If you've been turned off by The Top Ten Weird and Bizarre Chinese Soft Drinks, prepare to turn the other cheek and turn your taste buds back on again! China is a land of contrasts, and for every bizarre drink there's a delicious canned or bottled taste treat just waiting for you to crack open. Sit back, open wide and enjoy!
10) Chin-Chin Grass Jelly Drink
First let's clear up a couple of misconceptions: Grass Jelly isn't made from grass, and it's not always served in the form of jelly. The “grass” in question is actually Mesona Chinensis, a mint-like herb that's boiled down to create a dark green liquid.
Larger Chinese supermarkets stock up to a dozen different brands of canned Grass Jelly Drink, the consumption of which is said to have cooling effects on warm and humid summer days.
Chin-Chin seems to be the most commonly sold brand in my neck of the Canadian woods, and it hails from Taiwan. Chin-Chin was awarded “Superbrand Status” in 2005, which is nice, and as far as their Grass Jelly Drink (Honey Flavor) goes... it's kinda nice as well. Not too strong, not too sweet, pleasantly herbal. Some say Grass Jelly is an “acquired taste” and that's without even mentioning the odd semi-solid, “Orbitz”-style texture. Oops, forget I mentioned that. (Chinese drink images via Misadventures in Dining and Dollybeast)
9) HeySong Sarsaparilla Drink
HeySong Corporation, founded in 1925, is Taiwan's oldest currently operating soft drink business and HeySong Sarsaparilla Drink (introduced in 1950) is one of their most popular carbonated sodas.
HeySong Sarsaparilla Drink is sold in bottles and cans, the latter of which I picked up at a local Asian market for taste testing. Being a fan of Dr Pepper, Brio and other root beers, I can vouch for HeySong's authentic “rooty” taste.
As a bonus, imbibers should note that sarsaparilla was a US-registered treatment for syphilis from 1820 to 1910. That, at least, deserves a round of clap. (Chinese drink images via Dave's Cupboard and d_flat)
8) Apple Sidra
It's real and it's spec... well, maybe “spectacular” is a bit over the top but a drink called Apple Sidra demands a Seinfeld reference regardless. Much like Sidra herself, Apple Sidra is “Without Chemical Ingredients”. It says so right on the can... it's, not hers.
Apple Sidra is made by Oceanic Beverages of Taiwan, which seems odd as apples are not typically found in oceans. No matter, the drink itself is quite apple-y and isn't overly carbonated nor sickeningly sweet.
For some unknown reason, Apple isn't a popular soda flavor in the western world compared to Orange, Grape or Lemon/Lime. Why is that? The light, crisp taste of apples works very well in the soda medium if Apple Sidra is any indication. (Chinese drink images via Juanita and Craig McNamara)
7) Tsingtao Beer
Tsingtao Beer dates back to 1903 when the town of Tsingtao (now Qingdao) was the German-administrated Kiautschou Bay Concession. During their short (1898-1914) stay as colonizers, the Germans introduced a number of Teutonic innovations to the Far East, most notably beer and brewing. The original Germania Brewery still stands though it now houses the Tsingtao Brewery Museum.
Tsingtao Beer now commands 15% of the domestic Chinese market and it's available in more than 60 countries around the globe. It has been sold in the United States since 1972 and has maintained its lead on other Chinese beers such as Zhujiang and Yanjing.
A hoppy pilsner exhibiting a golden tint and a clean taste, Tsingtao Beer has a standardized 4.7% alcohol content and comes in characteristic green glass bottles and aluminum cans. (Chinese drink images via Slashfood and Willettsworld)
6) Gold Kili Instant Honey Ginger Latte
Honey Ginger Latte sounds good and tastes even better. Hailing from Singapore where just under 75% of the population is of Chinese extraction, Honey Ginger Latte is a powdered instant drink that requires only hot water – everything else (Ginger, Creamer, Glucose, Sucrose, Honey, Fructose) is included.
Topping off with milk isn't necessary but I enjoy the added richness. As for the flavor, ever make (or have someone make) a homemade sore throat remedy with chopped ginger, honey and lemon? It's like that, except without the lemon and a lot smoother thanks to the creamer and milk. To quote the Gold Kili website copy, “Instant Honey Ginger Latte is a special blend of high quality ginger, honey and superior grade of creamer. This delectable beverage is frothy, smooth, rich and creamy in taste.” No arguments here, it's delectable indeed!
Gold Kili makes other instant drinks but their Honey Ginger Latte is by far the best of the bunch, and it's sold in the better Chinese markets in North America. (Chinese drink images via Gold Kili and Flap Jack!)
5) Famous House Almond Drink
If you like the unique flavor of almonds in liquid form, then Taiwan's Famous House has got a drink for you: Famous House Almond Juice! It's not just almonds, mind you, but the rich and cloying aroma of marzipan that makes this drink so tasty.
If you're expecting something along the lines of Blue Diamond Almond Milk, be advised your expectations are misplaced. Famous House Almond Juice is stronger tasting, thicker in consistency and emanates a much more almondy aroma. Be advised that strong tastes don't always evoke universal appeal.
One dissatisfied taster remarked that “It smelled (and tasted) like those hot towels you sometimes get at Japanese restaurants.” Hmm, remind me to taste those towels next time I'm out for some sushi, I thought they were only for washing your hands with. (Chinese drink images via The Pitch Dining and Japan Diary of Culture)
Moutai is a Chinese distilled spirit; one of the better forms of baijiu (literally “white liquor”). It's not a soft drink by any stretch of the imagination but it IS a Chinese drink one must try – if only to say you've tried it. The late US prez Richard Nixon was offered shots of China's national tipple by both Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai during the historic 1972 “ping pong” summit.
Nixon's advisers strongly recommended he go easy on China's national drink, as the prospect of a drunken, drooling Tricky Dick running amok through the Forbidden City flashing peace signs at all & sundry boded ill for future bilateral relations. One intrepid taster reported that “when you swallow it you suddenly feel that your throat and lungs are on fire, and that your eyeballs are going to pop out of your head.” Sounds like it could be quite popular over here!
Sold in a range of proofs from 35 to 53 percent alcohol, Moutai is distilled from sorghum and is said to have a clean taste and a mellow soy-sauce fragrance. Making cocktails (“China Crisis”, anyone?) with Moutai has got to be a major challenge for even experienced bartenders. (Chinese drink images via China Daily and Jasmine Tea & Jiaozi)
3) Hawthorn Berry Drink
There's not much info on the 'net about canned Hawthorn Berry Drink from Taiwan's Typhoon Enterprise Company but it's pretty easy to find in Toronto's better Asian supermarkets. It comes in large (500ml) and small sizes.
Ignore the disparaging reviews by the dudes at Thirsty Dudes who state “It smells and to a lesser extent tastes like fruity beef jerky.” It's fruity to be sure, but with an oddly compelling smoky aroma that reminds me of smoked oysters – this is a GOOD thing, as I happen to like smoked oysters.
Kudos to Typhoon Enterprises for packing their Hawthorn Berry Drink in a can strong enough to withstand, well, a typhoon. Seriously, this is one sturdy ribbed beauty... if Bluto wannabe's try smashing one on their foreheads they're likely to knock themselves into a hawthorn-flavored coma. (Chinese drink images via Thirsty Dudes and Calorie Count)
2) Old Town White Coffee
Old Town White Coffee originated in the Malaysian city of Ipoh, where approximately 70% of the population is of Chinese heritage. First opening in 1958 in Ipoh's historic “Old Town” west of the Kinta River, the company markets a range of instant coffee, iced coffee and coffee/tea combos conveniently packaged in plastic sachets.
My personal favorites are the Classic and Hazelnut (right) varieties, both formulated as “3 in 1” meaning they include sugar and milk powder. The Classic has recently been available with Cane Sugar but taste-wise, I'll stay with the standard formula.
Traditional Ipoh White Coffee employs a traditional preparation method that requires the coffee beans be roasted in margarine, ground, and served with sweetened condensed milk. The margarine imparts a subtle caramel flavor that the manufacturers of Old Town White Coffee have managed to preserve in their instant formulations.
I've found that the best way to enjoy White Coffee is to mix a sachet with 2/3 hot water and top with milk. It's better than anything Starbucks can whip up and costs a tenth of what they charge – usually $4.99 for a bag of fifteen 40g “sticks” and it's often on sale for even cheaper. (Chinese drink images via *Randee and 21Food)
1) Wong Lo Kat Herbal Tea
Wong Lo Kat (“Wanglaoji” in Mandarin) is a sweetened herbal tea with roots going back to the early 19th century. Originally formulated as a bitter-tasting treatment for various fevers and hot-weather illnesses, Wong Lo Kat was reborn as a canned soft drink in 1995.
Since then, an intensive marketing campaign directed at Mainland China has increased annual sales of Hong Kong-based Wong Lo Kat tenfold since 2002, surpassing Coca-Cola in 2006. Today it's the best-selling soft drink in China and the little red & black cans are ubiquitous in stores, homes, restaurants and on billboards.
Some may say Wong Lo Kat is overly sweet but its other flavorings (honeysuckle flower, licorice root, chrysanthemum, etc.) are still apparent – just not overpowering. I bought a six-pack at my fave Chinese supermarket last week; the slogan on the wrapping reads “Keep heatiness away, drink Wong Lo Kat.”
Whatever “heatiness” is, for sure I want it kept far, far away. Oh, and since you're probably wondering, Wong Lo Kat is NOT made from cats or cat extract. (Chinese drink images via Wing Tung Drinks, Southern Metropolis Weekly, and Iman Irene)
China may be famous more for its food than its drinks but that concept's well overdue for an update. Do yourself a favor and scout out your local Asian market, big or small, and take a chance on a drink you've never tried before. Your taste buds might be pleasantly surprised and your thirst will be quenched in the bargain! (Chinese drink images via Radio 86 and Design Soak)
* * *
For more fun and interesting stories, check out Fun for Animal Lovers.