LUZHOU, June 17 — It may be China’s national spirit, but for London bartender Ellie Veale it’s clear from the first swig why baijiu has not caught on overseas.
After some initial fruity notes, Veale crinkles her noise as the crystal-clear booze reveals its intense, earthy essence.
“I worked on a cattle farm in Australia and this kind of aftertaste reminds me of the smell of … cow manure, hay, and horses,” she says, in the London bar Demon, Wise & Partners.
“It’s not the beverage for me,” she concedes.
And yet baijiu’s popularity in China has propelled demand — making it the most consumed spirit in the world, and its major producers the most valuable distilleries globally.
“Baijiu belongs to China, but also the world,” says Su Wanghui, information director at Luzhou Laojiao, one of the country’s biggest and oldest brands.
“We hope to have people around the world try baijiu, and like baijiu,” she adds.
There’s just one problem: The taste.
Kinder critics say it evokes truffles or burning plastic, while less generous descriptions have included “industrial cleaning solvent” and “liquid razor blades”.
Ranging from around 35 to 55 per cent alcohol, baijiu packs a searing, sickly-sweet punch, an intensity that evolved to match the powerfully spicy cuisine of southwestern China, baijiu’s heartland.
Many foreigners in China relate horror stories of being bombarded by baijiu toasts at banquets.
“The foreign view of baijiu is: Very spicy, like a rocket blasting to heaven,” Su told AFP at Luzhou Laojiao’s headquarters on the upper Yangtze in rugged Sichuan province.
Most Chinese people cannot imagine major celebrations without it, particularly the Lunar New Year holiday, when excessive toasting leaves revellers staggering toward brutal hangovers.
Around 10.8 billion litres of baijiu was consumed last year, nearly all in China, according to International Wine and Spirit Research.
That’s more than whisky, vodka, gin, rum and tequila combined and would take an hour to slosh over Niagara Falls according to WorldBaijiuDay.com.
But baijiu has been on a roller-coaster in recent years.
A government corruption crackdown launched in 2012 hit hard: Premium brands had become the go-to gift for bribing Communist officials.
Sales fell off a “cliff”, Su says.
And many younger Chinese, exposed to French wine and German beer, shun a rotgut they equate with rural regions and drunken businessmen.
Forced to adapt, manufacturers have found success with milder new varieties and brightly packaged single-serving mixed drinks.
Sales have recovered, igniting share prices.
In 2017 the market value of Shanghai-listed Kweichow Moutai surged past London-based Diageo, maker of Johnnie Walker whiskey and Smirnoff vodka, to become the world’s most valuable distiller.
Now around ¥900 (RM543) per share, it could become China’s first ¥1,000 stock.
Emboldened distilleries are now looking abroad, staging tastings and developing smoother, export-oriented brands, while touting centuries-old artisanal production methods.
At Luzhou Laojiao, sorghum is fermented for months in deep microbe-rich earthen pits, some in continuous use since 1573.
Staff, resembling shaolin monks in bright yellow and red outfits and performing all work by hand, distill the fermented mash in steaming-belching wooden pot stills. The end-product is then aged, sometimes for decades, in giant clay pots in nearby caves.
Challenge for customers
Water, soil, climate and other factors make baijius from different regions as “different from each other as a whiskey is to a mescal,” said Bill Isler, CEO of Ming River, an export-only brand created by Luzhou Laojiao.
But he says there is a “lot of prejudice” to overcome, before baijiu can follow once-obscure “local” spirits such as vodka and tequila and go global.
A wave of “baijiu bars” opened in China, the US, and Europe in recent years as a buzz swelled. But many have since closed.
“It’s a challenge for the customers. It hasn’t really caught on in the West yet,” said Demon, Wise & Partners owner Paul Mathew.
The price of top brands is one hurdle. Mathew charges £12 (RM79) for a glass of Kweichow Moutai.
“It is also a very unfamiliar flavour for guests, so we need to tell them the story, how baijiu is made, why it has the characteristics it has, before it becomes more accessible,” he said.
Jim Boyce, a Beijing blogger on China’s booze scene who launched annual August 9 “World Baijiu Day” in 2015 to raise awareness, said baijiu is hampered by how it’s consumed in China: Straight up, with food.
“The fact is, people, at least in North America and Europe, don’t drink lukewarm straight 52 per cent alcohol, so the people promoting this tend to be really into traditional baijiu culture,” he said.
Boyce advocates creative cocktails or novelties like baijiu ice cream, suggestions that provoke blank stares from Chinese baijiu executives seeking his advice.
“It’s been frustrating, frankly,” he adds.
Overseas sales are growing, however. Kweichou Moutai earned ¥2.89 billion abroad last year, up 27 per cent year-on-year. But that’s a drop in the bucket of its ¥73.6 billion overall revenue.
“We’re trying our best to make the world understand, to spread the word about baijiu, just like whiskey and red wine are now known within China,” Su said.
PARIS, June 17 — Every weekend a queue snakes down the street not far from the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
This is not some hoard of clueless foreigners easy prey for the tourist traps that dot Pigalle and Montmartre.
These are savvy and often stylish Parisians eager to sit down to one of the best value meals in the French capital.
Earlier this month the Bouillon Pigalle’s egg mayonnaise was voted the best in the world by a jury of French gastronomes, beating Michelin three-star restaurants and the version served up by President Emmanuel Macron’s kitchen at the Elysee Palace.
For just €1.80 (RM8.43) you can feast on this simple but exquisite French culinary classic.
So it is easy to see why the crowds are flocking there and to a clutch of other older and grander “bouillon” restaurants, which serve classic French comfort food at modest prices.
These places, where you can eat well amid Art Nouveau splendour for as little as €20 for three courses, are having something of a revival.
“What is not to like about this?” declared Edouard, the moustachioed patriarch of the Bordier clan, with three generations of his family from the Paris suburbs seated around the table at Bouillon Julien.
“Just look at this,” he said, pointing at the enormous cream profiterole before him and then sweeping his hand out to take in the restaurant’s original Belle Epoque decor.
“And they say the French no longer know to live!” he laughed.
The South Korean fashionistas at the next table, where singer Edith Piaf once dined daily, told AFP that it was their “favourite and cheapest meal” since they arrived.
One, Kim Bo-young, liked its thick paper tablecloths so much she wondered aloud about making a dress out of them.
Bouillons were invented to serve up cheap soups and stews at speed to busy Parisians in the 19th century.
“Bouillon” means broth in French, and it was from the restorative qualities of their principal dish that the word “restaurant” comes.
Bouillon Julien went back to its roots last year and lowered the prices for its clever hearty food after restoring the frescos and mosaics in its beautiful 113-year-old interior.
Rabbit terrine for €5
Walking through mahogany dining hall with its glade-green walls is like “going back in time”, said Kim, 32, tucking into a rabbit terrine with nuts and ravigote sauce for €5.20.
It is a similar story at Chartier — the daddy of all Parisian bouillons which has been going since 1896 — where the white-aproned waiters write down the orders on the paper tablecloth before totting up the bill with head-spinning speed.
Chartier opened a second enormous restaurant earlier this year in Montparnasse in the south of the city with a stunning brass and tiled interior that dates from 1903.
Serving traditional starters like snails and leek vinaigrette at unbeatable prices, the hip French gastronomic guide Le Fooding saw it as further proof of the trend towards “le retrofoodisme” that has seen French diners re-embrace butter.
Its director Alexandre Cammas said the bouillon revival was a part of a wider return to comfort food.
Food that’s a ‘big hug’
“This is cooking that gives you a big hug in contrast to (top-end) cuisine which can be very refined and cold,” he told AFP.
But Chartier boss Yann Hulin bristled at the thought that there was anything in the least trendy about what they were doing.
“We have just kept doing what we always did.
“If there is a trend, it is to copy us,” he said, in a swipe at Bouillon Julien and Bouillon Pigalle, which is setting up a second dining room that will feature Alsatian food at a historic brasserie famous for its frescos near Republique next year.
Hulin said that having been made to pay through the nose for trendy food, the public want to be served quickly and “eat good and cheap food, that is prepared simply and well”.
The high turnover of diners allowed Chartier and the other bouillons to keep their prices down, he added.
In another twist on the trend, the Mamma group also have diners queuing around the block at its Paris eateries for back-to-basics Italian trattoria food, with one restaurant-cum-street market set over 4,500 square metres.
Jean-Christophe Le Ho of Bouillon Pigalle said sourcing quality ingredients direct from producers also cut out the middleman.
He said his nostalgic menu was about rediscovering the joy of eating traditional French dishes that are being threatened by fast food, pizzerias and sushi joints.
A century ago Paris had 250 bouillons before their numbers withered to just one.
But the “strong demand we have found… for these dishes our grandmothers made” shows they very much have a future, Le Ho insisted. — AFP
In the home kitchen, most mothers reign supreme. Tales of dads cooking are becoming more common but by and large, women still prevail over the stove.
But no two families are the same and in some homes, it is the fathers who have played a dominant role in producing cherished family meals, often cooking every day for their nearest and dearest – in the name of familial love.
Paying homage to his mother’s food
At the Nunis dining table, dinner is in progress. Dad Glenn Nunis, 48, has just cooked a huge meal and his wife Coco, 43, and three kids Matthew, 22, Shane, 18, and Hope, 17, are busy helping themselves to their favourite dishes. Smiles of joy are etched on everyone’s faces, none more so than Glenn, who is gazing down at his family with unfettered happiness.
“Seeing my kids eat what I have made is very fulfilling. Most of the time, there is nothing left,” he says, laughing.
Glenn cooks for his family every day. From left: Shane, Hope, Glenn, Matthew and Coco. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham
Glenn cooks for his family every day now, but interestingly he didn’t actually cook at all until leaving home as an adult. His late mother was a talented Eurasian home cook and it was his two sisters who were often in the kitchen with her.
“I think it was expected that my sisters would help her. I only helped cut vegetables during festive seasons, like Christmas.
“But my interest in cooking started when I left the house and wasn’t staying with my mum anymore. That’s when I missed her cooking so I used to call her and ask her how to cook this and that. And she would tell me over the phone, although she used the agak-agak method, so I had to learn as I went along,” he says.
After he married his wife and had kids, Glenn’s interest in cooking burgeoned and he inevitably became the main cook in the family, a role he continues to relish even while holding down a full-time job as an IT manager.
“He cooks mostly every day and I think it helps that we live five minutes away from his office. So he’s back home by 6.30pm and normally, he’s already prepared everything the night before, so the cooking process is much quicker. But cooking is really his passion – he even takes the time to garnish meals like a real chef,” says proud wife Coco.
Coco is so invested in Glenn’s meals that she has even gone through the trouble of photographing everything he cooks and uploading it onto an album she has created on Facebook.
“So now we have an album of everything I’ve cooked,” says Glenn, smiling.
Cooking took on an even more important role in Glenn’s life after his parents passed away unexpectedly in an accident in 2015. Since then, he has become even more determined to continue cooking the heritage Eurasian dishes he learnt from his mother.
One of his mother’s recipes that Glenn continues to make to this day is her prawn pineapple curry, a robust, spicy affair interlaced with plump cubes of pineapple and tender prawns.
Glenn is compiling an e-book of all his recipes in the hopes that his children will pick up cooking in the future. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham
“This is a recipe from my grandmother that was passed down to my mum. My mum made the curry paste from scratch and I do the same thing too. And it’s a hit – my wife likes it and the kids love it as well,” he says.
Glenn’s flavourful chicken pongtey was also trawled from his late mother’s recipe arsenal. “That is something that my mum used to make for us when we were growing up, especially when we were younger because we couldn’t handle spicy food at the time,” he says.
Because their grandmother played such a pivotal role in their lives, Glenn’s children also remember her cooking and have delivered the ultimate compliment to their father: “My dad’s food tastes exactly the same as my grandmother’s food,” says Matthew simply.
As his children are fast growing up, Glenn is now busy compiling all his recipes in an e-book, to ensure that his kids will be able to easily cook the meals he has prepared for them for years, should they ever want to.
The recipes in the book run the gamut from heirloom Eurasian recipes to meals he created himself as well as Filipino fare gleaned from his travels to the Philippines with Coco, who is Filipino.
“I am hoping that the kids will pick up the recipes and learn. I am actually compiling it the way I cook it, so that is something that I can leave behind for them one day,” he says.
Glenn says he knows he’s a bit different from other dads as most of his male friends who are also dads don’t cook at all. But to him, cooking is all about family anyway, which is why he loves doing it.
“I guess I am different from other dads in a sense, but it pleases me to see my family enjoying the food I make,” he says.
For pounding together to a paste 5 to 6 cloves garlic 4 shallots
For cooking 2 tbsp oil 2 tbsp heaped minced tauchu (bean paste) 1kg chicken thigh, cut into 4 pieces per thigh 1 tbsp thick caramel black soy sauce 2 chicken stock cubes diluted in 2 cups of hot water 1 small sengkuang, cut into bite-sized pieces 2 carrots, rolling cut 3 potatoes, cut into quarters salt and sugar to taste
To make In a pestle and mortar, pound garlic and shallots to a paste. Set aside. Heat oil in a wok and on low heat, lightly stir-fry the garlic and shallot paste; do not let it brown. Add the minced tauchu, stir constantly on low heat until fragrant. Add chicken and stir on medium heat for about 1 minute. Then add the thick sauce until the chicken is fully coated in the sauce. Add chicken stock. Simmer with lid closed for about 10 minutes. Add the sengkuang, carrots and potatoes, cover with lid and allow to cook on medium heat until the chicken and vegetables are cooked, about 15 minutes. Add salt and sugar to taste and serve hot.
PINEAPPLE PRAWN CURRY Serves 6
For blending into a paste 20 dried chillies, rinsed and soaked in hot water 4 medium red onions 4cm turmeric 2cm lengkuas 4-5 cloves garlic 3 stalks lemongrass 2cm young ginger
For cooking 2 tbsp oil 1 chicken stock cube, diluted in 1 cup water salt to taste 1 tbsp assam jawa (tamarind paste), diluted in 1 cup water 1 small whole honey pineapple, cut into wedges sugar to taste 1kg medium sized prawns, deveined, shells intact
To cook In a blender, blend all the ingredients for blending until smooth. Set aside. In a wok, add oil and stir-fry the blended rempah paste on medium-low heat until a layer of oil emerges, about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and salt. Add the strained tamarind juice and cut pineapples and let simmer for about 2 minutes. Add sugar to taste and simmer for 10 minutes. Add prawns towards the end, stir to combine and allow prawns to cook until just tender. Once done, serve hot with white rice.
A lifetime of cooking
In his daughter’s sun-drenched kitchen, 72-year-old Henry Kok is cooking up a storm. His performance – and yes, it is indeed a sight to behold – is nothing short of masterful, like a ballet dancer gracefully alternating between different movements – deftness you will instantly see as he slices spring onions with precision, fries up some prawns and stirs the sauce for a dish.
In less than 30 minutes, Henry has whipped up three stunning dishes, barely breaking a sweat and maintaining his sweet, disarming smile.
Kok learnt to cook by helping his mother as a child and continues to cook to this day. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong
The youthful-looking Kok is a successful business mogul who loves cooking and continues to experiment and come up with his own creative concoctions. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong
In many ways, Kok’s prowess in the kitchen began at a very young age, as a child growing up in a financially-strapped family in Perak.
“I was one of seven siblings and when I was small, I used to help my mother in the kitchen. We were fortunate because my father’s boss let us stay in a wooden house with plenty of space. So to help ease the burden of buying groceries, we reared our own ducks and turkeys and planted vegetables and fruits, so we were more or less self-sufficient,” says Kok.
Kok learnt how to cook from his mother but adapted and changed many recipes along the way. When he moved to KL for work, he continued to cook for his siblings, many of whom had also moved to KL for job opportunities.
“When my siblings moved to KL, we all lived together and I was the only one who churned out all the food and everyone enjoyed it. Along the way, I experimented and came up with a lot of dishes myself. So that’s my passion,” says Kok, grinning.
Even after he married his wife Margie Chong, 73, (herself a talented cook) and had his two daughters – Wendy Kok, 48, and Mabel Kok, 45, he continued to cook.
“I’ve been cooking for umpteen years, my family enjoys my food. Even when I was very, very, busy, I would go home and cook,” he enthuses.
Kok is a devoted father and grandfather who believes that a family that eats together, stays together. From left: Darren, Wendy, Cassandra, Margie, Kok, Mabel and Steven. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong
This is made all the more impressive given that Kok is one of the co-founders (alongside his two brothers) of Bina Warehouse, Malaysia’s leading specialist retailer and distributor of luxury bathroom and kitchen brands.
So even as he was building a mega business, he still found the time to cook for his family every day!
“It was an experience from when we were young. My dad used to make us get involved in kitchen activities like going to the market, cooking and cleaning, so we learnt from there and it’s always been a memory from young that we are a cooking family. Having watched and learnt from my dad, I also cook every day for my family,” says Mabel, who is now the CEO of Bina Warehouse.
These days, Kok has semi-retired from the business, although he still serves as the company’s managing director and puts in regular half-days.
But his passion for cooking remains and Kok still cooks for his daughters, their spouses Darren Chong, 39, and Steven Chu, 49, and granddaughter Cassandra Chu, 15, at least three times a week.
“Sometimes I go to their houses in Seputeh and I’ll bring the food I’ve cooked for them and sometimes they come to my home in Ampang and I cook for them there. I strongly believe that a family that eats together, stays together,” he affirms.
Some of Kok’s signature dishes include his assam fish, a triumphantly buoyant, lively affair with fiery underpinnings and citrusy elements underscoring the entire meal.
“It’s a Nyonya dish and the conventional way of cooking it is to use tamarind juice but I thought ‘I want to give the dish some oomph, I want the sourness and sweetness to stand out’. So I began to experiment with kalamansi juice and also pineapple juice. I added it together with tamarind juice – so there are three types of sour juices – and it turned out so beautiful. I’m happy with it,” he says.
Kok’s zest-driven deep-fried prawns with honey lemon curd sauce is also a thing of beauty, as the crunchy prawns are coated in a rich, sumptuous lemon curd-honey-mayonnaise sauce that elevates it to a whole new dimension.
“It’s also my own concoction. I’ve got a nephew whose wife makes homemade lemon curd jam, so I bought some and thought ‘Why not come up with a dish by making use of lemon curd jam?’ So I experimented and came up with this,” he says simply.
Kok says he doesn’t really think of himself as an anomaly, despite the fact that most home cooks are – for whatever reason – often female.
“I think fathers have been cooking, just that it’s not made known. The perception is that ladies always cook, but I’ve been cooking all my life. I have always been the main cook, more than anybody else. And cooking makes me happy,” he says succinctly.
“To which, Kok’s only grandchild Cassandra pipes in, “I don’t think he’s unusual – we’re all just so proud of him,” she says, beaming up at her grandfather.
HENRY’S ASSAM FISH Serves 8 to 10
1 golden pomfret, about 800g (can be replaced with snapper) 7 to 8 okra, tip removed 10 tbsp cooking oil 3 stalks lemongrass, white part only, smashed lightly 15 to 20 shallots, blended 10 cloves garlic, blended 5 to 6 dried chillies, blended 10 fresh red chillies, blended 5 candlenuts, pounded 5cm belacan (6mm thick), flattened to 2mm and toasted over gas fire 6cm fresh turmeric, pounded 2 bunga kantan (torch ginger buds), sliced a bunch of daun kesum (Vietnamese mint), sliced thinly 2 tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in rice bowl filled with 3/4 water 1 whole pineapple, halved (1/2 cut into slices for curry, the other 1/2 juiced) 10-12 kalamansi limes, juiced salt to taste sugar to taste
To make Steam fish until cooked; discard steaming liquid. Microwave okra until tender, then cut into 2cm slices. Heat wok with cooking oil. Fry lemongrass with blended shallots and garlic. Add blended chillies, candlenuts, belacan, turmeric, bunga kantan and daun kesum and stir to combine. Add tamarind juice, pineapple juice and kalamansi juice and stir to combine. Add salt and sugar, then put in pineapple slices and adjust seasoning to taste. Add okra and fish right at the end and stir to coat evenly for 1 to 2 minutes until flavours soak fish. Serve hot with rice.
DEEP-FRIED PRAWNS WITH HONEY LEMON CURD Serves 8 to 10
2 green apples, skin removed and diced 4 tbsp lemon curd 4 tbsp mayonnaise 1 tbsp honey 700 to 700g class A prawns, shelled and deveined salt and pepper to taste pinch of five-spice powder rice flour to coat a plate
In a bowl, mix apples with lemon curd, mayonnaise and honey. Season prawns with salt, pepper and five-spice powder and coat well in rice flour until batter is evenly distributed. In a frying pan, deep-fry prawns until cooked but still tender. Coat prawns well in lemon curd mixture and serve immediately.
What’s the perfect office temperature? Everyone you ask will have a different answer.
For some people, an office climate bordering on frosty is ideal; for others, anything below subtropical necessitates a blanket, fingerless gloves and an illicit space heater.
There’s no one thermostat setting that will make everyone happy. But in a new study, University of Southern California (USC) researchers in the United States offer the temperature that facilitates optimal productivity.
In a study published in the journal Plos One in June 2019, Tom Y. Chang, an associate professor of finance and business economics at the USC Marshall School of Business, and his team looked at how male and female students performed on math, verbal and cognitive tasks at temperatures ranging from 61°F (16ºC) to 91°F (33ºC).
The findings: Women performed better at temperatures between 70°F (21ºC) and 80°F (27ºC), whereas men performed better at temperatures below 70°F (21ºC).
However, women were more negatively impacted by colder temperatures than men were by warmer ones.
So, if an office manager is looking to maximise workplace productivity, where should the thermostat needle land?
“I’m cringing a little bit to say this,” Assoc Prof Chang said. “Seventy-five degrees (Fahrenheit, 24ºC) to me is boiling. That’s hot. I’m very warm at 75.
“But in a gender-balanced office environment, our results suggest that something like 75 degrees might be the optimal temperature to have for optimal productivity.”
This is not the first time the office thermostat battle has made headlines.
A 2015 study published in the journal Nature indicated office temperatures are generally set based on an empirical thermal comfort model from the 1960s, when the workforce was much more predominantly male.
In other words: Offices tend to be climate-controlled to men’s preferences, which we now know comes at the expense of women’s comfort and productivity.
A rash of articles about how the office AC is sexist followed, along with a College Humor video cataloging the very real ordeal of “women’s winter” in workplaces across America.
In rebuttals, the argument was made that this was a dress-code issue, not a thermostat one: Men traditionally wear suits to work, while women’s workwear tends to be lighter and more adaptable to the weather.
But without meaning to, this new study controlled for that – Assoc Prof Chang said that study participants were students, the vast majority of whom were dressed in weather-appropriate casual clothing.
So, even when you control for the dress code, men and women still have different temperature preferences.
The results came as a surprise to Alison Green, author of the advice site Ask a Manager, who’s received a number of letters over the years asking her to weigh in on the thermostat wars.
She said in the past, her advice has been to err on the side of chilly: It’s easier to put more clothes on and warm up than it is to remove them and cool down in a professional environment.
But hearing the results of the USC study, “now I’m questioning my advice,” she said, “especially given the gender divide on this.”
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have a firm ruling on office temperatures: It advises workplaces to be between 68°F (20ºC) and 76°F (24ºC), a fairly wide range.
Assuming your workplace isn’t dangerously hot or cold – if your employees are risking frostbite or heat stroke, then obviously, changes need to be made – Green said managers have some options for helping people acclimate to the indoor climate.
Try to allow space heaters or fans if it’s safe to do so, she said, and loosen up on the dress code when people are trying to stay comfortable at work.
Another option is to rearrange seating, so that the coldest person in the office isn’t positioned directly under a roaring AC vent, and the warmest isn’t baking next to your sunniest window.
In general, she said, as offices across the workforce relax dress-code standards, more people should be able to find clothing options so that they can focus more on work and less on the mercury wars.
In the meantime, science says to set the thermostat in the mid-70s (around 24ºC). – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service