In Northern China, it is customary to drink baijiu – extremely hard Chinese alcohol made from rice – as a sign of respect during banquets and other official functions. Unlike hard liquor in the West, though, this is not taken in shot form. Instead, you fill small glasses up which you then chug, after selecting a drinking buddy, screaming “gan bei!” – meaning, empty glass. To show you didn’t pussy foot around, you then hold the glass upside down showing that it is truly empty.
Apparently in traditional settings, it is not uncommon for all guests at a banquet to have two glasses of baijiu at the start; you know, to really kick things off. After this, the rest of the night is spent eating from dozens of small dishes brought out while simultaneously toasting – and being toasted – by everyone else at the function. Whoever said Asians can’t drink has never met someone from Northern China.
Unfortunately – or maybe luckily – I did not attend any baijiu enhanced meals while I was in China, mostly we stuck to wine. I did, however, manage to partake in some delicacies. The most interesting of which was by far the “drunken shrimp” pictured above. The shrimp, like most Chinese banqueters, are placed alive into a pot full of baijiu and spices where they are left to sit and become progressively drunker. Once they cease struggling, you eat them alive. They taste like a sort of sweetly spicy alcoholic shrimp cocktail – delicious!
What I particularly enjoyed about Chinese dining was both the variety, as well as the order. The meal began with a schmorgesborg of various dishes and entrees – some sweet, some spicy, some alive and soaked in alcohol. Variety is the spice of life, after all. This sort of eating could be best compared to tapas.
After everyone is good and full from the appetizers – as well as nicely drunk – a main course is brought out. In my experiences, this is usually some sort of noodley soup, that goes down easily enough after having gorged yourself already during the past hour and a half. Of course, you make room – both out of politness and due to how amazingly tasty everything is anyway.
Personally, I love this style of eating – even though I am aware it is only reserved for special occassions. As a friend of my brother’s in China said: “Western dining can be so tiring with just one dish. At first you may think you love it, but after eating a whole plateful you’re not too sure anymore. With Chinese dining, you eat something, you don’t like it, you can move on.”
I like this mentality. After all, with enough great food, good company, and strong alcohol, how could you not have a great night?