Many countries have peculiar indigenous drinks, few however fall into the category of 'acquired taste' quite as much as China's baijiu (pronounced bye-joe). But then I guess it's possible to acquire a taste for anything if you really want to. Some tribesman I met in northern Africa seemed quite found of raw goats testicles, though personally I prefer not to eat the sexual organ of a mammal that's staring forlornly at me. Baijiu, however, baffles me. The Chinese are fanatical about it, whereas I still wake up screaming at the thought of it.
It's a clear spirit, with a charmingly oily mouth feel, served warm or at room temperature, and which comes in an endless array of bottles; porcelain bottles, clay bottles, bottles that look like dragons, ranging in price from cents to thousands, but all of which taste like burnt plastic and only gets worse when the smell of it oozes out of your pores for days after. I'm not going to go as far as to say they all taste identical. There are subtle differences. Some taste like burnt plastic that formally held petrol, others burnt plastic that formerly held radiological waste.
It is quite simply the most sinister spirit on earth, and yet the world's most consumed one. Unfortunately the country's rather complex rules of politeness do not allow you to decline it. There is more pressure to drink in China than at a frat house party. A lot of which comes down to the charming custom of ganbei.
Ganbei, which is always pronounced with an exclamation mark, means 'empty the glass,' but should mean 'prepare to leave a little more of your soul on the floor.' It serves the same function as cheers in the western world, only with a tone more akin to a challenge. You cannot refuse ganbei. On hearing it you must promptly drain your drink, which will almost certainly be filled to overflowing with baijiu, down to the bare glass. Go to any social gathering, birthday, wedding, anniversary, even a business meeting and prepare to face a rampant ganbei'ing, something I came to refer to as a 'gan bang.' It is a form of social lubrication, a test of masculinity, the drinking equivalent of a duel. If you don't drink you're considered a pariah. Your only chance of getting out of it is by claiming pregnancy or making a bolt for the door.
The etiquette is complicated. If you ganbei with someone socially superior to you then it's good form to keep the lip of your glass below theirs, which is difficult when you're utterly c**p faced on baijiu and destined to smell like a burned out car in the morning. You also need to maintain eye contact, which can be tricky when there are now three of them, all lining up the next round. If you're particularly lucky, or unlucky, depending on your perspective, you might get to play Huaquan, the world's most complicated and utterly effective drinking game, like paper rock scissors on steroids.
There is a counter move; suini -- which means 'as you wish,' and allows you to leave some of the bottled bio waste in your glass. Crucially, however, this wasn't mentioned to me in months of drinking in China.
The Chinese have been making alcohol so long there are no written records of it's origin. If we're lucky in a few thousand years there will be no record of baijiu. Until then ganbei!
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