermouth. This was drinkable but I felt it didn’t mesh together well. Perhaps it would work with the proportions changed around – the gin dominates a bit. I thought Suze would go nicely with some fruit, and that some sweetness and acidity might help put the gin in the background, so I tried adding some orange juice. A version with equal parts of Suze, gin, vermouth and orange juice wasn’t too bad, but lacked character.

Another day and another attempt and I came up with something I was happy with. This time I used calvados instead of gin, to produce a fruitier gentler drink that plays off Suze’s relatively mild bitterness. Calvados always reminds me of Autumn and so bringing out the calvados bottle seemed fitting for the season as well. I think this would make a nice aperitif before an autumn meal involving cooked apples – maybe pork with apple, or chicken Normandy?

So the recipe. . .

Autumn Frogman

1 oz Suze

1 oz calvados

1 oz French vermouth

Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Squeeze a twist of lemon peel over the drink to extract the oils, rub the peel around the rim of the glass, and drop into the drink. A dash of orange bitters might also be nice instead of the lemon twist, though I haven’t tried this yet.

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This drink isn’t as bold as the Negroni, but I think Negroni drinkers will appreciate it. Personally I’m very pleased with it. For an aperitif this drink is slightly mellow (something that could probably be changed by upping the ratio of Suze), but the mellowness seems part of the charm. While I would never want to abandon the wonderful Negroni I can see myself substituting the Autumn Frogman occasionally when I feel like something slightly more low key and heart-warming. If you simply happen to want to bring out the Suze this drink is just the thing.

Why is it called an Autumn Frogman? This drink has three French ingredients so the name was always going to refer to France, and who could refer to the French without having a joke at their expense?

I am from New Zealand and in our minds (or is it just in mine?) the French will forever be associated with the bombing of a Greenpeace protest boat, the Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland Harbor. Yes, I know it happened in 1985, but we’re talking about the French here! The Rainbow Warrior was sunk in winter, but I expect the French agents spent the Autumn wet-suited up and training for the mission. The Calvados also matches the Autumn theme. So I present to the world, the Autumn Frogman!

Being an unforgiving person, on a previous occasion I came up with a Rainbow Warrior cocktail, but that will have to wait for another day.

The Bunny Hug

Friday, December 1st, 2006

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It was the craze of the day.

The Bunny Hug (click to listen) was a ragtime dance. It was one of a family of ‘lewd’ animal dances that were originally danced in bars and bordellos and spread from there to the dance halls frequented by the more polite portion of American society. Other such dances included the Grizzly Bear, the Camel Hop and the Turkey Trot. In its day the Bunny Hug was the cutting edge, the latest fad. It was loved and loathed, and swept across America and around the world even as cities passed ordinances banning it. On March 27, 1913, dance hall manager Ed Spence of Grants Pass, Oregon was reported to be “in serious condition from 11 knife wounds as a result of trying to enforce his taboo of the ‘Bunny Hug’, the ‘Turkey Trot’ and like terpsichorean confections.” Forgotten today, the Bunny Hug once stirred passions.

The Bunny Hug was part of the transition from the old to the modern. Like ragtime itself, the Bunny Hug filled an awkward gap between two different ages. Traditionalists abhorred it. Its fashion conscious champions quickly discarded it The craze of the day changed. People hearing the words ‘bunny hug’ are now more likely think of a brand of diapers than anything else.

Fittingly, as the craze of the day the Bunny Hug had its name attached to a cocktail. You can resurrect the Bunny Hug by mixing equal parts whiskey, gin, and pastis, stirring over ice (or shaking) and straining into a cocktail glass. Any type of whiskey is OK, but given the strong flavors at work a blended Scotch probably brings a little more to the drink than a Bourbon does. On the other hand, in America (the place the drink would have been most popular) a rye or bourbon would have been more likely suspects. To be authentic substitute absinthe for the pastis.

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This mixture of whiskey, gin and aniseed probably divides drinkers as much as Bunnyhug dance divided society. Liking pastis is obviously a prerequisite for trying this drink. Even then the drink is raw, unconventional, and not for the faint hearted. Give it a chance though and you will find some interesting layers of taste to reflect upon. Although this looks like a drink dreamed up by someone in a hurry to get drunk and not much caring how they went about it, just possibly this lush had a sense of style? They certainly created something to ponder on. The pastis grabs the foreground, while the gin and whiskey fight an unresolved struggle for second place. The mixture is jarring in the extreme, yet something in the chaos pulls it all together. Another nice thing about this drink is that virtually any bar has the ingredients on hand to make it (an important consideration given China’s sometimes primitive bar culture), and the concoction is robust enough to stand up to a fair bit of mistreatment.  The only way to really destroy it would probably be to light it on fire. It makes a handy drink when in doubt but feeling brave.

In terms of cocktails, the Bunny Hug evokes another age, an age that predates almost everything drinkers now associate with the cocktail. The Bunny Hug predates vermouth atomizers, umbrella garnishes, Oreo cookie rimmed glassware, and snickered requests for Sex on the Beach. It caters to those expecting to be served straight liquor and not much else. Challenging and roughly stylish, it combines the fire of whiskey, the abandonment of gin and the divisive funkiness of pastis.

The same cocktail is now probably better known, in so far as it is known at all, as the Earthquake. Possibly someone recognized the problem with walking into a bar and requesting an extra large Bunny Hug? The name Earthquake is less evocative though. The Earthquake a potent concoction to be downed with lots of bravado and little thought. The Bunny Hug suggests something that to be savored, if only during a quick break from the dance floor.

This site is dedicated to the spirit of the Bunny Hug. Dubious it may be, but did it deserve to be quite so forgotten?

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