Oriental Adventures: Chinese Coffee

Preparing for China this year, we packed two kilos of coffee and a press after the passports but before the tickets. The Chinese may understand the word coffee, they may have characters for it, they may even - god help you - try to sell you a cup of something. But they don't know coffee.

China is a tea culture. Utterly. Sipping it, slurping it, strong or weak at any time of the day. They have a thousand types of the stuff - Brewster would never have had a problem spending his millions if he’d known about Grand Red Robe tea. At five figures for fifty grams, he and a few friends could have sipped their way into bankruptcy without ever standing up, creating the first and only Richard Pryor Art House film. Coffee is some foreign devilry that they only seem to attempt with their eyes closed and oven mitts on.

I didn't know about this caffeine-shaped blind spot in the premier culinary culture on the planet last year, and ended up exposed to compounds best handled by HAZMAT teams. In one establishment a request for coffee was met like a local mob boss demanding pasta a la endangered eagle: a terrified grin followed by lots of frantic discussion in the kitchen. This wouldn't have been odd, except the place was called "Shang Dao Coffee" - and "Shang Dao" doesn't mean "We don't serve." It's a chain name, the title of this Starbucks-equivalent (also known as UBC Coffee) which has opened coffee shops throughout the country and this, clearly, was the first time someone had called their bluff.

After much behind-the-scenes scrambling they appeared at the bar with an assemblage of brass and glassware wouldn't have looked out of place bubbling behind Dr Frankenstein. It had clearly been at the hgih-price end of whatever cafe-supply catalog it had been bought from. It had equally clearly never been used, and it became excruciatingly clear that whatever instructions came with it did not include any form of Chinese.

At this point I tried to cancel the order and leave, but was asked to sit down and await my order. Clearly, they had started to make coffee and no-one was going anywhere until they finished. The resulting fluid, arrived at after only slightly less effort than the atom bomb or the jet engine, was served in a wafer thin plastic bubble tea cup. Complete with cling-wrap sealing of the top and a thick straw jammed into it. The container was so utterly unsuited for anything above room temperature, and the "cafe" so utterly inequipped to serve coffee, I had to carry the resulting scald-bomb in a plastic bag until it cooled down.

And it tasted like water.

I tried various other establishments before eventually giving up, scoring various results between "liquid" and "mud." Starbucks has spread to China but outside major city downtowns they're few and far between, ridiculously expensive by Chinese standards, and you feel like such a goddamn asshole white boy saying "I've got to get my Starbucks." You might as well arrive shouting "lookee lookee chineee" and trying to buy a wife for twenty American dollars.

Without doubt the worst coffee impersonation inflicted on me was at the Summer Palace. An ultra-popular tourist destination, the concession stand offered everything from fruit juice to Johnny Walker. The whisky would have been better coffee.

It tasted like they'd made it in a washing machine, and forgotten to drain the detergent first. Despite the very real taste of soap and dishwasher detergent it also managed to be gritty and dirty - they hadn't even taken their old washing out of the machine before stirring in some grinds and charging me for the drippings. Somehow dirt and detergent were co-existing in this solution, setting aside their eternal enmity to attack my tastebuds instead.

The moral? Delight in the delicious food, savour the delicate teas - but if you want to be awake to enjoy any of it, bring your own coffee.

1 comment:

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