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Beer in a bag and a barbie near the beach

6 Jun

German Tsingtao from a less tasteful age

Tsingtao – you’ll taste it before you learn how to pronounce it correctly. Despite growing up in the lager lout capital of the world, despite a year spent oompah-ing around the Biergartens and Hofbraeuhauses of Austria and Germany, it wasn’t until China’s super-light, super-watered-down home brew of “Ching-dau” came to my attention that I developed a taste for beer – a taste made tastier by the 3-or-so kuai price tag on every bottle (about 30p).

With summer approaching, my newly beered-up tastebuds began to tingle ever more in the direction of two things: 1) beer, naturally, and 2) fish, which I miss more than anything in Beijing. The majority of fish here being more bone than brawn and tastes of the river sludge from which it has been dredged.

Last weekend, pollution levels reached toxic in BJ. It was time for some sea air. Chicken Feet’s King packed bikini and beer goggles and a book of Chinese characters (which was needless to say forgotten on the train) and set off to Qingdao, the town in Shandong province that is the home to our fine fermented friend.

It’s thanks to the Germans that Qingdao became such a beer-based place. In 1898 they thoughtfully conquered the port and it was a mere five years before the Tsingtao brewery opened in 1903.

The "Christian" (i.e. Protestant) Church

Nowadays the German influence is pretty clear from the architecture, as well as the number of tacky Bavarian-flagpole pubs that dot around the town.

The leafy, hilly Baguan area is lined with tasteful, red-brick, turn-of-the-century houses.

There are both Protestant and Catholic churches, to which Chinese couples flock in droves to take wedding photos (obviously no actual church ceremony is involved, but it looks so cute).

But the heart of Qingdao is still entirely Chinese. And it’s a blast.



Take the market that was positioned just outside our hostel, and which was perhaps the best noisy street food market it has been my pleasure to frequent in China. On both Sunday morning and evening, we cavorted around said market, buying steamed buns, raisin-packed brioche-like bread, fried fish, dumplings and pickled vegetables by the flimsy plastic bagful.

Qingdao ventriloquists say "Gag o' geer"

In Qingdao, that oh-so-Chinese method of selling the unlikeliest of things in the aforementioned flimsy plastic freezer bag (eggs, soup, live fish) extends to beer too. Every other grubby local shop will have a couple of large metal urns at the door, from which the owner will tap draft Tsingtao into your doggie bag, stick a couple of straws in the top, and charge you about 2 kuai.





Things start to blur through the Tsingtao goggles

But the best part of Qingdao – and the most tremendously Chinese – was the restaurant street where we ate on Saturday night. We had a huge meal of vegetable dishes accompanied by a vast, utterly delicious fish dish and stacks of “chuan’r” skewers with a slight paraffin flavour. It was livelier than the liveliest of Beijing’s food-centric hutongs, and the huge pitchers of beer only added to the atmosphere.

We had a splendid, utterly aimless weekend of binge eating and drinking, with the obligatory visit to the Tsingtao brewery, where we sipped yet more beer from tiny taster cups.



Wine bar bunker - and why on earth not?

We took a chairlift up and over a mountain and dived down into a bizarre German bunker-cum-wine-bar that served up some of the worst wine I have ever drunk in my life.

The only trouble with Qingdao was getting there and back.

Five-and-a-half-hours may not seem a long train journey in comparison to the two-day sleeper trains (hence why I’ve always tended to fly anywhere outside of Beijing), but you feel every one of those 330 minutes when you’re on a train that reminds you of a high-speed Black Hole of Calcutta.



One the way there, a small child kicked my seat the entire way, each kick punctuated with shouts of “TIGER! TIGER!” in Chinese.

On the way back, an obese extended family surrounded us and proceeded to shout, swear, make hilarious laowai-centred jokes, play aggressive card games, and stuff themselves with a range of strong-smelling baozi and instant noodles.

The one thing that got us through it was our own supply of goodies we had procured in a frenzy before we ran to catch the train (a frenzy that nearly saw me lose my wallet – don’t ask). Seaweed stuffed steamed buns, pancakes, yet more brioche and, of course, several cans of Tsingtao apiece went somewhere to softening the raucous noise on board.

Better still, I woke up the next morning bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, without a hint of hangover.

Thank God for Qingdao and its watered-down booze.

One methanol and tonic, please – Beijing’s fake alcohol problem

1 Jun

Jaeger for 15 kuai a "grass" rings a few alarm bells

Wednesday night is party night in Wudaokou, Beijing’s student district. Heavy bass and the smell of sweat and cigarettes pulsate in equal measure from the doors of a sticky-floored club. The draw: 30 RMB all-you-can drink, ranging from lychee martinis to long island ice teas to super-sweet neon concoctions.

One glass in and you’re feeling odd. Two and you can barely stand. Up it all comes, a technicolour yawn in violent pink. The taxi home, the repeated stops to vom over the side of the car, the stagger to the door, and the four-day sickness that follows…

“Fake alcohol” is a warning that every newcomer hears pretty soon after they arrive in Beijing. Inadvertently chugging it is a common experience – and a grim one, especially considering most people don’t actually know what is “fake” about it.

Essentially, fake alcohol is like fake brands – made cheaply and then put into a bottle that makes it look like something you’d actually want to drink. The contents of the bottles and make-up of the alcohol ranges from just cheap to downright gross.

A raid in May 2011 reported in Global Times uncovered six fake alcohol outlets in the Chaoyang and Tongzhou districts of Beijing. Among the 10,000 bottles of bootleg seized were “Johnny Walker”, “Chivas” and “Jack Daniel’s”.

The two men running the outlets, Zhu Gang and Han Zhiwei, had been buying cheap moonshine from somewhere in Liaoning province and rebottling it in bottles from rubbish dumps.

Some of the bottles were found to contain hair and dirt. And that was even before you considered how the alcohol itself had been made.

Some was just low-end alcohol containing lower-grade ingredients and less well filtered than your bottle of original Grey Goose Vodka.

But some contained methanol or formaldehyde. Consuming the former (which is usually used in lighter fluid) can cause coma, blindness or brain damage; consuming the latter (which is sometimes used to preserve dead bodies) can cause cancer.

This was not an isolated incident. Fake stuff is seriously pervasive in Beijing. Even the “steer clear and stick to beer” rule of thumb isn’t fail-safe, whether bottled or watered-down draft. In 2010, enforcement officers in Beijing’s Sanlitun area discovered thousands of boxes of fake beer bottles across several bars. According to the China Daily report at the time, the beer had been produced in dirty workshops with no sterilisation equipment – just re-bottling home-made beer in old Carlsberg and Stella bottles.

Of course, this isn’t intended to panic-monger; most fake alcohol isn’t going to do more to you than give you a nastier hangover than usual.

The real problem, though, is that it’s very difficult to avoid. Even “reputable” places struggle to keep clean.

Lush in Wudaokou  runs a strict “genuine liquor only” policy, yet as manager Josh Lally explains to me, getting the good stuff can be a battle.

“Every time we change suppliers, once a week, and once a month I’ll test everything,” he says. “But even here, we hang our name on the concept of fake alcohol, but we’ve had fake bottles in here before. Then somebody will say ‘Hey, this is fake’ and we’ll test it.

“It happens anywhere from the distributor to the buyer to the store,” he continues. “Could be the people that run the distribution that just got a bad batch and don’t know. The labels usually look pretty good. It’s really hard to figure out by a label.”

The temptation for someone along the line to go for the cheap fake stuff is easily understood. Lally reckons you usually pay about half to a quarter of the price of the genuine article and the question of whether to cut costs is one faced by every bar in Beijing  – even Lush, according to Lally.

“We had conversations about it, whether to go cheap,” he admits. “We’re selling to students who don’t really care. And then we were like, no. That’s what we wanted our reputation to be.”

Any suggestion that the Chinese local police would bother cracking down on fake alcohol in a concerted way is laughable. So it’s up to individual drinkers to protect themselves from bad booze.

Rule one: Don’t get seduced by drinks deals. “The general rule is if it looks like it’s too good to be true, then it usually is,” Lally says. “Because the cost of the drink, just the cost of pouring the drink, isn’t profitable.”

Rule two: Go for places that at least try to stock genuine alcohol – and even then, (Rule three) go with caution.

In his seven years in Beijing, Lally has developed a system for “fake-proofing” drinks. “Find a place you trust but even there, test it,” he says. “Test the beer, get a shot of gin, a shot of whiskey, take half the shot,  hold it in your mouth and then feel it, swallow it. Alcohol should give you that spicy warm kind of feeling. Fake alcohol, it numbs your tongue, and then goes through your nose like smelling rubbing alcohol.”

The best piece of advice is to keep warning newcomers and tourists alike. Of course, whether people are going to follow this advice is a moot point.

Lush does burgers that go down to 20 RMB between 2 and 5 am. They sell Tsingdao buckets for less than 100 RMB and halve drinks prices during happy hour. They are right in the heart of Beijing’s bar territory – and the “happy hour every hour” joints nearby are just as if not more popular than they are, fake booze or no fake booze.

“I don’t think our no-fake policy is a big reason why people come here,” Lally confessees. “Your average college binge-drinker is usually they’re too drunk to see before they’re too drunk to see.”

I scream, you scream, we all scream for 冰激凌!

3 May

I likes ice cream, yes I does

Summer is definitely ycumen in down Chicken Feet’s way. I get a smug sense of satisfaction when I take a glance at the BBC weather report for the UK and see 10 degrees, 11 degrees, 9 degrees, and rain-cloud-rain from start to finish. Then I turn my gaze outside, adjust my eyes to squint through the pollution, and see the SUN shining. According to the little thingy on my computer desktop, it is 30 degrees outside today.

Time, I think, for an ice cream…

Ah, ice cream, 冰激凌, bingjiling. My vice, my cigarettes-and-pills equivalent, my guilty pleasure that I engage in more than any other.

I am living proof of a survey that was splashed around during a dry news week in March that ice cream is as addictive as cocaine. Not a day goes by when I do not have at least one, two or three helpings of the stuff. And while the current sunny weather makes this a perfect time to do a post about ices, it should be noted that for me, ice cream is a year-round necessity. Indeed, there is nothing more comforting on a snowy day than a solid Magnum classic.

The thing about the ice cream addiction in Beijing is that, other than a vague whisper of “minute on the lips, lifetime on the hips” in the back of my mind and the knowledge that I am giving myself a considerably higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes, there is little incentive to stop my endless rampage through the rum ‘n’ raisin.

I have the same excuse as smokers have in Beijing – they’re just so cheap. Not if you go fancy – a so-called “gelato” scooped into a cone near Houhai lake will set you back 15 RMB minimum per scoop, while a Cold Stone is at least 30 RMB. But stick to the stick (pun-tastic), and you’re looking at around 2 to 8 RMB (20-80p).

But the main reason I don’t want to give up is there is so much variety in China. As my loyal readers will know, I cannot resist trying out weird and wonderful foods. And in China, weird and wonderful certainly extends to ice creams.

And so, dear readers, Chicken Feet’s King puts his waistline on the line to bring to you a guide to the oddest of the Chinese ices and the best of Beijing’s 冰激凌…

The classics

Blueberry milk (left) and Vienetta-on-a-stick (right)

Bingjiling beginners might wish to start cautiously. For the truly tentative, there are the standard Magnums and Cornettos (I recommend the Tiramisu magnum), and often a couple of Haagen-Dasz offerings too.

For those ready to branch out just a little, try Vienetta on a stick, a decent slice of everyone’s favourite log of ice cream on – you guessed it – an ice cream stick. The big advantage (or drawback, depending on how you look at it) is that you don’t end up eating an entire loaf in one sitting without realising it.


The Chinese classics

Green tea flavour Mr Whippy

If you’re ready to branch out into the Orient, how about going for one of the top Chinese flavours? Green tea (usually in an attractive pale green colour)? Red bean (many foreigners loathe it, I love it)?  Aloe vera (and you thought ice cream GAVE you spots!)?




Tutti frutti

Fruit ice cream in China isn’t just a shot of strawberry flavouring. Most fruit-flavour ice creams you buy come with big fat chunks of fruit in them. Who cares that these chunks in themselves are unlikely to be real fruit? It tastes damn good. What’s more, the flavour varieties are endless. Apple, blueberry, hawthorn, mango, melon…


Pea in its packet

If the fruit lollies weren’t quite five-a-day enough, then there are the veggies too. The top two are pea and sweetcorn.

The latter looks frighteningly like an actual corn on the cob, with an outer layer of thin wafer decorated with kernel details and encasing a filling of slightly sweetcorn-flavoured ice cream.

The former is an appropriate snot green colour, and tastes about as good as it looks or sounds.

Pea in all its glory

Both tried. Both tested. Both since avoided.

Still on my list is purple potato flavour, though I predict it will ming just as much.






Missed breakfast? Find the baking Beijing summer too hot for your usual morning porridge? Don’t panic. Pop round to your local corner shop and buy yourself an oats and yoghurt ice cream.

And prepare to feel properly stuffed after eating.


Sucker for marketing? Moi?

And finally we arrive where Chinese marketing so excels – the ridiculous, cutesy, the thing that makes you roll your eyes and think “who on Earth would buy that…?” before you spot the Chinese guy next to you snaffling one from the freezer.

A case in point is the new Nestle banana.

This ice cream caused a storm when it arrived at my local 7/11 a month or two ago. Within two hours, every second person on the street was clutching one and wrappers littered the pavement.

This is an ice cream you can PEEL. Yes, actually, really PEEL! The jelly outer layer PEELS back to the “banana” of ice cream within.

Oddly enough, neither the peel nor the ice cream actually tastes of banana. But then that’s not the point, is it?