Wuliangye in Sydney
I always feel disingenuous describing myself as Chinese, although I am of Chinese descent. I’ve never set foot in China and have spent most of my life in Australia. My Cantonese is rudimentary to say the least. More than four percent of my fellow Aussies share the same ethnicity and many are in the same boat as me; that is, we are far from fresh off that boat.
Certainly in Sydney, the most cosmopolitan city in the country, you get people from everywhere—every skin color, every language, every cuisine. It wasn’t all that surprising, then, that my housemates and I found a Chinese tea shop plonked in the middle of a busy strip of Thai restaurants.
The mustachioed proprietor got up from behind his laptop to greet us. We were the only customers. I debated whether his chong sam meant this place was legit, or if the outfit was a gimmick to fool the locals into thinking the place was legit. But when we sat down for tea, I stopped caring.
The time simply began to slip and slide away from us. Soon an hour passed. And then another. Infusion after infusion, accompanied by the gentle plucking of musical strings, was exerting its calming influence on us.
Just as my mind was relaxing to the point of melding into the ether and the zither, our host, Mr. Mao, decided to inform us that he had alcohol.
Did someone say booze? My ears pricked up. I guess I was still thirsty from my dry New Year’s Eve.
“Earlier today I was drinking with my friend,” he said. “And he likes his tea with liquor.”
I wondered if he was telling us because he was going to share some of his secret stash with us. Thus far I hadn’t been a fan of East Asian spirits; I don’t see the appeal in sake or soju. Too tepid. Too salty. Too much like bad vodka. However, I’m always up for trying a new drop.
My barely-there knowledge of the Chinese script recognized the wu in Wuliangye, the name of the drink.
“Five … something … something?” I bumbled.
“It’s called five grain drink,” said Mr. Mao.
“Multigrain booze!” I exclaimed. Made from corn, glutinous rice, regular rice, sorghum, and wheat, surely it had numerous health benefits.
Lifting the tiny glass to my nose, I sniffed the contents: fragrant. I set it back down. This was clearly a drink to be taken in sips, not in shots. I took a deep breath and brought the glass to my lips. At room temperature, the stuff was unexpectedly smooth and pleasantly sweet. The trickle of the 52 percent ABV spirit down my throat warmed my insides without burning through my bronchial tubes.
By this stage we were all nodding our heads, remarking on how nice it was and how the mild aftertaste cleansed the palate, making the next cup of raw Puerh tea taste even better.
I’ve never set foot in China but I’ll now be claiming that “we” invented noodles, ketchup, fireworks, tea—and the multigrain awesomeness that is Wuliangye.