I tentatively walked into the packed, brightly lit Chinese restaurant. While I’m getting used to being the only Gweilo in the room, this was my first ‘local’ dinner with part of the Westin team and I was acutely aware I was stepping into unfamiliar territory.
Busy, hot and noisy – the restaurant (which doesn’t have an English name I can give you) was a nod to former Chinese leader Chairman Mao, boasting walls dressed with large pictures of the man they call the founder of the People’s Republic of China.
I could immediately sense a buzz of excitement in the air. A city embellished with pretty red lanterns at every turn, there was no mistaking Chinese New Year or as it’s more commonly known up north – Spring Festival – China’s biggest national holiday, was just around the corner.
It was time to celebrate this significant occasion and the impending two week festive spell.
I won’t lie, I was intrigued about what lay ahead.…not just for Chinese New Year but I was curious about the cultural differences that would translate over dinner.
The hotelier had filled me in on nights like this before. I knew there would be a table laden with enough local fare to spice up a politician’s election speech.
And I knew there would be Baijiu!
If you’ve never heard of it, please – let me enlighten you.
Pronounced “Bye Joe,” one swig and it’s pretty much a “by jove!” affair.
Baijiu translated, loosely means ‘white wine’ but let’s be crystal clear, this is not your average Chardy or Sav Blanc.
A strong distilled spirit usually made of sorghum or other grains, this my friends, is hardcore. At 40 – 60 per cent proof alcohol it will surely knock your socks off (if you let it).
Called the “Water of History” this elixir stems back thousands of years, some say as many as 7,000 years when generals and warriors waterproofed themselves with a nip of Baijiu before going into battle.
These days, go to any restaurant or bar (day or night) in China and there are sure to be a few bottles stowed under the arms of patrons for good measure. You can buy it in restaurants and bars, but BYO is the preferred mode of consumption.
Usually, this ‘national drink’ is served warm or at room temperature in small ceramic bottles and then poured into teeny shot-sized cups.
So, on this night, there were four large tables of ‘us’ and in the middle of each, copious amounts of soft drink and large bottles of beer. I spied a few of the ladies on yoghurt drinks…which I soon found out is the acceptable way to ‘line the stomach’ in preparation for the looming Baijiu showdown.
It’s customary (and sensible) to drink Baijiu with food, so as soon as the sizzling and oh so spicy dishes started appearing on the table, the fancy red genie bottle transpired.
With the early morning school run on my mind, I was hesitant to unleash the genie! Not a huge beer or coke drinker, I heard James quietly ask if they had Bai Putao Jiu (grape wine) on the menu (aka this western girl’s best friend). He was met with a curt shake of the head and an abrupt no (followed by an “are you crazy” look)!
This place was loud and lively and no place for sipping a crisp Sav Blanc, relaxing over dinner!
So! What’s a girl to do? Clearly, this was to be my initiation into the great Chinese thirst quencher, scarily known as “Firewater!”
It’s also the biggest selling spirit in the world (largely due to China’s size and humungous population). It’s a clear spirit yet tastes nothing like vodka or tequila and has no resemblance whatsoever to whiskey, rumbo or scotch.
Apparently there are four different styles of Baijiu and it’s all down to the fragrance – one of which has been classified as a “sauce” fragrance. I’m guessing it’s not tomato!
Ranging from around US$10 to $1000 a bottle the quality obviously differs and there are many many different brands. ‘Baijiu Moutai’ is China’s official drink – it’s served at state dinners and often given as a luxury gift. It was served to US President Richard Nixon on his 1972 visit to China and to this day remains a staple at Chinese State banquets; in high and low-end restaurants across the country, and in convenience stores on the sides of remote, dusty routes.
Known for its distinctive smell and unique taste, some foreigners have labelled it “paint stripper” and a “liquid lobotomy!”
I’ll admit my palette is not the most discerning, but it was surprisingly better than paint stripper(?) and definitely gives you that immediate warm and fuzzy sensation – which I might add is much needed up north in this winter ‘never never land.’
So with that in mind, I braved two shots.
Before we go any further, you need to know, there’s a whole bottle of table etiquette that goes along with this highly valued Chinese tipple.
Chinese friends and business partners maintain the importance of drinking Baijiu together is to ‘build trust and form a bond.’ So that means falling down after one too many swigs is not frowned upon but rather, it commands respect! (Yes, you read that right!)
The host is usually the one in the direct line of this ‘fire’ water. Guests will toast you (often one by one) with a single shot of Baijiu.
If your boss or someone senior toasts you, it’s considered the height of rudeness to refuse and in China, believe me, causing a person to lose face is not something you want to mess with.
When your companion’s glass is empty, politely refill it, always pouring your own last. When someone else pours for you, hold your glass up with two hands, one on the bottom of the glass. (Originally, this was a smart ploy to help anyone a little ‘under the weather’ avoid dropping the glass.)
If you think you’re too drunk to hold up your glass (even with both hands) just tap your fingers on the table. Easy done. Apparently?!
And no one leaves until ALL the Baijiu is gone. Yep! Every single last drop!
At dinner, I notice conversation is kept to a minimum and most people spend their time on their feet, filing from one table to the next looking for a “toastee” (more often than not, the target is my slightly nervous husband).
Words of prosperity and good health ring out, followed by a few loud Gan Bei or Cam Pai’s – the Chinese equivalent of ‘cheers’. If this is said to you, don’t dally around – it’s well mannered to drain your glass in one hit! Did somebody say binge drinking!?
Yes you need to toughen up princess ’cause they breed them hardy up north (let’s not forget we are not too far from the vodka-swilling nation of Russia). It’s nothing to knock back 10 or 15 shots over lunch or dinner.
Whispers tell me foreigners have a few tricks up their sleeves to avoid the boozy onslaught, like filling your cup with water or accidentally tossing it over your shoulder as you appear to gulp back your shot; your (by now, tipsy) colleagues none the wiser. Feigning a bad stomach or allergy is also said to be a water-tight excuse.
So, forget about three wishes, this is the genie in a bottle that keeps on giving. Although, the next day, you may wish you hadn’t unleashed the genie! I’m told the aftermath can be harsh!
An age-old tradition that’s not disappearing in a puff of smoke anytime soon – at least not here in downtown Xi’an. Aladdin would be proud.
This is China.