Bonus content: Derek Sandhaus comments on how Korean soju has changed since the 1960’s

On November 1, the same day his book was released, I interviewed Derek Sandhaus about his new release, Drunk in China. Read the full interview: Interview with Derek Sandhaus, author of Drunk in China. We talked about a wide-variety of topics, including Korean soju. The section on Korean soju didn’t seem to go with the rest of the interview, so I post it by itself here.

Not to distract from baijiu, but you know a little bit about other Asian liquors, too. Another liquor readers of this blog are interested in is soju, Korean liquor, and it has changed over time. I was just thinking, the old-fashioned style of soju has a higher alcohol content and more complex flavor, and it kind of reminded me of the taste of baijiu when I tried it.

The old name for baijiu before the 1950’s was shaojiu, which is what soju is called in Chinese. Soju in Korea was very similar to the kind of baijiu they make up in Northeastern China and Manchuria up until very recently. Very strong, grain-based. But what happened was in the 1960’s, Korea was having rice shortages after the Korean War, so the government passed a law saying that, first, you couldn’t use grain to make alcohol, and secondly, you had to distill it up to a very high ethanol level. Basically, soju became industrial-level ethanol with added water. That’s kind of like how they make vodka and other kinds of neutral white spirits. 

So, basically, because that rule in the 1960’s, what is now called soju is not what used to be soju. Now it has become a kind of tapioca or sweet potato vodka. In recent years, there has been an effort among some producers to bring back a more traditional variety.

New book Drunk in China released today — Upcoming interview with author at CTW

Derek Sandhaus is the author of a new book on China’s national liquor, baijiu, and the culture surrounding baijiu. His book Drunk in China has been released today.

I was fortunate enough to interview him over baijiu and spicy food at Washington, DC’s Sichuan Pavilion on the day Drunk in China came out. Sandhaus is a very you-hao and re-qing person (friendly and hospitable/full of warmth). Having read excerpts of his book, I can say his re-qing and you-hao also come out in the book, which is one of the few English language works about bailiu. (Sandhaus has also written a guidebook about baijiu, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.) 

Drunk in China is focused both on the story of baijiu, its history and cultural impact, and partially on Sandhaus’s story in China. Sandhaus has been in China on and off since 2006 and also authored Tales of Old Hong Kong and Tales of Old Peking

While baijiu often tastes harsh to foreigners on their first (or second, or third…) try, Sandhaus advises foreigners not to be dismissive. 

“One thing that’s very important is that at the moment you encounter something that really blows your mind is to not immediately discard that experience. Most of the world hasn’t gotten to that reflective of a state when it comes to baijiu, but had I not gotten there, I would have missed out on so many amazing experiences interacting with the people I meet in China,” he said.

Remarking on the lively atmosphere surrounding baijiu drinking in China: “If this were a restaurant in China and we were drinking baijiu together, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao [roughly translated as “exciting”/“lively”], “loud and hot,” where you’ve been eating for a while, you’ve been drinking for a while, you’re kind of drunk on the spice, you’re drunk on the liquor, and you’re in this mood of pure joy. You can bounce around a little bit; you can go sit at a stranger’s table and make a toast to them, invite them to join in your revelry. ”

In addition to writing, Sandhaus is the cofounder of Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, which is available in New York, California, and Oregon in the U.S. 

My full interview with Sandhaus will be posted next week. Sandhaus will be talking about his book at Washington, DC’s Politics and Prose Bookstore on November 10.

Straits Times editor takes trip on Chinese rail to North Korea border

The Singapore Straits Times‘s travel editor wrote about his trip from Shanghai to Dandong in an article that was published online on October 19. Traveling with executive multimedia editor Ashleigh Sims, Lee Siew Hua stopped in Wuzhen, Jinan, and Shenyang, before looking across the river at North Korea.

Among the highlights:

Twice a day, on a lofty, swaying bamboo pole high above the water, an acrobat rivets tourists with terrifying stunts. It is far more serene to walk under indigo banners that evoke a period-drama scene at a dye workshop. Or to sip sanbai rice wine from a Ming-era distillery.

Also whimsical is Kuanhouli Street, an enclave of indie shops, bars and hip hawker stalls. Mainly, it is where locals go for a walking feast under the night sky.

Savour “volcanic” or spicy barbecued squid, mini sushi, innards in hot broth, stinky tofu doused in mala sauce, traditional donkey dumplings, Italian desserts, trendy yogurt drinks, Thai tea and more.

In Pingrang Guan (Pyongyang Restaurant), spirited North Korean waitresses in high heels speak flawless Mandarin as they serve our flavourful lunch that includes cold noodles in a sweet-sour sauce and fresh cabbage kimchi.

Read the full article: China is both epic and intimate by rail.

I can attest that traveling China is easy by rail and allows for spontaneous adventures. You can change your plans on a whim and almost always find a train leaving the same day or next day to take you where you want to go.

I am not sure what to think about their visit to a North Korean restaurant. It certainly sounds interesting, but the North Korean workers there are sometimes exploited to earn revenue for Kim Jong-un’s regime. In December, most of those restaurants will have to shut down if China follows through on UN sanctions, which call for all North Korean workers abroad to leave or be deported by the end of the year.

Airbus A320 gets stuck under bridge in transit in China

A Chinese truck driver had to stop to let air out of his tires after getting into a pickle while transporting an Airbus A320 in northern China on October 13, 2019 in Heilongjiang province, according to People’s Daily‘s WeChat news account (Chinese language).

The airplane appeared to be stuck under the Jinhe Bridge in Harbin, which part of the Airport Express toll road, just outside of the Harbin Taiping International Airport. According to local reporters, the driver stopped at about 8 pm while crossing under the bridge to let air out of his tires to ensure the passage.

Photos afterwards showed no noticeable damage to either the plane or the bridge.

800 million travelers for Chinese National Day

Chinese National Day travelers hit a record 790 million during the 7-day break from October 1 to 7 this year.

That included 782 million who traveled within China and 7.5 million who traveled abroad, according to the South China Morning Post.

Although the number of travelers was up, they were spending less money than in previous years, the Post also reported. Travel to Hong Kong also plummeted, with 15 percent less border crossings.

I wrote about my own experience observing National Day festivities in China: A foreigner’s view on National Day

In 2012, I went out to Yunnan to visit a village in Dali county. The village of Shuanglang, which is on the northwestern edge of Erhai Lake is extremely beautiful. It is literally built right next to the lake. You can see the water from some of the guesthouses. You can walk along a boardwalk and sip a beer while looking across at boats and clouds and the villages on the other side. 

I stayed at a hostel recommended by a friend who lived in Dali. The hostel, the name of which I cannot remember, and may or may not still exist, was built largely out of wood and had an artfully-designed interior. In the bedroom, the beds were all on platforms of different levels. 

Agriculture is one of the major industries in the villages of Dali, and there were a lot of chickens running around the field next to the hostel. I learned two things from living near chickens: First, the sun rises a lot earlier than I had guessed; and second, hens actually start clucking half an hour or longer before it actually rises. Nonetheless, I had to thank the chickens. A few of them fed us well on the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The hostel organized a feast that could be said to celebrate the two festivals at once. They put three long tables together and had some volunteers prepare food starting in the morning. In the afternoon, they set out the tables with a cornucopia of delicious Chinese home-style cooking. Everyone staying at the hostel was invited. 

As I was the only foreigner staying at the hostel, the other guests took a particular interest in watching me drink baijiu.

“How does it taste?” they asked.

“Spicy,” I said, after choking just a few drops down.

You can read the full article here.