Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Strange companions

I, of course, have no truck with Halloween as a pretext for costume parties. But good luck to the rest of you. Just be careful who you stand next to at the urinals.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Rule of Custom

Last Saturday evening, I found myself (as so often lately!) on my own for dinner, and so decided to try somewhere new. And this led to me to waive one (or possibly two) of the most basic rules of venue choice: 
a bar or restaurant with no customers in it is almost certainly no bloody good.

The corollary rule is that  if there's a place you've never got around to trying in years, there's probably a good reason for that.

On Saturday, with the streets thronged by premature Halloweeners, I was driven to trying a little Muslim restaurant on Gulou Dongdajie that had no customers in it at the time, and that I don't think I'd been in before. (Given that I've lived around this part of Beijing for a decade now, there aren't many long-established restaurants that I've never tried; most I've been into at least a handful of times, and the better ones some dozens of times.)

And it was indeed stupendously awful. The spicy green beans were undercooked, and so stringy as to be almost inedible. And not very spicy. And, despite being undercooked, they were not delivered to my table until several minutes after I'd received and eaten (or tried to eat) everything else. The egg fried rice was horrendously overcooked; very thin on egg, but doused in soy sauce which made it far too salty and gave it an unappealing brown colour; and I suspected it had probably been recycled numerous times. The beer was warm. The chuanr was OK, but a small stick for 3rmb.

5 young Chinese lads entered shortly after me (perhaps enticed in by the glamorous presence of a foreigner?). They still hadn't received any of their food when I left 20 or so minutes later, and were starting to look disconsolate and impatient.

Food service had perhaps been held up by the fact that the chuanr cook out front had dragged one of the indoor kitchen staff out into the street to have a protracted screaming row with him.

Ah, China.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"What am I doing? Nothing. I am letting life rain upon me."

Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Drum & bass - a Top Five rhythm pairings

Music Mike was talking about drummers last month, and that got me to thinking about some of the great rhythm sections - drummers and bass players who were not only technically excellent individually but were especially formidable in combination.

So, for this week's musical treat, we have...

A Top Five Great Drum and Bass Combinations

5)  Keith Moon and John Entwistle of The Who
Mike will doubtless carp at my only putting these boys in at No. 5 - which is the main reason I'm doing it! The numbering here isn't really significant: there's no choosing between these guys. Here's a fantastic live performance of Won't Get Fooled Again.

4)  Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce of Cream
Some might argue that Cream was an uncomfortable alliance of rogue individualists rather than a really together band, and Jack and Ginger had a notoriously volatile relationship which eventually tore the group apart. But individually they are two of the most outstanding exponents of their instruments, and when they were in a groove together it was awesome. Here they are doing the George Harrison song Badge, accompanied by a photo montage of the band in their heyday. [You can also try this live version from one of their 2005 reunion shows.]

3)  Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding of The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Jimi's pyrotechnics on lead guitar can easily overshadow his backing men, but this was an absolutely outstanding band. Here they are doing Fire (not sure when or where, but it's a great live video).

2)  John Bonham and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin
The more I listen to Zep these days, the more I find myself enjoying the intricate interaction between the two Johns and paying less attention to those Jimmy Page guitar riffs that first captivated me. This is Fool In The Rain (unfortunately, I can't find a live performance of this; but I'm going to post it anyway, as it's one of my very favourites of theirs).

But in the top spot I put....

1)  Mick Fleetwood and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac
The understanding between these two is unparalleled. Not so overtly virtuosic as my other picks, but damn, they work well together! They've been playing together, in a variety of different styles, for over 45 years now - but they were tight right from the beginning. Well, tight in an unconventional way: I read once that a distinctive characteristic of their playing is that they're not classically tight, that they tend to be ever so slightly out-of-sync with each other, McVie just a little ahead of the beat and Fleetwood infinitesimally behind it. Well, at least they're consistent about it. And it somehow contrives to generate a driving tension in their playing. Here's Gold Dust Woman, from a 1977 concert in Japan (poor picture quality, but good sound).

Friday, October 26, 2012

HBH 308

Drink makes you feel young;
Alas, it makes you look old.
Oh, cruel paradox!

No, I still haven't recovered from the goddamned birthday last weekend. I haven't in fact reached any 'significant' round-number landmark (a few people speculated that I was turning 50, or even 55 - cheeky buggers!). It's just that I am, for the first time in my life, really starting to feel my age - and I DO NOT LIKE IT.

This, no doubt, is where the phenomenon of The Mid-Life Crisis comes from: a desperate urge to recover the illusion of youth, when youth itself is far beyond recovery.

I hope I don't fall into that pattern; it's always seemed rather sad and foolish to me.

Then again, there are those who say I've been having a mid-life crisis for my whole life....

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Stop that!

Meandering in the diverting thickets of Wikipedia the other day, I came upon The Anti-Flirt Club, a short-lived social movement founded by a group of young women in the Washington, DC area in 1923.

It seems these girls, under the leadership of their President, Alice Reighly, were particularly concerned about the recent growth of the phenomenon of men making passes at women from their motor cars. But their evangelising efforts  were aimed at their own sex rather than at men, aiming to stamp out the dangerous vice of promiscuous flirtation. Their 'Ten Commandments' - a rather repetitive and glibly epigrammatic set of injunctions for more decorous feminine behaviour - included such gems as:

Don't wink—a flutter of one eye may cause a tear in the other.

... and...

Don't annex all the men you can get—by flirting with many, you may lose out on the one.

But my favourite was the bafflingly verbose No. 8:

Don't fall for the slick, dandified cake eater—the unpolished gold of a real man is worth more than the gloss of a lounge lizard.

"Cake eater"?? Several online slang dictionaries I've just consulted are unfamiliar with the term, and it is not immediately evident why such a commonplace and innocuous activity should be associated, in men, with moral turpitude. Perhaps Ms Reighly's eccentric and obscure turn of phrase was to blame for the failure of the Club's great mission.

I am relieved at this failure. I'm rather partial to a spot of flirting myself. No harm can come of it - so long as the lady concerned is a safe distance away down the bar. And is leaving the country the next morning....

[Reading about this odd little campaign of yesteryear reminded me once again of The League of Health and Strength, a morally crusading organisation for young men that was active in Great Britain in the early 1900s.]

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The King of Condiments

The food I made for my b'day party on Saturday may have been of variable quality, but I defy anyone to carp at the range of toppings I made available for their burger customizing.

We had lettuce, onions, and tomatoes, of course, and dill pickle and jalapeno rings. And mayonnaise, ketchup, HP Sauce, A1 Steak Sauce, barbecue sauce, Korean sweet chilli paste, brown mustard and dijon mustard, and salt and pepper. We also had a sweet pickle relish (another Heinz product, but jazzed up with some additional onion and garlic), a spicy tomato relish of my own devising, a yellow radish paste (made with the ginger & turmeric daikon radish pickle from the cooking class I went to a couple of weeks back), and some 'proper ketchup' - a puree of sundried tomatoes and garlic (a sop to my foodie friend The Bengali, who declares regular ketchup to be "the devil's work").

Of course, I still have most of this stuff left. I may have to eat nothing but burgers and hotdogs for the next three months to use it all up.

Monday, October 22, 2012


I only put myself through 15 hours of shopping and 15 hours of prep in the kitchen to distract myself from too much brooding on decay and death at the end of last week. The real party happened afterwards - the dwindling gaggle of 'survivors' migrating around the Gulou area: Chill, Mai, 12 Square Metres, Salud, and, finally, of course, the Pool Bar

It was nearly dawn when I got home. Well, it was dawn when I woke up on the infamous Man-Eating Sofa.

And then Sunday was one of those wretched grey drizzly days: when I got up at noon to begin tidying up, I swear it was darker than when I'd gone to bed. After another heavy night last night (rum specials at MaoMaoChong, and making a first dent in the ridiculously generous tab The Choirboy left for me at 12SQM), I am now thoroughly jet-lagged. I fear it's going to take me at least a few days to get back in the right timezone!

Bon mot for the week

"If Plato is a fine red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini."

Philosopher/barman Chet (Eric Stoltz) in Noah Baumbach's wonderful college comedy Kicking and Screaming

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Great Drinking Songs (35)

Well, I've mentioned Jimmy Buffett on here once or twice before, have enrolled him as one of my 'Unsuitable Role Models', but, somehow, I haven't previously got around to posting his signature hit in this 'Great Drinking Songs' series.

Since today is going to be a day for drinking-and-maudlin-reminiscence - my birthday and my first day off the wagon after a month of abstinence! - Margaritaville seems particularly appropriate. (Although the weather is not tropical enough here any more to support the drinking of margaritas, alas. But I'm sure there will be a few tequila slammers consumed at some point.)

[There's also a little musical treat over on Froogville today.]

Friday, October 19, 2012

Party panic*

Throwing a party in Beijing is an exhausting task.

For one thing, almost no-one ever manages to give you a really firm and convincing RSVP: my expected numbers are between 15 and 45.
(I am guesstimating low-20s, but it could get crowded - or be deserted! You never can tell.)

For another, shopping involves massive treks across the city. Outlets of the two main supermarket chains specialising in foreigner-targeted imports are all clustered over on the east side; neither has a branch within the 2nd Ringroad. What's more, they are wildly inconsistent in their stocking: different branches of the same store may carry very different items, so you often find yourself traipsing to two or three different ones in hopes of finding something you crave - as often as not, ultimately in vain. This week, for example, I found that three different Jenny Lou's locations were mysteriously out of cheddar.

To add to my vexation, I discovered that my local Chinese supermarket has just stopped selling beer by the case. (There was welcome karmic compensation in the fact that one of the five or six 7-11 type stores on my street has just started selling beer by the case.)

In the UK these days, the major supermarket chains have started setting up numerous mini-branches in the middle of urban areas: in a big town or city, it seems you're rarely more than half a mile away from a Tesco Metro or a Sainsbury's Local - and they stock just about EVERYTHING you might ever want. Here in Beijing, you have to visit 5 or 6 different stores, and they're scattered all over the map. I've put in well over 50 road miles this week - the majority of them on foot!

And just when I was finally getting on top of the shopping list (lettuces are damned hard to come by... and the radish season has passed?!), I realised that I didn't have a serviceable barbecue - which is a pity, given that I had advertised an outdoor party and bought a ton of food for barbecueing. I had thought I had TWO barbecues left behind by previous tenants, but in fact I seem to have bits of three - from which I can only cobble together one complete one. And that's very small. And will take hours of cleaning to make fit for use.

I knew this was going to be kind of a problem. I had always planned to buy a similar barbecue of my own to boost my grilling capacity, but... I hadn't counted on them being such a seasonal item. Two local stores where I've seen them in the past (one of them, as recently as a month or so ago) no longer have any in stock. I also tried a multi-storey sundries market that stocks everything from plumbing supplies to My Little Ponies; after half an hour of searching, I ascertained that it did not stock barbecues. Well, no matter: I thought at least one of my friends would have one they could lend me....

Well, eventually, my problem is sorted. I had been contemplating building an open fire from pieces of broken furniture, but that will not be necessary: I have managed to procure a barbecue.

But that's another TWO DAYS of my life gone. And I haven't even done the BIG SHOP yet.

It'll probably rain, too....

* This post title cunningly chosen to aggravate the Chinese censors.

HBH 307

Days in the desert
Sharpen the pleasures denied:
First drink is sweetest.

I completed a full month of abstinence from beer on Wednesday. Naturally, I immediately began drinking beer again. My first sup was a Saranac - and boy, did it taste good!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Recommended Posts, January-March 2012

What were the highlights from the early part of this year?

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 1st quarter of 2012

1)  Mess  -  3rd January 2012
I begin the New Year with my kitchen in a state of chaos after a - very modest - 'house-warming' party.

2)  Top Five Basslines  -  7th January 2012
The opening post in what has become an irregular music series on here generated my busiest comment thread of the whole year (about the only busy comment thread).

3)  Hitting the Naale on the head!  -  10th January 2012
I am briefly almost fooled by a wondrously naff piece of Chinese brand mimicry.

4)  A musical youth  -  14th January 2012
A brief history of the evolution of my tastes in music, prompted by recent online encounters with new blog buddy Music Mike.

5)  Starting the Wish List early  -  17th January 2012
I discover a wealth of oddball gift ideas on the splendidly named Unemployed Philosophers' Guild website. And I am thus inspired to launch an entirely neglected reader participation thread on favourite writer/drinkers.

6)  Positive feedback  -  20th January 2012
News (apparently genuine) that some Japanese urinals are being fitted with interactive video games controlled by one's piss-stream... leads me to suggest a few such game formats especially tailored to the Chinese market.

Although I have come to loathe China's 'Spring Festival' holiday, I reflect that I did have a rather a good time on this day in my very first year in Beijing.

8)  This week's drinking excuse  -  26th January 2012
I celebrate Australia Day with a brief appreciation of the famous drinking exploits of former PM Bob Hawke, and with a posting of that most Aussie of all Aussie songs, Colin Hay's Down Under.

9)  Summoning the get-up-and-go  -  28th January 2012
Feeling rundown and lethargic after a strange week of insomnia, I rouse my spirits with a favourite 'happy song' from my student days, virtuouso electro-jazz ensemble Weather Report's irresistibly peppy instrumental Birdland.

10)  Limiting one's chances  -  3rd February 2012
I review the reasons why none of my attempted romantic relationships in Beijing have worked out.

11)  That's exactly how I felt  -  4th February 2012
The funniest and wisest comedy sketch I know: Peter Cook and Dudley re-enact the Fall of Lucifer - from their brilliant 1968 feature film Bedazzled.

12)  Alternate reasons to celebrate  -  6th February 2012
I find further necessary distraction from the protracted hell of the Chinese New Year festival in Bob Marley's birthday, which I commemorate with two versions of the song Stop The Train (one by The Wailers, and one by its composer, Peter Tosh).

13)  Singles get doubles!  -  14th February 2012
My idea for a Valentine's Day promotion.

14)  In praise of the tequila slammer  -  16th February 2012
How I developed a fondness for the crack cocaine of alcoholic drinks.

15)  The threshold of gloom  -  22nd February 2012
I realise that my spells of depression are closely linked to the hours of daylight. Thank heavens the days are getting longer!

16)  Great Dating Disasters (9)  -  23rd February 2012
This was actually one of my great romantic successes - but it didn't have staying power.

17)  Mardi Gras leftovers  -  25th February
Since I had recently been fretting (yet again) about having to miss the Krewe du Vieux carnival in New Orleans this year, I rounded up a selection of versions of I Wish I Was In New Orleans: a great live performance and the original album version (illustrated with a stylish animation utilizing some sketches by Egon Schiele) by its original composer, Tom Waits; an ethereal cover by Scarlett Johansson; and a different song of the same name by up-and-coming American roots music star Ben Prestage.

18)  Just what the doctor ordered!  -  28th February 2012
I have a new favourite cocktail - the Penicillin.

19)  Bon mot for the week  -  5th March 2012
One of my own, on why people find my personality so difficult to deal with.

20)  Drinks can be too cheap  -  8th March 2012
I explain why offering 5-kuai draughts sends out a negative signal.

21)  The allure of the bar crawl  -  9th March 2012
A haiku on the appeal of - occasionally - trying to fit in several different venues in one night of drinking.

22)  Return of the Band Names game  -  10th March 2012
Some friends and I come up with an idea for a tribute band honouring Beijing's new bluegrass favourites The Randy Abel Stable. Shortly afterwards, another friend asks me to suggest names for her new band. My input on the question is ultimately disregarded - but at least it provides an excuse to revive the long-dormant Band Names game for a week or two, and push it past its 200th comment.

23)  Great Drinking Songs (31)  -  17th March 2012
For St Patrick's Day this year, I post three versions of Whiskey In The Jar - by Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, and The Dubliners.

24)  How not to do it - opening a bar  -  24th March 2012
A new Chinese bar in my 'hood, Zhou, does everything so spectacularly wrong, it's like an instruction manual for how to lose money.

25)  Hmmm, chilli!  -  26th March 2012
Tasting notes on the Chilli Cook-Off competition with which hutong brewery Great Leap saw in the spring. [I was not in sympathy with the judges' choice of winner!]

26)  Half-plugged  -  29th March 2012
An account of one of the year's most surprising gigs (and, after a faltering start, quite possibly its best): The Beijing Beatles playing semi-unplugged in the tiny, homely space of my favourite bar, 12 Square Metres.

27)  Oh, brave new world!  -  30th March 2012
I nearly get a job in nearby Tianjin. While attending an interview, I stumble upon an amusingly bizarre bar calling itself the Swiss Club. I couldn't help but be reminded of The Fast Show's improbable Lothario character Swiss Toni, and was inspired to try to launch another audience participation thread (another abject failure! no commenters any more!!).

28)  Another Top Five Basslines: 'Chuggers'  -  31st March 2012
The second entry in my basslines series - this time focusing on those unfussy but insistent lines that just keep throbbing away, relentlessly driving a song on its way.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Useful words

A few weeks back, I did a post on here about the enigmatic Russian word razbliuto (in fact, it is non-existent, a pop culture delusion). That had been prompted by a post a little before on my other blog, Froogville, about various unusual words in other languages, and the intriguing concepts associated with them, that I'd discovered in recent online noodlings.

One of the most interesting of my sources for these posts was this item (on the TED website) in which a conference of translators nominated their 21 favourite 'hard to translate' words.

On this list there were, for me, a couple of absolute standouts, words which I'd like to adopt into regular English usage:

sobremesa  -  the Spanish for the time after a meal spent enjoying conversation with the people you've just eaten with

merak  -  the Serbian for the enjoyment of simple pleasures like feasting and merrymaking

I am, of course, also fond of the Irish term craic, a somewhat nebulous concept of 'good times' that can be applied simply to entertaining conversation or more broadly to a pleasant evening out... or to improbable drunken adventures. The Irish being the Irish, the pub is most often the context and alcohol and/or music are almost invariably key accompanying elements; but its essence is simply good companionship. However, I learn from Wikipedia that the expression was originally English (or Scots English, anyway?), and only fairly recently adopted into Irish usage (mid-20th century). Moreover, the now common spelling is very new, and an affected Gaelicization; the word was originally just 'crack'. And this spelling is perhaps now even more entrenched in English usage than in Irish, as we have readily convinced ourselves that it is a uniquely Irish word and concept, and thus surely ought to have a Gaelic spelling. Oh well. Print the legend, I say. I think the word has acquired new and distinctively Irish connotations, and the transformation of the spelling is an appropriate reflection of that.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Shame about the name

Another interesting new bar has appeared in my neighbourhood, which is, strangely, still flying well below the radar, despite having opened its doors a month or so ago now.

It is pretty much the nearest bar to my home: a bit further than Cangku and Zui Yuefang, roughly the same distance as Modernista and Mai, but rather easier for me to get to than any of these, since it is adjacent to the Andingmen Qiao roundabout, where it is fairly straightforward to cross the 2nd Ringroad (there's even a tianqiao [footbridge] nearby, but that's hardly necessary).

It's a bit swish for my taste: a renovated siheyuan, with a loungey feel to it. But the standard of decor is most impressive, and the small open courtyard sandwiched between the two lounge areas will be a very mellow hangout in the warmer months.

The prices - at least, in this initial trying-to-woo-a-clientele phase - are extremely reasonable: most cocktails and mixed drinks are 25-40rmb, and even the formidably strong Long Island Iced Tea is only 45rmb - surely one of the cheapest in town these days.

There's a broad range of imported beers too, including one from North Korea (the Belgian proprietor has a six-weeks-on-six-weeks-off kind of job in Pyongyang, and gets friends to bring in the odd bottle or two of the stuff for him in suitcases). Because of its extreme rarity, this one is priced at an offputting 50rmb (and you're unlikely to want to try it more than once; it's OK, but nothing very remarkable); but most of the other brews are again quite a bit less than you'd expect in a joint this swank. I suspect these good times can't last - so get in there to take advantage while you can.

On the demerit side: there's no draught beer, only bottled (a major drawback for me), and the selection tends towards the poncey end of things (what can we expect from such beer-fetishists as the Belgians?!); the staff are still finding their feet; and there are currently only one or two menus, which are mounted in picture frames (an annoying affectation), and in such small print that they are quite hard to read.

Oh yes, and then there's the name... Chill. Words fail me. I can scarcely imagine a crappier name for a bar. I actually find it seriously off-putting. And I don't think I'm alone. Two or three people I've introduced the place to have cringed at the mention of the name as well.

A pity, because it's really a very promising bar indeed. I think a name-change is in order.

Bon mot for the week

"I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am."

Bernard Baruch (1870-1965)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Top Five Guitar Riffs

I've been thinking of attempting this for a while - as a variation on my 'Great Basslines' series of the past six months - and last week's 'Blues Week' brought it to the forefront of my mind again. I discovered quite a few rundowns on Youtube (mostly 'Top 20s') that provided food for thought, but they were mostly fairly similar: And I found that I was somewhat out of sympathy with several of the most obvious choices. Layla is indeed devastatingly hooky, but I find it rather wears out its welcome (after 6 minutes of almost nothing but the riff!); Smoke On The Water is certainly iconic, but a bit too plodding for my taste (high recognition value, but zero adrenalin rush); the key riff in Sultans of Swing is buried in the middle of the song (after the "We are the Sultans of Swing" refrain) rather than taking centre stage from the outset, and it doesn't stand out so much in a song full of memorable guitar bits (the insane run of 1/32-notes in the extended instrumental break at the end is what makes the most lingering impression for me).

Just a few minutes of reflection on this threw up getting on for 30 candidates, so, as with the 'Great Basslines', I may return to this in a series of further posts (although I'm running out of time to do all the music posts I'd like to, because - as we all know - the world is going to end on 21st December). For this first selection, I thought I'd try to focus on the most conspicuous omissions from the various other lists I've consulted - the really great rock riffs that most compilers somehow seem to overlook.

So, here we go....

A Top Five Great Rock Guitar Riffs

5)  Whole Lotta Rosie - AC/DC
Of course, we could have a whole 'Top Five' (Top 10, Top 20!) just on these boys: AC/DC are all about the riffs - Highway To Hell, You Shook Me All Night Long, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Back in Black, Thunderstruck...  But it's Bon Scott's unlikely celebration of an oversized groupie that's long had a special place in my heart. (At the end of my university days I was for a while dating a very beautiful art student called Rosie - very slender, and not at all a rock chick; but nevertheless, this song, and its monster riff, became a happy reminder of her.) Here's a great live version from 1977. [The album version can be heard here.]

4)  Rebel, Rebel - David Bowie
Bowie would also have more than one contender here, especially amongst his early '70s stuff (Mick Ronson's influence?). Jean Genie would be a close runner-up, but this is surely one of the greatest rock riffs of all time.

3)  Unbelievable - EMF
This Gloucestershire band (from the Forest of Dean, in fact; just a few miles up the road from where I grew up) faded from view in the mid-90s, and are probably perceived as a one-hit wonder. But damn, what a hit! (Curiously, America was the only country where it reached No. 1.) And what a riff!!!! Here they are playing on a comeback/greatest hits tour in 2001, at The Astoria at the top of London's Charing Cross Road (one of my favourite music venues; I was sad to discover that it had recently been demolished). [Plus, of course, Tom Jones chose to cover it. What higher accolade can there be?]

2)  Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes
Surely the greatest new entry into the pantheon of awesome riffage in the last decade, and much covered. No disrespect to Jack and Meg, but this is such a monster song that it really benefits from having a full band belt it out, and the best live version I've found is this one by Audioslave. [The original White Stripes video is here, and a good live version here.]

But in the top spot??

1)  20th Century Boy - T. Rex
I think the late '60s and early '70s was the Golden Age of Riffage, and, for a brief shining moment, Marc Bolan was the golden boy of that era.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The colours of autumn

Last week, I went to a cooking class at The Hutong, to get an introduction to the East Asian approach to pickle making.

This is the result of my labours: jars of Szechuan-style pickled vegetables (three kinds of radish and a smattering of other veggies - string beans, carrots, celery, cabbage, spring onions - flavoured with a generous handful of fresh Szechuan peppercorns and some wickedly hot pre-pickled baby chilli peppers) and batons of daikon radish in a brine suffused with ginger and turmeric and another wickedly hot pepper (a sweet'n'spicy combination, apparently a southern Chinese speciality). And we also made LOTS of Korean-style spicy cabbage - which will probably take me two or three months to eat, and is stinking my fridge out in the meantime. No matter: I love my kimchi.

These two pickle jars are unexpectedly pretty. I'm almost reluctant to empty them. I'm supposed to leave the radishes etc. to steep in their pickling brine for a bit, but they'll be ready for eating soon; and I imagine - pickle nut that I am (something else I can probably attribute to my German grandmother's influence) - that they will disappear very quickly.

[Well, except that I am perturbed by all the air bubbles collecting on top of the Szechuan vegetables. I suspect this is evidence of some unwanted fermentation going on, which might well have spoiled them. Bother!]

HBH 306

Sea breeze, moorland walks;
Whisky's taste plays a slideshow
Of childhood memories.

I realised the other day - perhaps for the first time - that whisky's (good Scotch single malt's) powerful hold over me may have much to do with the nostalgic resonances conjured by its rich flavours, and even more especially by its complex aromas. Islay whiskies, in particular, with their savour of peat and brine, can take me back to holidays of 35 or 40 years ago.

[Yes, I was allowing myself one of my exceptions.]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"The Carp"

Gosh, I thought I'd written about this place long ago, but... it seems not. I think I must have alluded to it here and there, in comments if not in posts, but I haven't yet given it a post of its own.

"The Carp" was the nickname my buddy Big Frank gave to the restaurant on Jiugulou Dajie where he and I and Tony The Chairman ('The Three Amigos') would most often eat during our first year in Beijing.

It was larger than most restaurants on the street (in fact, one of the only two-storey buildings, although the upper floor was given over to something else, not connected to the restaurant space at all as far as we could tell) and, being towards the north end of the street, just off the Second Ringroad, it was a popular haunt for resting cab drivers (it could be quite terrifying to watch the way some of them would quaff beer and baijiu in the early hours of the morning, before going back on duty). It was slightly up itself, in that it was about the only restaurant on the street then charging 3rmb rather than 2 for the standard big bottle of Yanjing beer; but we soon managed to haggle them down on that, as we were becoming such regular customers. (We'd always get complimentary pickled peanuts as well.)

The main thing that won us over in our early days was that it was the only place on the street with an "English menu". I was the only one of our trio who could speak any Chinese at all (and not very much), and none of us could read much more than and (mian and rou: noodles and meat). Picture menus, almost ubiquitous since the Olympics here, were at this time a real rarity. So, the "English menu" was potentially a godsend, something that might save us from having to make do with the same handful of dishes night after night.

In practice, though, the "English menu" at this place was very little help at all. It was just a scrap of paper, crudely handwritten in biro, which included only a dozen or so of their most popular dishes. And some of these, it seemed, were not in fact within the chef's repertoire. It became a ritual for us to always try ordering the 'Chicken in garlic and ginger' first; it invariably provoked a mumbled meiyou ("We don't have that."). It seemed inconceivable that a restaurant would not have the three commonest ingredients in China, or that any Chinese chef would be unable to knock up such a simple dish, but.... well, this is China. The "English menu" was evidently not quite the same as the Chinese menu; and if it wasn't on the Chinese menu, no-one was going to put themselves out even slightly to try to make it for us.

The waitresses invariably countered with the opening gambit of trying to interest us in the most expensive dish on the menu (an almost ubiquitous tactic in Chinese restaurants at that time; but it seems to me to be becoming much less common now). The most expensive dish on a Chinese menu (unless you're in one of those stupid-expensive Hong Kong places that features abalone and shark's fin) is almost always some basic kind of fish. In this case, the biro scrawl said bluntly 'Carp'. It was at least 5 or 6 times as expensive as any other dish, and none of us were particularly big fans of fish anyway, so we always declined. But repeated failure did not discourage the staff from trying, again and again, to persuade us to give it a try.

We were frequently introduced to the carp in person, as were other Chinese diners. Many Chinese restaurants that offer fish dishes keep the fish in an aquarium by the entrance, so that diners can select the particular fish they'd like to eat. This rather grimy, low-rent establishment had only one fish dish, and, I suspect, only the one fish - which was kept out the back in the kitchen, in a plastic bucket. To try to interest diners in eating it, it was periodically brought out into the dining room and carried up to a table, writhing in the waitress' arms. Well, I say 'brought'; in fact, it was usually thrown. One of the young chefs would remove it from its bucket and lob it lustily through the tiny serving hatch into the arms of a waitress. On the return journey, the chefs seemed to like to make a game of catching it directly into its bucket - as we judged by the sploosh usually emanating from the kitchen just after it disappeared from our sight through the hatch; occasionally, of course, we would hear instead the wet thud of a fish missing the bucket and landing on the floor.

This was great sport for the staff, but not a lot of fun for the fish - and hence a source of considerable moral discomfort for the Amigos. We often debated buying the carp dish, just so that we could liberate the poor creature from its long captivity (since NO-ONE was ever seen to order the carp dish, we assumed that the same fish might have survived for months, despite the cramped confines of its bucket home and the nightly trauma of being flung through the serving hatch three or four times in each direction) and return it to 'the wild' in nearby Houhai lake. I'm sorry to say we never got around to doing so.

Anyway, that was how "The Carp" got its name from us. We were, inadvertently, following something of a Chinese tradition: many small restaurants - in Beijing, at least - are too unimaginative to give themselves a unique monicker, and simply name themselves after a 'signature dish'. "The Carp", we eventually discovered from a Chinese punter some months later, was in fact called The Small Lobster Place (I suppose it must have been this: 小龙虾, xiao longxia, a type of crayfish or langoustine; this appeared to be a seasonal speciality, something we never witnessed in our first six months of almost nightly attendance).

"Don't go looking for it. It's not there any more."

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

If they'd asked me...

I see The Beijinger magazine has started a new feature this month called 'A Drink With...', quizzing some notable on their personal drinking history. (Well, OK, I just noticed it for the first time this month. But I've been away for a while. And I don't read The Beijinger very often any more. Maybe it's been going a while.) This month's subject was Matthew Niederhauser, a young photographer noted for his portraits of Beijing's rock musicians.

I don't suppose they're ever likely to ask me (since I've spent the last ten years assiduously protecting my anonymity!), so I thought I'd borrow the format for a quick post of my own here.

A Drink With... Froog

Who would you most like to get drunk with?
Well, my friends, naturally. The Choirboy, foremost amongst those available to me in Beijing; and my old teaching buddy The Arts Entrepreneur, the most dearly missed of my drinking companions back in the UK.

However, the question is angling for a celebrity nomination (living or dead), so..... I did once have a drink with seminal 'Unsuitable Role Model' Jeffrey Bernard - so I don't think I can cite him for this. If I had a time machine, I think the drinker who has most fascinated me, and was most likely to be erudite and witty company, would be the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan. Amongst folks still with us, I'd like to say Tom Waits, but he renounced booze a couple of decades ago. I believe the Irish musician Jem Finer still tipples, though, and I bet he'd be excellent company on a wee bar crawl. I'd be interested to meet Paul Auster too, one of the few contemporary writers I really admire (not sure if or how much he drinks, but it seems likely he's not averse to the occasional snifter).

If you could only imbibe one drink for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I am reminded of a very wise joke I heard in early childhood: A group of newly deceased souls are given a choice on admission into the afterlife to nominate the food they'd most like to be able to eat for all eternity. Thinking they are about to enter Heaven, they all eagerly pick their favourite things... only to discover that having to eat the same thing all the time soon becomes HELL.

It would be a big mistake here to choose the drink you like most (probably, for me, single malt Scotch). Things you enjoy most powerfully tend also to pall the soonest, if you have no change from them. And spirits and cocktails are too scouring to the throat (and the liver!), too dehydrating to drink all the time. You have to pick something you're not going to tire of. That, for me, would be a beer of some kind - probably Guinness.

How old were you when you started drinking?
Well, I didn't start going into bars on my own that often until my last year of high school, when I was 17; but I had been doing so intermittently for a year or two prior to that. My parents had allowed me to drink with them in pubs (in a very modest way: shandy, rum'n'coke), and at home during the Christmas fortnight, from about the age of 11 or 12. The first time I was sick from drink, I think I was in fact only about 10 (accompanying my Dad on his Skittles Night, and being allowed a couple of bottles of Stella - far too much for my untrained tolerance!). However, the first time I was drunk - though happily so, and without being too seriously ill - was a little earlier even than that. My eccentric German grandmother got in the habit of giving me a flagon (2.5 litres, I think) of cider as a birthday present every year from the time I was about 8. Usually it was consumed as very weak cider shandy over the course of a few weeks. But in the second or third year she made this gift, my parents left me in the care of my elder brother for an evening, he was delinquent in his supervisory duties, and I quaffed most of the jug - well, whatever was left in it - in just a few hours. I was high as a kite, but, as far as I remember, I was not actually sick. That might have been a dangerously positive early experience of booze for me!!

Tell us about the first time you got drunk.
See answer above.

Tell us about the last time you were drunk.
The last time I was really drunk - in a doing embarrassing things and then forgetting them kind of way - was on my birthday last year. When I was a student, I used to get that drunk 3 or 4 times a week. In my mature years, it has lapsed to a few times a year, at most.

What's the dumbest thing you've done while drunk?
During my student years, I was walking home alone one night, very drunk (after a free tasting of port, sherry and madeira; I was on the Wines & Spirits Committee of the Oxford Union, and we'd just introduced a new range of fortified wines to be sold under the Union's own label, so this had been a small private party to commemorate the event - with unlimited supply), and I paused to collect an abandoned shopping trolley. I protest that I was motivated by public-spiritedness, since the Sainsbury's it came from was only a few hundred yards up the road and I was intending to return it. However, I started racing with it (against myself, just for the thrill of speed!), ran it against a kerb when I was running flat out, and was launched over the top of it - flying for a good 10ft or 15ft before landing face-first on a cement paving stone. It was only the softening effect of so much drink that prevented me from suffering a serious injury, although I suspect I gave myself quite a bad concussion.

What's your golden rule of drinking?
Know your limits. It's supposed to be fun, not self-harming.

Where's the dumbest place you've gone drinking?
Probably a rather dingy back alley in a small town in Fiji. I was drinking kava, the local 'herbal tea' (very mildly narcotic), rather than booze. I'd developed a taste for it, but was frustrated that there were few opportunities to indulge (it's an almost nightly ritual out in the villages, but it doesn't happen so much in the towns; or, if it does, it's rather hidden). I'd got chatting with this gaggle of local ne'er-do-wells in a bar about this, and they had invited me to join them for an impromptu kava session out on the street. Three of them were harmless old soaks, but there was a younger hanger-on who had a disturbing psychotic intensity about him. When I noticed that he was carrying a monkey-wrench wrapped up in a plastic carrier bag, I decided to bug out of there before I got myself mugged.

Could you organise a piss-up in a brewery?
Ah, that's a rather unfair idiom. In fact, organising a piss-up in a brewery is HARD, because it's a place of work; and although there's beer all around you, very often there's nary a drop of it available to drink. The Yanjing Brewery in Beijing has a very comfortably appointed bar (a bit too comfy for my taste: rather like the UK's dreaded 'saloon bars' - all beige carpet and upholstered seats) at the end of its visitors' tour. I have often thought of dragging the lads out there for a session.... Hmm, now there's an idea.

What's your favourite place to go drinking?
In Beijing, of course, it is well documented that I spend most of my leisure hours in the most excellent 12 Square Metres bar... and/or at (my older, and rather deeper love) The Pool Bar. However, my absolute favourite place to drink in Beijing is any grotty streetside restaurant where you can keep ordering chuanr and 3-kuai beers until 3am or 4am.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Oh, Fate, you tease!

Just when I am not drinking (beer, for a month) and not really eating very much either (possibly a long-term regime, since I find my weight is not falling nearly as quickly as I'd hoped), there's a new opening in my 'hood that appears to be exactly what I have been wishing for all these many years (when I was eating and drinking without restraint!): somewhere in the Gulou area that does decent Western snack food to take away, and at very reasonable prices.

It appears to be run by a couple of Chinese guys who speak very little English, and probably found their menu online somewhere; but from what I've seen so far, they are making the food quite well. Their burgers are all either 38 or 42rmb, which makes them cheaper than just about anywhere else in town these days, barely half the price of places like Let's Burger and Blue Frog, with which they compare not too badly (the toppings aren't as generous, and the side of fries is positively niggardly; but the meat and the bun are pretty darned good). They have a limited but enticing selection of soups, salads and sandwiches as well; and a bowl of chilli, which I think I'll be trying next time.

Ah, but the real draw is the drinks: fresh fruit smoothies or homemade lemonade by the pitcher for only about 15 or 18rmb (my memory lets me down on matters of detail, now that I am not reinforcing it regularly with alcohol); canned soft drinks are only 8rmb; stubbies of Tsingtao are only 10 or 12rmb. Ah, but who would drink crappy old Tsingtao anyway? They have an interesting range of imported beers at the cheapest prices to be found anywhere in town: only a few items on their beer list are as much as 25 or 30 rmb; bottles of Sam Adams or Saranac Ale are only 20rmb, and they're practically giving Stella away at 16rmb.

Honestly, IF I were drinking beer now, I would be hitting this place up almost every night.

The trouble is, they've got very little room for people to eat in, much less to hang around drinking. They've adapted a narrow little shop space, probably barely 25 sq m in total, and nearly two-thirds of that taken up by the galley and serving counter.

Also, I imagine they'll realise before too long that they've made a mistake with their pricing (Gulou hipsters will pay 15 or 20% more for the food, and probably at least 50% more for the drinks) and put everything up.

Until then, I think I'm going to try to keep this place MY SECRET for a while.

Bon mot for the week

"There are things to confess that enrich the world, and things that need not be said."

Joni Mitchell (1943- )

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Farewell to the Blues

To round off the impromptu 'Blues Week' festival with which I have sustained myself through the horror of the Chinese National Holiday, I return to my ultimate guitar hero Peter Green (celebrated on here at length on Wednesday). It seems that he recorded an album, or most of one, with the blues pianist Otis Spann. I'm not sure if this was made at the same time as the studio jam sessions which became the fabulous Fleetwood Mac in Chicago album I mentioned the other day, but Otis did play on one or two tracks on that as well, and I imagine this collaboration must also date to then (January 1969), or thereabouts.

There are two of these tracks on Youtube at the moment, Ain't Nobody's Business and She's Out Of Sight. I hope visitors have enjoyed this week's selections as much as I have.

And, for a very LAST treat (gosh, I've spent A LOT of time on Youtube this week!!), here's a fantastic clip of Otis with Muddy Waters, playing Nobody Knows My Trouble at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in 1968. Heaven!

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Jimmy also got the blues

Drawing to the end of my 'Blues Week' here on The Barstool (one more extra special treat planned for tomorrow!), here's one of my favourite bits of Led Zeppelin, Since I've Been Loving You. This performance is supposedly from around 1970 (probably the height of their powers, before Robert blew out the higher range of his voice, and before they all got completely stupid on the drugs and booze), although I can't discover any more details. I prefer this to the much more commonly posted 1973 Madison Square Gardens show which was filmed for The Song Remains The Same. [Robert & Jimmy also produced an excellent version in their 1994 reunion for the 'UnLedded' MTV special. And you can hear the superb album version here.]

And for even more sustained awesomeness, here's an amazing black&white film of them doing Communication Breakdown and Dazed & Confused (and an unfortunately truncated Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You; the complete version of that is here) in an appearance on Danish TV from March 1969, the very early days of the band.

Friday, October 05, 2012

An obscure gem

Turley Richards, I have recently discovered, is an awesome vocal talent. Now in his 70s, he's still performing and teaching voice, but mainstream commercial success has always just eluded him - although it seems that he enjoys something of a cult following, including a number of celebrity admirers in the music world (Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood produced and played on his 1980 album Therfu; I was led to check out some of his music on Youtube by this interview with Mick I was reading last weekend, in which he mentions one of the Therfu tracks as amongst the 11 favourite things he's recorded in his long career). You can check out Turley's own website to find out what he's been up to lately.

This might have been the moment when he came closest to breaking out into major fame: an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show in the late '60s, when he was 28 years old.

He's singing Gershwin's Summertime*, which some might object doesn't quite fit into the concept of my ongoing 'Blues Week' on here; but I've always felt it was pretty bluesy (though it was written in the early '30s, somewhat before the classic blues had emerged, at least as a recorded music). And I find some support from the musicologist K. J. McElrath, who writes on the Jazz Standards website"Gershwin was remarkably successful in his intent to have this sound like a folk song. This is reinforced by his extensive use of the pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A) in the context of the A minor tonality and a slow-moving harmonic progression that suggests a 'blues'."

* Trivia note: I hadn't previously known that the lyrics are credited to DuBose Hayward, the author of the novel Porgy on which Gershwin's well-loved opera was based.