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Baijiu Fun & Games

Hey Ayi,
Every time I go to a restaurant, there seems to be a table of people shouting and waving their arms over innumerable bottles of a
pungent smelling liquid. What is this strange brew and why all the shouting?

Dear Teahead,
You have obviously not visited your local bar, otherwise you would know that these arm-flailing Chinese are not fighting but partaking in one of many activities that accompany public drinking. The clear liquid they are guzzling is probably a local brand of baijiu, a grain-based spirit with an alcohol content between 20 and 60 percent. Literally translated as 'white alcohol' and containing enough ethanol to kill all known germs, this national beverage has been around even longer than Ayi herself.

The term jiu is actually applied with great impartiality to all kinds of alcohol, whether fermented from grains or distilled as a spirit. Liquor fermented from grains (known ubiquitously as 'rice wine') is probably the earliest example of alcohol in China, with references dating back to the pre-historical Shang dynasty and involving a basic process of brewing raw ingredients in boiling water. Baijiu is the spirit variety produced by a two-step fermentation and distillation process and can be broadly categorized either by the yeast used, by the flavor, or by aroma and can be separated into three types: nongxiang (aromatic), qingxiang (faint scent), jianxiangxing ('light' flavor).

The origins of jiu are shrouded in myth and mystery, with stories ranging from a concoction of grains and animal milk heated up by the primitive Huang Di people to a legend telling of a celestial brew created by the 'god of alcoholic drinks' when the universe began. The most popular myth concerns a certain Yi De, cook to the legendary Emperor Yu of the Xia dynasty, who invented the alcohol by accidentally leaving a crock of forgotten rice to ferment. Upon tasting it, the cook decided to throw a banquet in celebration, which left them all incapacitated the next day. To avoid future recurrence, the emperor imposed three strict rules for wine-drinkers: Wine must be served in tiny cups instead of rice bowls, one must eat while drinking, and one must indulge in some form of exercise while drinking.

Thus began a complex tradition of drinking etiquette. Before Western drinking customs began to invade the East, the Chinese mainly imbibed alcohol in conjunction with eating, and it is therefore a prominent feature of banquets and feasts, particularly at weddings and other special events. On such occasions, when inviting others to drink, the host or guest should both rise from their seats, place two fingers beneath the cup while toasting and raise it again after downing the jiu in one swig. The 'drinking-by-polite-urges' phenomenon, experimented at many a Chinese feast, is a traditional gesture of hospitality in which both host and guests alike persuade each other to drink cup after cup in turn until one or the other either vomits or passes out.

As solitary drinkers have traditionally been looked down upon in Chinese society, innumerable finger games, number games, and word games to play while drinking have been devised so as to seem suitably convivial. The most common is the 'finger-guessing' game, which involves two or more participants, a seemingly endless supply of alcohol, and a lot of unintelligible shouting and hand-shaking. In fact, even the simple-minded foreigner can master the rules of this engaging pastime, which simply requires both drinkers to stretch out fingers in a certain shape representing a certain number between one and 20. If the number said by one of the drinkers is equal to the total represented by both drinkers hands, he is the winner. As with drinking games worldwide, the loser has to drink.

If the pungent effects of the local rotgut have deterred you from partaking in such drinking games, your Ayi can point you in the direction of some smoother regional varieties of baijiu. Probably the most famous alternative is Maotai, which hails from Guizhou province and has a taste and texture uncannily like soy sauce. Spirits from Sichuan and Jiangsu, known as 'high-flavor' drinks, are sweeter, made from a combination of wheat, barley and rice. There are also several wines used for their medicinal properties to promote good health and virility. Often on display on restaurant counters, these large jars contain a hotchpotch of ingredients, varying in taste and composition. Ayi's personal favorite is the Cantonese snake wine, a green and virulent concoction made from snakes pickled in spirits and taken as a tonic. Unfortunately though, much of the baijiu nowadays is watered-down by greedy companies, which is why I have taken to making my own moonshine. Ganbei! (Bottoms Up!)

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