There is really only one drink that is winning in China. By an absolute country mile the most popular drink here is tea. Now, if you are reading from England, you might think “Well, us Brits we also drink a lot of tea. I love a lovely mug of builders’ brew with my bacon sandwich in the morning, then at the weekend I love to have tea poured from a fine china pot while I choose between miniature battenburg cakes, chocolate eclairs and crustless cress sandwiches arranged pointlessly on a three tiered cake stand”.
Yes, it’s true. Us Brits do love a nice cup of tea. It solves all our problems.
Well in China, tea is more popular than water, coke, coffee, beer, milk and aperol spritz combined. Water is merely a means to tea. Everyone seems to drink it all the time, all different colours and leaf sizes. People will make a cup in the morning and drink it all day, merely topping up the hot water whenever the opportunity arises. Everyone seems to know a lot about it too. At home, I know people who wouldn’t be able to tell if you swapped out their favourite brand of tea bag with a sports sock full of iron filings, yet many Chinese people will be able to tell you not only the name of the tea they are drinking, but the location it was grown, the amount to use, how long to brew it and what kind of ailments it will address. Anyway, I know I’ve talked about tea, but I don’t want to. It really would warrant a whole blog post. I want to talk about stuff I’ve tried that’s a bit on the unusual side. Now the kind of things you get to drink aren’t quite as challenging to the sensibilities as some of the food, but they can be pretty fun.
Yak butter tea
Oh. I didn’t want to talk about tea, did I? Well i’ll start off this story by talking about coffee until my obvious lack of blog-structure-planning becomes less obvious. A few months back I was waiting in Leamington Spa while Emma had her hair cut. Bored, sat in the car, I thought i’d get myself a coffee to pass the time. The nearest place that I could go while still keeping my eye out for traffic wardens (Leamington can cost upwards of 20p to park your car these days) was a gym that sold health drinks and ‘Tibetan Butter Coffee’. I asked what on earth that was, and they said ‘It was inspired by the people of Tibet who use a brand of coffee that is grown on the side of the Himalayas. They brew it slowly and instead of using milk, they melt Yak butter into the coffee, the yak being fed of the grasses of that very same mountain. We don’t have yak butter so we use a special grass-fed butter. It produces a long lasting caffeine buzz. It’s five pounds a cup.’
‘Wow! That sounds amazing’ whirred my brain, forgetting that my cheapskate attempts to avoid spending 20p had now completely backfired.
After they spent about 10 minutes brewing this coffee and melting some Lurpak into it, I tried it. It tasted surprisingly creamy and it had the kind of caffeine buzz that you can feel as soon as you taste a mouthful. I was as high as a kite on caffeine. It was like every one of the hairs on my arms stood up on end and I had enough time and energy to give them all names. It’s surprising I didn’t resort to this, as it kept me wide awake until 4am.
So a few weeks ago, when I heard that one of the local delicacies in the Tibetan region was ‘Yak Butter Tea’, it was the above experience of over-stimulation that flashed through my mind. It was one of those drinks that some people said was a delicious local must-try, others kind of grimaced when they told you about it.
Well I had to order it the first place we had the chance. Apparently it is Pu-er tea (special Yunnanese tea and Victoria Beckham favourite) that is brewed, and then Yak butter is melted down and added to the tea. That’s basically it, and Tibetans will ordinarily drink it in the morning like a morning pick-me-up. You can customise it too. Most common is to add ground bulgar flour into it, or maybe even some salt or sugar.
First one I had wasn’t that easy to drink as it was hot, in a glass, and had quite a lot of salt and flour which had clumped together a little into a kind of crusty/gritty sediment. The butter also had a tendency to separate out into the oil and dairy components which wasn’t all that nice. It was a bit like someone had made an ice-cream float for me, but had kept it safe behind a radiator for a month.
However, the second one we had was delicious. This version – served in a proper tea set with Tibetan biscuits and yak yoghurt – meant we had the chance to add our own amount of bulgar flour (or eat it separately) which gave it quite a nice malty taste – a bit like Ovaltine. I really liked this one, though disappointingly the kick wasn’t as strong as the Leamington coffee so I only had time to name several hundred of my arm hairs before I drifted into a deep sleep.
This one isn’t particularly weird, it’s just another drink where people seem to either recommend it or grimace at it’s very mention. If you’ve ever seen these dusty jars in a Chinese restaurant, they are barrels of ‘Huang Jiu’ or Yellow Wine. If you want to see how it’s made, Rick Stein did a short spot on it in a recent program and there’s loads on the internet. I couldn’t resist buying a 5 year old aged jar of the stuff when on a recent visit to a water town; mainly because I loved the little ceramic jar it comes in. Apparently the locals drink this warm in winter (which can get very cold here).
I had a glass as soon as I got it home. It’s about 15% abv (so like a strong-ish wine), looks like flat cola and smells like a sweet sherry that’s at work all day on the farm and needs a shower. Actually it tastes a lot like a sherry too, but with a slight hint of medicinal bitterness.
I decided that I really like it, and can see how it would be welcome warmed up in the winter too. There’s a bit of a mulled wine quality to it that wouldn’t be out of place at Birmingham Christmas Market (although the last time I went to BCM i’d gotten so drunk on Gluhwein that I now have an injunction against me talking about it or imagining it), so I’d better not imagine that then.
I went out to buy some milk yesterday, and on the shelf above it was the catchily named: ‘Bamboo Fungus and Tremella with Reconstituted Coconut Meat Juice Plant Protein Beverage’.
Three things ran through my mind when I read that.
- I hope they haven’t accidentally missed out some commas.
- The boys and girls in their marketing department definitely come from the ‘calling a spade a spade’ school of salesmanship.
- I might need a beer to wash this down. I don’t want to reconstitute it later.
So this has 2 kinds of fungus in it, the Tremella (a kind of light, springy fungus) and the Bamboo, which you often find in soups. The drink itself was obviously some way of consuming a lot of protein on the go. Down the hatch!…
The thick liquid was slightly but not overly sweet coconut milk with lots of ‘bits’ in it. Some of the bits were really quite large; big clumps of fungus I presume. Imagine you were taking a shower and you’d lathered yourself in thick milky coconut-scented shower gel using one of those small springy natural sponges that some people have hanging on a string around their shower heads. Then, you put the suddy loofah in your mouth and chewed it into little bits, swallowing as you go. Fair play to the marketing boys and girls, they have captured the spongeyness quite well in the picture on the front of the bottle.
It was obviously one of those drinks that you might resort to if you were avoiding eating solids for a while but you were still somehow aiming to eat enough protein to bench-press a small speedboat. Maybe that’s it’s intended purpose…
Alternatively, if there’s a market for this kind of thing, maybe I could invest in a bulk-load of kitchen scourers and mash them up into some bottles of chocolate milk, making a tidy fortune in the process. Any takers??