Sampling Asia’s Locally-Made Drinks
One of the pleasures of travel is enjoying the local food and drink. This is particularly true for older travellers who no longer have to do everything on a shoestring, as they may have done when they were younger.
For those who enjoy alcohol, travelling in Asia provides the opportunity to choose from a wide selection of locally-made drinks. Many countries produce not only their own beer and wine but an interesting range of the hard stuff.
A good rule of thumb, of course, is to avoid any kind of local alcohol unless you’re pretty sure it’s safe. Steer clear of moonshine or anything that you suspect is dodgy. That said, there’s plenty of choice for travellers wanting to quench their thirst.
Almost every country in Asia boasts its own brand or brands of beer. Regular travellers will have their favourite brands. In this global age, many are well-known beyond their country of origin but it’s still a special pleasure to quaff them in the land they come from. A good beer goes particularly well with a spicy Asian meal.
Winemaking in Asia extends well beyond the established producers such as China, Japan and Korea. Countries as varied as India, Indonesia, Bhutan, Vietnam and Myanmar have their own white and red winemaking industries. And if you’re partial to wines made from fruits other than grape, you can add countries like the Philippines and Cambodia to the list.
Palm wine is a widely popular drink in Asia. It’s made across a large swathe of the region, from the sap of coconut or palmyra palms. It’s known as toddy in some countries and by a variety of other names.
Once the sugary sap has been tapped from the flower of the palm tree, it immediately starts to ferment naturally. The sweet, milky-white beverage is ready to drink within a couple of hours, with an alcohol content of around 4 or 5 percent – roughly the same as light beer. It should be drunk within a day, after which it starts to turn into vinegar.
Toddy is particularly popular in South India and Sri Lanka, as well as parts of Southeast Asia. In Kerala, which has far more coconut palms than any other state in India, it’s often drunk in toddy shops. These are small bars, usually in rural areas, that also serve fiery curries. The more food customers eat, the more toddy they need to wash it down.
When you’re travelling in Sri Lanka’s western coastal areas, you’re likely to see toddy tappers working high above the ground on two parallel ropes tied between coconut palms.
Some tourist-quality restaurants in India and Sri Lanka serve toddy and this is probably the safest way for travellers to sample the drink.
Toddy is sometimes distilled into a stronger drink, known in many places as arrack or arak.
In the Philippines, coconut wine is known as lambanog. It comes in different flavours, some sold in supermarkets, but most of the lambanog consumed is sold cheaply in reused bottles from roadside stalls (with little quality or hygiene control).
Also popular in Asia is rice wine. If you’re visiting Borneo, especially during Gawai and other festivals celebrated by indigenous groups, you’re likely to be offered a glass or two of tuak, wine made from glutinous rice, yeast, sugar and water. It can be dry or sweet, depending on how much sugar is added to the mix.
Cheap local whiskies or rums made from rice or sugar cane are found in many countries too; the popular Mekhong spirit sold in Thailand is a typical example.
Here’s a look at some of the more interesting drinks that travellers may like to try in a few Asian countries.
When you’re visiting Japan, do try its famous drink, sake. It’s made by fermenting rice, and is brewed in a similar way to beer. It’s stronger than most wine but less strong than whisky. Sake can be served chilled, at room temperature or warm – it’s a matter of personal preference. It’s usually served in a small ceramic cup, either with food or on its own. You can knock it back in one go if you like, but you’ll probably enjoy it more if you sip it and savour it on the tongue. There’s no etiquette on this; it’s simply meant to be enjoyed.
Tokyo is something of a haven for lovers of craft beer too. Most of the larger cities have at least one bar dedicated to it, and there are regular craft beer festivals. A popular bar in Tokyo that offers an extensive range of craft beers is Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya.
Tokyo-based journalist and craft beer enthusiast Mark Austin recommends two brands: Baird Suruga Bay Imperial IPA and Yona Yona Ale. They are available from brewery-owned taprooms and some supermarkets and convenience stores. And sometimes you’ll find craft beer mobile dispensing vans parked in busy parts of Tokyo.
Soju is to Korea what sake is to Japan. It’s a clear, distilled spirit that’s hugely popular in both the South and the North. Traditionally it was made with rice but today distillers usually use other grains and starches such as wheat or sweet potatoes.
It’s a medium-level alcoholic drink, stronger than beer or wine but weaker than, say, vodka. It goes well with meals and is usually drunk neat but you can also drink it with a variety of mixers or even drop it into a glass of beer. It’s sold in restaurants, bars and convenience stores.
Try the rakshi, or raksi, a pale, whisky-like drink distilled from millet or grain. It’s one of the few Asian alcoholic drinks included in CNN’s list of the world's 50 most delicious drinks. People also drink it in the Indian Himalayas and Tibet.
I first tried it on a cold evening while trekking in the mountains northeast of Pokhara in 1989. My guide, Mingma, bought it from the local village; it was made, he told me, from corn and millet. It was strong, warming and unexpectedly smooth, and made the perfect end to a long day of walking.
Mongolians are proud of their country’s locally-made vodka. Introduced by Russians during the Soviet era, it has become Mongolia’s most-consumed alcoholic drink and there are scores of distilleries. Popular brands include Chinggis and Soyombo.
Adventurous travellers may like to try the traditional Mongolian milk vodka known as arkhi. It’s distilled with fermented cow milk yogurt and is particularly popular among the nomads who are believed to make up at least 25 percent of the country’s population. Many of them have their own stills.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has a surprisingly wide selection of locally-made whisky, brandy, vodka, gin and rum, as well as red and white wines. You’ll find them in supermarkets, restaurants and hotel bars.
Winter nights in Bhutan can be bitterly cold and there’s nothing like a drink to warm you up (well, along with the log fire that the hotel staff will light in your room). At my hotel in Bumthang in central Bhutan, the bar offered a choice of everything from peach, apple, grape and herbal brandy to a selection of whisky, rum and gin.
The drink most associated with Singapore is the Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail invented in the early 20th century. A barman at the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel dreamed it up. The recipe varies from place to place but it’s essentially a mix of gin, pineapple juice, lime juice, cherry brandy and other liqueurs. Here’s a recipe from the BBC.
If you’d like to try it, why not head for the place where it was invented? Raffles Hotel opened in 1887 and is one of Asia’s finest colonial hotels. In its early years it was popular with plantation owners from all over Malaya. It’s presently undergoing renovation and is due to re-open in mid-2019. The Long Bar is being restored with what the hotel describes as “contemporary plantation-inspired motifs”.
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