Archive for the ‘beer’ Category

Dominican Republic Beer Comparison

Monday, September 29th, 2008

 

 

The world of Dominican Beer is far from exciting. If the New World had only been discovered by Belgians things could have been so different. Still, meager as the offerings are, it seems a shame to leave the Dominican Republic without giving them a brief nod. Latin culture is formal like that, and so I should at least say something.

I somehow managed to lose half my photos of Dominican Republic beer bottles.  I’m not sure how that happened.  Anyway, sadly there is no picture of the rather cool Bohemia bottle.

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Frozen Beer Experiences!

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

I had an unusual beer experience today.

The beer I ordered with dinner poured into the glass with a slushy sorbet consistency.  Very weird.  The beer flowed out of the bottle no problem, and none of what remained in the bottle after I poured was frozen.  The beer itself seemed perfectly normal.  I think what was happening was that the beer was only just above freezing, and the chilled, thick-bottomed mug I was pouring it into was even colder.  The temperature differential between the two meant the beer froze into a foamy slush when it touched the mug.  Or maybe not.  Anyone got a better explanation?

Anyway it was quite disconcerting.  At first I thought the restaurant had developed a trick for deliberately achieving this amazing effect.  Then I remembered the waiter looked as surprised as me to see a beer sorbet on my table.  Perhaps it was just a fluke.  Or was the waiter surprised at my surprise?

Are there any restaurants or bars that deliberately try to reproduce this effect?  I guess it’s the ultimate in a cold beer.

My only other frozen beer experience (besides the obligatory exploded bottles in the freezer) was on an Eva Airways flight from Taipei to Manila.  I settled in and asked for a beer.  I think it was a Kirin.  When the beer showed up I found it not only refused to pour more than a dribble, but something was rattling around inside the can.  Realizing it had frozen solid I asked the flight attendant for another one.  No need she said.  If I would only wait this one would eventually defrost.  Well at least that sorted out my in-flight entertainment.  Thanks Eva Air!

Pilsner Comparison: Budvar versus Pilsner Urquell

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

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Despite being most popular beer style in the world today, Pilsner is probably not my favorite type of beer. I generally prefer ales to lagers, and I often prefer stronger beers to weaker ones. However, Czech Pilsner is quality stuff. No surprises there since although the world tends to associate Pilsner with the Germans, in fact it was the Czechs who invented the style. (more…)

RIP Michael Jackson

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

I just heard that Michael Jackson died. It seems he died last week of Parkinson’s disease.

Appropriately enough, when I read the news online I was drinking a beer. Not just any beer either. I was drinking a Czech Budvar. I can’t remember exactly where I first learned that American Budweiser was in fact an imitation of a vastly superior Czech beer by the name of Budvar, but given that Michael Jackson was the source of so much of my early beer knowledge, it is safe to assume I read it first in one of Michael Jackson’s books. (more…)

Xinjiang Trip Day 22 (10-4-2007)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

The next day it was another 7am start for the bus to Ruoergai in Sichuan. The road dropped a little in elevation but the altitude remained quite high. Most of the journey was across a grassy and occasionally marshy plateau, dotted with villages and grazing yaks.

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Once again my ten year old guidebook was less than informative. I was told to expect Ruoergai to be a small collection of ugly buildings, including one or two hotels, and inhabited mainly by a dangerous sounding dreadlocked minority called ‘Golocks’ (or something similar), who apparently liked to ride through the town on motorbikes, sporting large knives and threatening tourists. My plan was to make a dash through the gauntlet of knife wielding ‘Golocks’ and head straight to a hotel, probably remaining in my room with the door locked until morning. Of course if things went badly I would probably get surrounded by marauding ‘Golocks’ and be forced to draw my own pair of Uigur knives. I’d definitely end up having to abandon my bags as I fought the Golocks off. With luck I’d probably be able to push one of them off his bike without actually having to kill him, allowing me to steal the bike and escape. The Chinese policemen would be sympathetic about the bike theft but wonder why I was stupid enough to come to Ruoergai given the dangers of the place.

I found that whatever Ruiergai had once been, these days it was a picturesque little town recently rebuilt in a Tibetan style. There were neat rows of buildings painted with Tibetan motifs. The place was once again full of hotels. There were no obvious ‘Golocks’. It was all a bit anticlimactic and I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. There were a lot of policemen cruising the streets for a small town, so maybe the place had a rough history. It was hard to imagine looking at the scene now though.

I checked into a hotel and went for walk around town. The place was a reasonable size, bigger than either Xiahe or Langmusi, but probably smaller than Hezuo. There was nothing too special to see though. I got a haircut and as the stylist cut my hair the Sichuanese boss asked me why America couldn’t be more like China, which apparently throughout history had never attacked another country but only fought wars to defend itself. He had a point about American aggression, but didn’t seem to know much about its Chinese equivalent, and was oblivious to the irony that the U.S. had also justified its Iraq war as a necessary defensive measure in the ‘War on Terror’. He seemed genuinely surprised to hear me say that China must have attacked other countries to have become a nation with such large ethnic minorities living in its extensive border regions (i.e. Uigurs in Xinjiang, and Tibetans in Tibet and the surrounding provinces), but grudgingly conceded that I could have a point.

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I spent the afternoon doing a little work in a Tibetan tea shop and restaurant. I had another opportunity to try Sampa and Momo. This time the Sampa seemed to be the genuine article and the Momo were far tastier than at the previous place in Xiahe, quite delicious in fact. The Sampa was interesting but not something I’m ever likely to find myself craving in future. Besides the hard cheese it was not bad, but the hard cheese was like leather and just too hard to chew. On the other hand the butter tea used to mix the Sampa was better than I expected. Rather than being floating with oil the tea was properly emulsified. It had a sour taste a little like the Uigur milk tea, plus a nutty flavor from cracked grains that were stewed together with the tea. Pretty good stuff.

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I took another wander around town in the evening but once again found nothing much of interest. In a small store I found an interesting bottle of something called ‘Za Jiu’ (å’‚é…’) or ‘Qingke Jiu’ (青稞酒), which looked to be a Tibetan beer. It was grain based but tasted was nothing like beer. It was flat, winey, and somewhere between homebrew gone wrong and a complex sour beer from Belgium. Overall it was probably closer to homebrew gone wrong than anything else, but I bought a second bottle for later anyway. Something about it was oddly like mead, with an almost primeval flavor.  The label claimed a surprising 11% alcohol by volume, which really didn’t come through in the taste. It was produced somewhere down the road in Songpan.

Still drinking the first bottle I wandered into a Tibetan restaurant and asked to see a menu. As the boss explained there was no menu I noticed how absolutely filthy the place and everyone in it was and used the lack of a menu as my excuse to make apologies and leave. I tried a busy little Chinese restaurant instead. There were no free tables but a couple of Tibetan monks invited me to join them. They were impressed to see me drinking the local brew, an attitude which hinted at less than complete devoutness but nevertheless made me well disposed towards them. I ordered some food and we chatted over dinner.

The monks were in their mid-20s but looked much older and had been monks since childhood. They came from a monastery near Langmusi and were passing through town for some reason or another. The younger one was quite well traveled and had been to Lhasa as well as some of the big coastal Chinese cities. He was vegetarian which and his older friend kept teasing him about this – behavior which didn’t seem very monk like. The older one was the more talkative of the pair but said he had never been to a big city, not even to Chengdu or Lanzhou. They talked reverentially about the Dalai Lama, lowering their voices and looking anxiously around as they did so, and expressed the hope that one day he would be return to Tibet. If I knew more about Tibetan Buddhism maybe I could have asked them some interesting questions, but I didn’t get the feeling they were necessarily that spiritual themselves.

They were actually quite funny. The older one told me that his religion meant it was absolutely forbidden for them to ask me if I had one or more girlfriends in China. The younger one leaned forward listening intently. They were clearly desperately interested in this topic! I told them that my last girlfriend had been Japanese but living in Shanghai. They tut-tuted and told me that I really shouldn’t have divulged that information. I told them it was really no problem and asked if there were any more topics we shouldn’t talk about – just in case. The older one said that we probably shouldn’t talk about things like alcohol and cigarettes, but that the most important thing was not to talk about sexual stuff. For example, he definitely shouldn’t ask me if my ex-girlfriend was pretty or not. The younger one leaned across excitedly again. I told them that I thought she was pretty but of course that was just my opinion and they might think differently. They agreed about different people having differences in aesthetic opinion, and mentioned that as Tibetans they found Tibetan girls pretty but that Chinese didn’t. Of course they added that this was all hypothetical and being monks they didn’t personally have any opinions on female beauty. The younger one asked me if I had a photograph of my ex-girlfriend. The older one frowned and scolded him in Tibetan. I didn’t have a photograph to show them in any case so had to apologize. It seemed the conversation had become too risque though so we moved onto other topics. As the restaurant began to empty I told them I’d better be heading back to my hotel and said goodbye. They gave me their phone numbers and told me to give them a call if I visited Langmusi again.

Xinjiang Trip Day 9 (28-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I spent the day doing some work in my hotel room and relaxing. In the afternoon I took a walk around town.

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On my walk I noticed a roadside stall selling some of the first Kvass of the spring and had a glass. It was similar to the factory product but yeastier and less carbonated. Nice stuff.

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Xinjiang Trip Day 8 (27-3-2007)

Monday, April 30th, 2007

The flight to Yili was uneventful. The airport was tiny, something like a toy airport. The taxi driver yet again tried to scam me. The airport seemed to be running a taxi sharing system to I ended up in a taxi that already had two Chinese guys in it. I was the first to get off, and the taxi driver tried to charge me roughly three times what was on the meter, making sure he grabbed my bags and followed me into the hotel foyer so he could do all this out of sight of his other passengers. He got nasty when I told him to get lost, appealing to the hotel staff that this was “the foreigner’s price”. I asked the hotel staff what the situation was at the airport regarding pick-up and drop-off fees and they all stared at their feet and said not a word. I ended up paying him the meter plus a couple of kuai – too much considering there were two other people in the car. At least the hotel he took me to was a good deal though, with fantastic modern rooms for only 120 RMB.

In the afternoon I got on a bus to the small town of Chapucha’er to see the Xibo minority people. The Xibo are descendents of Manchu soldiers sent to guard the north-west frontier during the Qing Dynasty. Remoteness meant that they largely retained their customs and language after Manchus throughout the rest of the country assimilated into Chinese society.

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Chabucha’er was interesting in a low key way, with the road and shop signs all written in Manchurian script (see the the squiggly, vertical script at the top of the sign below). The stores themselves seemed no different to a typical Chinese town though.

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The thing to do in Chabucha’er is visit the Xibo Culture Park, so I took another bus out there. The culture park had an interesting display of information on Xibo culture, but was deserted and empty. There should have been displays of dancing and archery, as well as a restaurant serving Manchurian food (which looked more or less like Dongbei food), but the park employees were all huddling around the heater in the ticket office and the Manchurian restaurant was closed. I stopped by the ticket office on my way out to chat with the staff and some of them changed into costumes to pose for photographs. I asked if there were any Manchurian restaurants I could try back in Chabucha’er, but apparently the only truly unique Manchurian food you can easily find these days is a type of breakfast cake that is not available after the early morning. Despite there not being very much to see it was interesting to listen to the staff speaking Manchurian with one another. I had always assumed Manchurian was more or less a dead language, but it seemed very much alive and was what everybody reverted to when they weren’t speaking with me.

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Back in Chabucha’er itself I wandered around looking for a Manchurian restaurant and taking a few photographs of the Manchurian language signs. After giving up on finding a restaurant I jumped on a bus. As I sat waiting for the bus to leave a Uigur man got on, flashed a badge, said he was a police officer, and asked me to come with him. I didn’t entirely believe him. He was with three other guys and I initially thought it must be some weird scheme to mug me or something. However, when I asked the driver he said plain clothes policemen were common in the area so I followed the policeman off the bus and he led me across the road to where his three friends were waiting.

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The policemen asked me where I was from and why I had been taking photographs. They didn’t seem convinced that I had been taking photographs of Manchurian signage, but relaxed after I flicked back through the photos in my camera to show them I had just come from the Xibo Culture Park. After a few more questions about where I was staying and where I was traveling next they let me back on the bus.

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Back in Yili I found some bottles of factory Kvass in a supermarket and took them back to my room to drink. Kvass is very low alcohol Uigur beer made from grains and honey. It is mainly a summer drink, and apparently during summertime a lot of restaurants sell homemade Kvass. Factory produced Kvass is available all year round though. Even strict Muslims drink Kvass and most people you ask will tell you it has no alcohol. I guess it is related to the other central Asian drinks with similar names, though I think some of these are made from fermented milk. The Kvass had a honey and apples taste. If I hadn’t known what I was I might almost have mistaken it for a sweetish cider.

Wandering around town looking for dinner I came across a line of nicely decorated and clean looking Uigur restaurants overlooking a park. I chose the one with the most customers and went in. I wanted rice pilaf (“shou zhua fan” – 手抓饭) but it was sold out, so I had naan covered in lamb and sauce (‘nang bao rou囊包肉) instead. The quality was excellent. The meat seemed more succulent and the bread had a nicer texture than in Kashgar. I had some milk tea as well, and this time it came with curds floating in it which was a bit of a surprise. It tasted good though, still sour, but milder and with more of a dairy and tea taste than what I had tried in Kashgar.

The waitress came over and started chatting. First she asked where I was from, and then she asked if all New Zealanders drank their milk tea in the evening. After I asked her some more about the tea it turned out it is more of a breakfast thing, so I guess everyone thought I was a bit of a weirdo to have asked for it with my dinner. The conversation moved on to language and cultural stuff, and from there to Uigur independence. She was strongly in support of Uigur independence. She said that the way things were going, within a decade Uigur culture would no longer exist. Apparently during the last couple of years the language of instruction in primary school had been switched to Mandarin from Uigur. I guess that as Han immigrants become more dominant in Xinjiang the education system there is catering increasingly to their needs, with the needs of the original Uigur and other minority inhabitants ignored. Despite her gloomy predictions though I can’t really believe the Uigur language is in any danger of disappearing. It seemed to me that few Uigurs spoke more than basic Chinese. After a while the waitress got called away. The boss didn’t seem to like the conversation we were having. A group of Uigurs at the next table had certainly been listening quite intently, and after my experience on the bus earlier I could see why a person could feel paranoid about eavesdroppers.

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On my way back to the hotel I passed a cheese seller and bought some little dry ewe milk cheeses. Very tasty. The guy told me that they would keep for a year no problems. I carried them with me for snacks on buses etc. over the next few days and found that after about a week in a plastic bag the last couple of cheeses went moldy. The plastic bag may have been the problem since it probably stopped the air from circulating and allowed moisture to build up. They were a pretty dry type of cheese so probably would keep a long time unrefrigerated if you stored them right.

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Qingdao Beer and Confucius

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

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In mid January I took a trip to Shandong province on a bit of a whim. I didn’t have much work to do on Monday and my friend Tom suggested heading somewhere on holiday. It seemed a good idea so I searched around online for flight tickets. The cheapest flight to a destination we were both interested in was to Qingdao. So off to Qingdao we headed, the flight costing just 250 RMB. I booked tickets online at 2.30 pm, the tickets were delivered to my apartment by 4.30 pm, and after a quick pre-departure cocktail (a Manhattan made with Jameson Irish whiskey), we riding the Maglev to the airport by 5.30 pm. The way travel agents in Shanghai deliver tickets to your door makes things very convenient.

The flight was delayed so we didn’t arrive in Qingdao until late. After riding the airport bus into town a taxi driver took us to a cheap hotel. The hotel was a weird place. It was very chilly inside, with narrow, elongated rooms spaced out along surprisingly long, gently curving corridors. The bathroom was separated from the rest of the room only by a glass partition, meaning you got to watch your roommate using the toilet and showering. Of course there was a curtain, but it was still an odd arrangement. Also, despite the drab nature of the place, rather than a television the room had a computer for surfing the Internet.

We dropped off our stuff and headed out to get something to eat and visit a bar or two. People in Qingdao are extremely friendly compared to Shanghai. The taxi driver dropped us off outside a bar he thought we might like. We didn’t like it, and when we came out a moment later and started looking for somewhere else the taxi driver insisted on picking us up again free of charge and taking us around the little bar district until we found a place we did like. It was very nice of him. We ended up in a Korean restaurant, then after some Bulgogi and Shoju we found a tired old Chinese style bar and went in there for a couple of beers.

Before long we were talking to a friendly but slightly unhinged Chinese guy. There is a certain type of educated Chinese guy that enjoys showing off by speaking to white people in a confused mish-mash of European languages. He started off in English, but after that flowed too smoothly for his liking he switched to Dutch, then Spanish, then Italian, then French, that back to English for a while, before settling again on Dutch. He responded to our inability to understand him by inviting the barman to jeer at our lack of education. It is nice to meet Chinese people who are genuinely interested in the outside world, but the “I speak six languages and you don’t” routine gets tiresome. At least the barman was disinterested in playing along.

By this time I was losing interest in trying to talk to the guy and instead was just drinking my beer and letting him ramble. His upper and lower front teeth had what seemed to be a perfectly cigarette shaped cavity. As he rambled he chain smoked my friend’s cigarettes (a Shanghai manufactured brand not available in Qingdao), holding each one in this miraculous hole and smoking until the ash curved deeply under its own weight before letting it fall into the ash tray. It was oddly fascinating to watch. As he talked he kept flicking his long fringe back behind his ear. He had the air of what the Chinese might call an ‘old glass’ (老玻璃), which translates to something like an ‘old queen’ in English. His conversation got more bizarre as he started telling us about how he had recently enjoyed sex with a girl in the toilets of this very bar. I only half believed that story. Toilet sex seemed likely. Every other detail seemed dubious.

He eventually took offense at Tom’s invective sprinkled English, launched into a prima dona rant to the barman about how these two foreigners were “low class and not worth speaking to”, pinched Tom’s cigarettes, and flounced away to the other end of the bar. Tom tried to recover his cigarettes only to have the ‘old glass’ claim they were his, specially shipped up from Shanghai, and demand 100 pounds for them. When we settled the bill he pleaded with the barman to overcharge us since we were foreigners. The barman ignored him.

We headed back to the hotel to sleep. The next morning, seeing the place in the light, I realized what was so weird about the hotel. It was located inside a football stadium, and the long winding corridors followed the shape of the stands. Very odd.

The morning was reminiscent of Leaving Las Vegas. Tom is a major alcoholic. He had been drinking all the previous day and was still very drunk when I tried to get him up in the morning. For various reasons we decided we should switch hotels but he was simply too drunk to get organized. After a lot of effort I got him downstairs, but as I was checking out of our room he passed out in the foyer. Dealing with him was becoming a bit much and we ended up having a bit of a falling out and splitting up temporarily. I left him to contact a girl he was supposed to be meeting in Qingdao and went off to find another hotel myself.

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I took a walk around Qingdao myself for an hour or so, then decided to head to the Qingdao brewery. Qingdao beer is China’s national brand. Set up by German investors when Qingdao was a German colony, Qingdao is also said to be China’s oldest beer brand. I am not sure if this claim is true since the Russian established Hapi brewery in Harbin makes the same claim.

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Given the amount of Qingdao Tom drinks, the Qingdao brewery can probably be considered Tom’s spiritual home in China. Visiting the brewery without him seemed sacrilegious, so I gave him a call to check how he was going and see if he wanted to join me on a tour of the brewery museum.

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The brewery tour turned out to be better than I expected. The brewery history section of the display contained some fascinating beer old advertisements. Some of the advertisements were from the period when the brewery was under Japanese control, and includeda banner advertising a Japanese cider. Maybe this was a case of the wrong artifact ending up in the museum cabinet. I have never heard of the Qingdao brewery producing cider, or of Japanese breweries producing cider. The banner was in English rather than either Chinese or Japanese, which was also odd. It would be interesting to know more about this though. Perhaps the Qingdao brewery did once produce cider.

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The display also included old production equipment and some discontinued products. It seems that at one stage quite recently Qingdao produced a beer flavored with bitter melons. Bitter melon is one of my favorite Chinese vegetables and I’m sure the beer would have been interesting. I was tempted to nick one of the bottles from the display, since there were a few dozen and nobody watching. I controlled myself though.

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The final part of the tour led through the bottling and canning room. The volume of beer passing through the production line was ridiculous. It really put Tom’s alcoholism in context. I’m putting my money on the brewery to win that particular contest.

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At the end of the tour we got a chance to sample the beers. Unfortunately the Qingdao dark beer was not available on tap at the brewery itself. The only beers available on tap were the standard Qingdao and an unfiltered Qingdao (called yuanjiang – 原浆). The dark was only available in bottles, which we could have bought just as easily anywhere else. The unfiltered Qingdao was impressive. It wasn’t exactly full of flavor, but it did seem to have softer carbonation than the standard Qingdao along with an interesting yeastiness.

During the brewery tour I met Tom’s Qingdao girlfriend, Shanshan. Shanshan was a slightly strange one. She was older than Tom but slightly immature, even by Chinese girl standards. She claimed to be one eighth Russian, and I suppose she did look a little non-Chinese. She was extremely talkative, but only seemed able to talk about her budding romance with Tom. Whenever we got in a taxi she spent the ride alternately addressing Tom as “honey”, “darling” and “baby” in English. She never actually said anything, just called these endearments out across the taxi at him.

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After the brewery tour we checked out Chiang Kaishek’s house in Qingdao. Maybe he never actually stayed there. The attendants at the house itself couldn’t seem to quite agree about whether he had really stayed there and if so for how long. Never mind. It was a nice building with awesome views over the beach.

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We finished up with a bad seafood dinner. None of it tasted very good and the sea snails tasted faintly like shit. The restaurant was the taxi driver’s recommendation. While the prices were OK the food was not good at all.

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The next day we spent the afternoon checking out the German fortress overlooking the harbor. Approximately two thirds of the fortress had been blown up by the Germans when they handed Qingdao back to the Chinese. Even the remaining third was very impressive though. The fortress must have been remarkable before it was partially destroyed. The rotating observation turret was still in working order after nearly 100 years.

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For dinner we headed back to the street of restaurants by the brewery and picked a place offering seafood with the “yuanjiang” Qingdao beer. We tried the famous Qingdao “swimming dicks” which Nathan had been telling me about for years. I should have photographed these things. They are some sort of local seafood that look exactly like swimming penises. I think they are called 海虫 in Chinese, meaning sea worms rather than sea dicks. They shrivel up a lot during cooking though, and are unremarkable once they arrive at your table.

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We had more of the “yuanjiang” beer, which this time tasted sour but not unpleasant. It was almost like a very mild sour Belgian beer. I also tried the “yuanjiang” at the restaurant next door and again it had the sour taste. Later I asked a few people around town whether the “yuanjiang” beer could sometimes have a sour taste and everyone seemed to agree that it could. When asking people leading questions it is always hard to know whether they are telling you the truth or just humoring you, but perhaps there is a bit of a sour beer thing going on in Qingdao?

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The restaurant tried to scam another table of customers, but were foiled by me stepping in to save the day. They had run out of dark Qingdao on draft, so they mixed up a jug containing bottled dark mixed with the cheap “today’s Qingdao” (当日啤酒). I had noticed them opening bottles of dark Qingdao despite having a tap that was labeled “dark”. It seemed weird so I started monitoring what they were doing. Then I saw them mixing the dark stuff with the cheap stuff and asked what the story was. They told me the table had ordered a mixed jug. The story was plausible but somehow I didn’t quite believe it, so when the jug left the bar area I decided to follow it to see where it was going. The restaurant was the sort that was mostly divided into private rooms so I followed the jug along a couple of corridors until it reached a room full of middle aged Chinese guys. I asked them what beer they had ordered. “Dark Qingdao” they replied. “Not half and half dark and light?” I asked. “No!” came the reply. I explained the situation. Then, my good deed for the day completed, I disappeared as the waitress started making her excuses. A few minutes later the Chinese guys came past our table to thank me. It was fun to stop the restaurant scamming them.

The next day we headed off to Qufu, the birthplace and home of Confucius. As often happens the train ride was a bit of a mission. We could only get standing tickets for the five hour journey. Luckily though we managed to grab a table in the dining car and sit there for the entire trip. The fact that the train was full of standing people yet the dining car had free seats was strange. Maybe we got lucky, maybe most Chinese would rather stand all day long than eat a China Rail lunch (understandable), or maybe most were too tight to fork out for the dining car food.

Shanshan did the overprotective Chinese girlfriend routine at lunchtime, loudly accusing the dining car workers of trying to cheat us on our lunch and forcing them to replace a couple of the dishes. It was vaguely embarrassing. Railway food in China is universally bad. You expect it to be bad and choke it down. If it stays down it was a good meal. I don’t think anybody in the history of China Rail had ever complained about the food before. In any case since the prices are standardized there is no question of the dining car staff cheating specific customers. It wouldn’t surprise me if they earned pocket money by selling ingredients out of the kitchen and replacing them with cheaper substitutes (that sort of stuff is endemic in China), but that is a slightly different thing and not something you can resolve on the spot by complaining.

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The remains of a bottle of spruce vodka I bought last year in Harbin helped the journey pass a little quicker. It mixed well with coke. After the vodka was gone we had a little rum.

Eventually we arrived in Yanzhou, the closest railway station to Qufu, and hopped on a minibus to Qufu itself. The bus trip looked likely to turn disastrous as we ran into a traffic jam on a bridge. The bridge was structurally unsound and signs had been erected telling heavy traffic to stay off the bridge, with concrete barriers added at each end to enforce the point. Chinese collectively act on the basis that whatever rules exist apply only to others. Thus predictably, a truck had tried to cross the bridge despite the barriers and ended up firmly wedged between two massive blocks of concrete at our end of the bridge. The truck could go neither backwards or forwards. The situation was so clearly hopeless that even the truck driver had given up and vanished. Meanwhile, with the gap between the concrete barriers blocked, all other traffic was also prevented from using the bridge.

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Of course the fact that the structurally unsound bridge was now impassable did not stop traffic crowding onto it from the other end. I watched as gesticulating Chinese guys and their trucks swarmed onto the bridge. The scene seemed destined to disappear in a cloud of dust but didn’t. Trucks started inching around the concrete barriers. Their wheels sat partly on the bridge and partly off it as they did this, but it was just possible to squeeze past. Eventually our turn came and we got over the bridge and completed the few kilometers to Qufu.

Qufu looked quite pretty at first. The entire town has been restored in a historical Chinese style. However, as you looked more closely you realized how fake the restoration was, and that the whole place was more or less a giant tourist trap. There were hotel touts all over the place. In an interesting indication of how Confucius is more revered in Korea than in China, there was Korean signage all over town, catering to visiting Koreans.

We found a hotel, more like a family guesthouse really, and Shanshan did her complaining and bargaining routine and managed to knock 10 RMB of what had appeared to be their last price. It wasn’t pretty to listen to but you had to be impressed at the result.

We then wandered around town looking for some dinner. The night market had interesting offerings, including a dog meat stall that made extensive use of dog skulls in its advertising. The hygiene seemed very suspect though and in any case sitting outside would have been freezing cold. We checked out some of the local restaurants instead but found them to be either charging obscene prices for “Confucius Family Banquets”, or offering two menus with different prices for locals and westerners. Wherever we went the waitress or owner would ask Shanshan if she was our guide and then offer her a cut in bleeding us. Nobody was the slightest bit embarrassed when myself or Tom questioned the ethics of all this. They either presented us with local-priced menus or suggested a compromise between the local and ‘foreigner’ prices.

In the end we settled for a popular beef hotpot restaurant, part of a national chain. Something more local would have been interesting, but sometimes you just don’t feel like haggling with con artists just to get a meal.

The plan for the next day was to check out the three big Confucius associated sites, the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion, and the Confucius Cemetery, then catch a bus back to Shanghai.

There was a bit of stress about finding a place to dump our bags. The hotel refused to let us leave luggage for a few hours unless we paid them 10 RMB per bag. Normally there is no charge to do this in China. In fact a friend of a friend once walked into a hotel he had never been a guest of, talked the receptionist into allowing him to leave some luggage under the desk for a day or two, then came back four years later to claim his stuff. Remarkably nothing was missing. Destitute Bolivians may have an advantage in pulling something like this off. In our case they may have been either trying to recoup the 10 RMB Shanshan’s bargaining had cost them the previous day, or reacting to her bitter complaints about the breakfast. Whatever the reason, Shanshan’s haggling got so heated that the hotel owner eventually just refused to take our bags whatever we paid. At that point we were more or less thrown out of the hotel. It was nice to know that Shanshan’s constant complaining was infuriating even to other Chinese people, but having to find somewhere else to leave our bags was annoying. In the end we found a shop that looked after our bags for a more modest charge.

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The three big Confucius sites are touted as having some of the best Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture in China. I suppose that is true, but somehow they are not that interesting. The Confucius Temple was an impressive size and filled with atmospheric old trees. One of the outer courtyards contained a large collection of commemorative stele set up by various notable visitors, including past emperors. The main hall itself seemed to have recently been heavily restored though. Of course it was hard to tell for sure. There was a celebrated set of dragon carved pillars which were wrapped in silk whenever the emperor visited to prevent imperial jealousy. I was slightly disappointed by them to tell the truth. They didn’t seem that amazing.  But I guess the story about the silk wrapping elevated my expectations too high and had me expecting pillars of solid gold or something. A couple of other interesting details included a courtyard kitchen where animal sacrifices were prepared, and a wall where the works of Confucius were said to have been hidden to escape a book burning drive by a previous emperor.

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The Confucius Mansion was a vast and rambling Chinese style house. Architecturally there seemed nothing special about it to me. Apparently women and junior family members were barred from huge areas of the house. Even water sellers were not allowed to enter the house itself, and delivered water by pouring it into a trough in the wall. One of the only points of interest was a woman selling some stuff that looked like Turkish delight. We asked if we could try a piece before buying (the bags on sale were all kind of large) and were told no. I bought some later at another shop offering smaller packages and it tasted very average, so I guess her sales strategy at least fitted the product.

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We took a break for lunch after finding an honest restaurant offering Confucius family food. The lunch was cheap and surprisingly good. We had some kind of pine kernel type things (银杏). They seemed to be presented as the star dish but were probably the least tasty – sort of like sweet beans cooked in yellow goo. The other two dishes were much better. One was a Confucius family tofu and the other was a Confucius family chicken stew with herbs. The tofu was unlike any other tofu I have had. It seemed to have been semi toasted, giving it a smoky taste, and was cooked in a broth with chunks of very smoky ham and some greens. The smokiness made me think more of German food than Chinese. In any case it was absolutely delicious. The chicken stew was thick, heavily flavored with medicinal herbs, and also good.

After lunch we quickly checked out a nearby Confucian theme park. The park contained a recreated historical village, which was actually well done. On the way to the park we passed a street of wedding shops, all with big cannons outside them. The pedicab driver told us that local wedding traditions involve hiring these cannons and using them to shoot fireworks. It would have been cool to see that.

The final site was the Confucius Cemetery. Hundreds, probably thousands, of Confucius’ descendents are buried there, and the size of the place means that people hire bicycles to get around. We hired a couple of bikes and cycled to the main Confucius tomb.

At the tomb a persistent female ‘guide’ demanded 10 RMB to look after our bikes (which had only cost 10 RMB to hire). We ignored her, left our bikes, and went on in. Tom was sensible enough though to duck back and check what she was up to. Sure enough she was riding away on one of our bikes. We ran her down and she explained she was ‘borrowing’ the bike. After taking the bike back off her we left it with another woman who was sitting near the entrance collecting bottles. Tom was drinking a beer as he cycled and had several more in his carry basket so there was potential for building a mutually beneficial relationship by supplying her with empties in return for her help with the bikes.

The Confucius tomb itself was a simple mound of earth with a commemorative stele. Outside of the walled area containing the Confucius tomb were hundreds of other stele commemorating his descendents. We rode around the place for a while before getting bored and heading back to the entrance.

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Having seen all the sites there was nothing much to do except take a stroll round town and find a restaurant to have a snack and a drink while waiting for our bus. We found a place serving fish head stew and went in. The man at the next table told us that he was a strong believer in world peace, and that China, unlike the United States, had never fought an aggressive war with another country. It was too much effort to try and explain to him that China had in fact fought numerous aggressive wars, and that though his belief in world peace was admirable it was best nurtured separately from his Chineseness, so we just waited for the conversation to flow onto something else. At least he didn’t try and sell us on the virtues of Confucian philosophy. That would have been far more annoying.

After saying our goodbyes we went and found the bus back to Shanghai, a sleeper bus that took 12 hours or so. By the time we arrived at Shanghai Railway Station it was already 6am the next morning.

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…)

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!