September 14th, 2009
Here in Suzhou, a smaller city in China (though still 6 million people), I’ve discovered what my buddy Ben in Hong Kong had forewarned about traditional Chinese business dinners. As Ben rattled off lore (lazy susans, chicken feet and hideously potent alcohol) I absently shook my head thinking there’s no way our trip will entail what his business friends had endured at work dinners in China. Oh how very mistaken I was…
Last night, I was treated to an AUTHENTIC Chinese meal at a local Suzhou restaurant specializing in SUZHOUNESE dishes – boiled chicken feet(they literally looked like a bowl of talons), cloudy fish soup, steamed mini river shrimp, duck fat with snowpeas and thankfully, lots of vegetables. The cuisine of Suzhou is highly praised around the country, particularly the small fish from nearby Lake Taihu though I have to admit I prefer Dim Sum. As you can see from my seat view, the food was indeed plentiful but, moreover, so was the drink. I was given three glasses – one for red wine, one for beer and one small dainty one (the snake in sheep’s clothing) for the forthcoming shots of BAIJIU.
Drinking Baijiu appears to be a very important Chinese custom, albeit consumed college-style, though in far more elegantly styled shot glasses. During the dinner, first the host will welcome everyone and then raise his glass of BaiJiu and invite others to join in by saying “Gam-bay” and that means you have to drain the fierce smelling liquid on the spot or else you’re being offensive to the toastmaster. (Silly me thought peer pressure was a teenage issue.) Or as our guide gently explained, the Chinese demonstrate their mutual trust by drinking, or rather, getting drunk together. After he explained this to us baffled westerners – I mean, the smell alone was fearsome, he then said to one lucky colleague, “if you’re my friend, you will drink this with me”. The guide then lifted his glass and brave David did the same and then had to follow suit and open his throat to the toxic liquid – all in the name of friendship. Wow. All I can say that after one whiff of that stuff, I was quite happy to not be called on. And to be a lady, since our hosts, two Chinese business men – the leader of the Tourism Board and the kind GM at the Shangri-la (pictured below) – were only really pressing the men to join in. However, our Shangri-la hostess, Judy, did ante up for the dames and down a few. She claimed no hangover the next day but I’m doubtful.
Overall, I can’t say I recommend Baijiu as it was horrid tasting and ferociously strong but, when in China…I think you have to do as they do or fear offending. My suggestion would be to try and cozy up to the waitstaff prior and have them refill your glass every other time with water. I mean, my word, the stuff is 100 proof!