The Telegraph: 48 Hours in Beijing by Thomas O'Malley

A recent travel guide piece for The Telegraph, for whom I am their Beijing Expert. I tried to be honest about the city in the intro, touching on the city’s frustrating contradictions while still aiming to inspire and excite.

Gulou (Drum Tower) at sunset, taken back in 2014.

Gulou (Drum Tower) at sunset, taken back in 2014.

Showpiece capital searching for identity

Like the painted faces of Peking opera, Beijing is an enthralling clash of personalities. Traditional but tech-forward, autocratic yet artistic, it’s a micro-managed megacity marching into the future, while striving to prune and polish the narrative of its turbulent past. And what a past. Ruling over China (on and off) since the days of Kublai Khan, Beijing is a treasure trove of Unesco World Heritage: The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs, the Grand Canal. And above it all, draped dreamily across mountains, is the Great Wall of China – more magnificent beside Beijing than anywhere along its course.

Modern architecture has been outmuscling Beijing’s antique middle for decades, but, precariously, the city’s charming old hutong lanes endure. Here is where you’ll find locals gossiping around xiangqi (Chinese chess) boards, discreet boutique hotels tucked behind grey brick walls, and hip cocktail bars in hidden courtyards. And then there’s the food. From the city’s signature Peking duck to lesser-known delights from every nook of the Middle Kingdom, Beijing is a literal melting pot of Chinese gastronomy, presenting unbridled adventure for fearless foodies.

Read the full article here.

10 things to eat in Beijing by Thomas O'Malley

Originally written for DK Online, a travel portal that his since closed.

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A northern city state where wheat rules over rice, Beijing food is hearty, salty and fortifying for those winters where the winds whip south from the Great Wall. Here are ten authentic Beijing dishes not to miss.

Peking Duck

The dish on every visitor’s must-eat list is beijing kaoya, otherwise known as Peking duck. Different from the ‘crispy duck’ eaten in Cantonese-style restaurants around the globe, authentic Peking duck is roasted over fruitwood in hung ovens then carved tableside in front of diners. Beijing’s Quanjude (30 Qianmen Street, Dongcheng District) introduced steamed pancakes, julienned veggies and soybean sauce in the 19th century, but before that the juicy duck meat was stuffed inside small sesame wheat buns called shaobing. The more contemporary Dadong (Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsishitiao) has perfected a slower roast resulting in a crisp, lacquered skin and a less oily, firmer lean meat, and has even branched out into fast food with a city-centre counter selling Peking duck burgers.

Barbecued Mutton

 A large Muslim Chinese community has called Beijing home for 500 years, their halal habits fuelling the popularity of mutton, in rich supply on the grassy plains north of Beijing. Every street corner grills lamb skewers al fresco in the warmer months, doused in chilli and cumin and washed down with icy cold beer. The Chinese character for skewer (chuan’r - 串) is often picked out in a loop of red neon above a simple charcoal grill. For a more gourmet experience, Yanlanlou (12 Chaoyangmen Wai Dajie, Chaoyang District) grills delectable lamb ribs that tumble off the bone and melt in the mouth.

Hot Pot

The ultimate do-it-yourself dish, diners encircle a bubbling cauldron of (often spicy) soup, into which is dunked wafer-thin raw lamb and beef, tofu, mushrooms, greens, and more unusual accoutrements like ya chang (duck intestines). The spicy variety is characterised by a volcanic soup peppered with denglong jiao – stubby, cherry-shaped Sichuan chillis. One of the best all-round hot pot restaurants is Haidilao (2A Baijiazhuang Lu, Chaoyang District), where service goes the extra mile with complimentary snacks and even manicures as you wait for a table. Dong Lai Shun (98 Wangfujing Dajie, Dongcheng District) serves a more traditional Beijing-style mutton hotpot with a delicious sesame sauce for dipping.

 Jianbing

Beijing’s most popular street food, this breakfast-style crepe is now trending in New York City. A batter of wheat flour and millet is cooked pancake-style on a circular griddle, an egg cracked on top, then chilli sauce and furu (fermented bean curd) is painted over it with a brush before a sprinkling of black sesame seeds, coriander and spring onion, and a large crispy wafer. It’s then folded into a steamy, layered parcel, and eaten on the move.

Duck de Chine’s famous roast fowl.

Duck de Chine’s famous roast fowl.

Zhajiang noodles 

Beijing’s native noodle dish pairs thick, chewy wheat noodles with a dollop of rich meat sauce and a spread of accompaniments like cucumber, radish, beansprouts and crunchy soybeans, all mixed together with chopsticks before eating. At Old Beijing Zhajiang Noodle King (56 Dongxinglong Jie, Chongwen District) waiters greet diners with a shout, who squeeze around bench tables to slurp up the traditional (and cheap) tastes and atmosphere. 

Beijing sweets 

Huguosi Xiaochi (68 Huguosi Jie, Xicheng District) is a state-run time capsule hawking a range of traditional sweet snacks beloved of Beijing’s older residents. Take your pick from crispy fried dough rings, crunchy donuts flavoured with sugar and osmanthus flowers, jellies sweetened with red bean paste, and wandouhuang, a sweet cake made from pea flower. A quirky favourite is ludagun, a sweet, glutinous rice roll dusted in brown soybean flour. The visual name means ‘donkey rolling on the ground’.

Donkey sandwich

Donkey meat became popular in Beijing with the development of railways in northern China, after their transportation services were no longer in demand. Fatty Wang’s Donkey Sandwich (80 Gulou Xi Dajie, Xicheng District) is a popular chain, hawking lurou huoshao - flaky pockets of warm bread stuffed with thinly sliced, braised donkey meat.

Dumplings 

The boiled dumpling is northern China’s go-to celebration food, eaten at almost every auspicious occasion. The standard filling is pork and cabbage, but almost any combination of meat, seafood and vegetable is available at Mister Shi’s Dumplings (74 Baochao Hutong, Dongcheng District), and even not-so-Chinese ingredients like mozzarella cheese. Dumpling varieties rooted in Beijing include dalian huoshao, shaped like gold bars and fried; and mending roubing, gut-busting meat pies crammed with beef, carrot and onions.

Madoufu 

Chinese hummus? The savoury mulch that is madoufu.

Chinese hummus? The savoury mulch that is madoufu.

Quintessentially Beijing, this economical dish is a savoury mulch of mung bean pulp and pickled vegetables, fried in lamb fat. A dish from long ago now making comeback, it’s often enjoyed with baked sesame shaobing breads and flash-fried tripe at authentic institutions like Long Xingsheng Snacks (19 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng District), in a quiet hutong alleyway north of Houhai Lake.

Luzhu Huoshao

A peasant dish dating back to the Qing Dynasty, this warming stew of cheaper meat and offal cuts, sesame bread, tofu and veggies is a big hit with taxi drivers and other blue collar Beijingers. The stock used at Lao Tang Luzhu (141 Yonghegong Lu, Dongcheng District) is richly flavoured; a little of the soup is saved every day to be added to the next day’s soup, hence the name ‘lao tang’, meaning old soup.

Book Excerpt: Secret Marvels of the World by Thomas O'Malley

A spread on the Jiankou Great Wall I contributed to this book:

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China
40°27'16.64"N 116°32'10.38"E
The Wild Great Wall
Zhengbei Tower (正北楼)

In the village of Xizhazi, nestled in the Yan Mountains, an unremarkable path winds upwards between terraced cornfields and mud-red farm houses. Not much more than a shepherd’s track, it climbs gently at first, past hens and snoozing dogs, then rises more steeply into a thickly wooded dell, leaving the village behind.

Forty minutes later, through a clearing in the leaves, you get your first glimpse of stone. Then another. The crenelated crests of two watchtowers, peering over the tree line.

Higher and higher the path climbs, tree roots becoming steps, branches becoming handholds. Then finally, hamstrings protesting, your destination looms into view: a sheer, inward-sloping wall of brick and white dolomite stone.

A stack of bricks has been fashioned into a precarious stairway; now you’re inside a Ming Dynasty watchtower. The ash of an old camp fire darkens the worn stone floor. Beside it, a second set of stone steps, cool to the touch, rises all the way to the top.

Now you’re back in open air, standing on the upper battlement of the Zhengbei Tower, the highest point of the Jiankou section of Great Wall.  

And all around you the world drops away.

To the west, the crests of mountains plummet downwards like a rollercoaster, then rise majestically again, the Great Wall flowing serpent-like across the ridgeline, unceasingly, into the hazy distance. Sixty miles to the south, far out of sight, is Beijing. From up here it might as well be centuries away.

Jiankou means ‘arrow notch’, named for the way the mountains hook around the flat-floored valley. It’s also surely a reference to the weapon that proved so lethal in the hands of the pastoral warriors from beyond the Great Wall - the very reason for its existence in the first place.

It’s on quiet days in lofty places like Jiankou when the romance of the wild Great Wall is conjured: miles of brick and stone, crumbling and overgrown with vegetation, epic beyond the imagination. A testament to the rise and fall of empires, of threats long vanished, and military technologies long since superseded.  

To journey west along the Wall from here, one would need climbing equipment and comprehensive insurance cover. Gravity-defying stretches with names like ‘Soaring Eagle’ and ‘Heavenly Ladder’ beg the question: how did they manage to build this, all those centuries ago?

Hiking eastwards, the Great Wall tapers more gently down the mountains, and two to three hours later, the wild battlements meet the upper reaches of the restored Mutianyu section. Climbing over a barricade onto smooth, recently laid cobbles, you’re greeted by looks of astonishment from puffed-out tourists, who can only wonder at what discoveries lie beyond.

Sunrise at Jiankou, taken from Zhengbei Tower, way back in 2009.

Sunrise at Jiankou, taken from Zhengbei Tower, way back in 2009.

Jiankou is about an hour and 30 minutes from Beijing. Take bus 916 from Dongzhimen Bus Station to Huairou, and transfer to one of the many waiting taxis for the final stretch to Jiankou. If you are a group, consider hiring a driver for the day from Beijing.

Ice, Ice City: A Self-Guided Walk Through Historic Harbin by Thomas O'Malley

This is a version of a guided walk I wrote for the Lonely Planet 2019 Trans-Siberian Railway Guide (with pictures).

Start: Church of St Sophia
End: Stalin Park
Length: 3km; 2½ hours

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The city of Harbin is a tourist hotspot in China’s far north thanks mostly to the Harbin Ice and Snow World, a neon-clad Narnia of frozen fairy-tale castles and ice slides that opens each winter. But the city is also famed for its early 20th century Russian architecture, marking the era when China permitted Russia to build a railway line through Manchuria to shorten journey times on the Trans-Siberian. Pockets of Harbin’s Russian heritage still endure, best enjoyed on foot during the city’s temperate summers, but wrap up warm and any season will do.

The sight of St Sophia, emerald domes soaring above malls and cookie-cutter sprawl, begs the question: What is a Russian church doing here? During the early 20th century, Harbin, a fishing community on the Songhua River, grew into a Russian city in all but name. Built in 1907 and expanded in 1932, St Sophia was the largest orthodox church in the far east, serving 100,000 Russian railway workers and settlers. By the 1980s, it was all but swallowed by encroaching buildings, and was used as a warehouse. Fortunately, private donations helped clear the the square and secure its protected status.

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Inside, a secular photography exhibit introduces old Harbin. At its peak, Harbin was home to around 50 synagogues and churches, but most have been lost to development (and the rampaging Red Guards in the 1960s). Nowadays, gentrification is the latest threat, as this New York Times article attests.

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Religious matter aside, old churches in China will always be popular with couples getting their wedding photos done. Here’s an idea – maybe the wedding photography industry can form an alliance with heritage conservationists?

From the front steps of the church, leave the square by its southwest corner and head west along Toulong Lu, crossing the old iron footbridge. Keep going until you hit the timeworn cobbles of Zhongyang Dajie, and turn right.

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Zhongyang Dajie (Central Avenue), formerly known as Kitayskaya Street (Kitayskaya means Chinese in Russian), is Harbin’s most famous thoroughfare, running northwards for a mile to the Songhua River. But to march up it ant-fashion, as most tourists do, can be an anticlimactic experience. Especially since the surviving baroque, eclectic and art-deco buildings today mostly shelter the likes of Zara and KFC.

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Time travel requires a bit of imagination, so picture the scene: fur-clad shoppers stepping out of department stores into waiting automobiles, clerks hurrying between banks and insurance offices, and literati lounging in establishments like 58, formerly a Jewish restaurant (it’s now a Uniqlo).

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Jewish bakeries, too, would have been a fixture along Zhongyang Dajie. This local business at no.45 comes close – it has a pre-prepared bagel sandwich, not to mention proper coffee and a second-floor terrace with delightful views over the cobbles.

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Leaving the main street for a while, turn right down Dongfeng Jie one block to Tongjiang Jie. You can’t miss the 7 Days Inn chain hotel - it’s the historic building dressed-up like a circus tent in the brand’s gaudy livery. From the front steps, you can gaze across Tongjiang Jie at the stately Jewish Main Synagogue and Middle School.

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In the 1920s Harbin was home to around 20,000 Jews, and this street was the centre of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue here housed a youth hostel until recently, but was restored at considerable expense and converted into a delightful concert hall staging classical string performances. The Jewish Middle School next door is now a private music academy. The staff are happy for visitors to poke around inside.

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If time permits, walk south 500m to another synagogue housing a fantastic exhibit on Jewish Harbin. Otherwise, continue north along Tongjiang Jie and soon you’ll pass the splendid Turkish Mosque. Sadly, it’s closed for visitors, but you can admire it from the outside.

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From here, wheel around and take Hongzhuan Jie back towards the main street. The building at no. 45 is a former Jewish hospital. If the door’s open, you can go through to ogle the old red-brick courtyard in the back. Just inside the entrance is the excellent Luyu Coffee, worth a pit-stop for its original windows, lofty ceilings, and artistically crowned cappuccinos.

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Heading back towards Zhongyang Dajie, you’ll see this novel attempt at heritage preservation at no.10. Inside is a swish Cantonese restaurant.

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Back on Zhongyang Dajie, glance at the grand old Modern Hotel at no. 89 (dusty memorabilia is on display in the ground-floor bar), then skip across to no. 120, noting the bare-breasted statues topping the Romanesque entrance columns as you enter. This former Japanese company is now the Harbin Tourist Center. Climb the staircase and hurry through the awful digital exhibit, then sneak out through a side door into an antique stairway with slam-door elevator shaft.

The interiors here are joyously original, and home to a few shops and offices, so you’re free to wander about. Heading up to the third floor reveals a silk boutique with restored interior…

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…And lovely views on to Zhongyang Dajie form a little balcony.

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Back down on the street, next door to a shop selling Harbin sausages, is no. 129, a tiny Russian store – more of a hallway – with a preserved interior. It hawks Russian bread, knick-knacks and chocolate. Continue walking north until you cross Xitou Dajie. A little way east along this intersecting street is the delightful, not-to-be-missed Russia Coffee & Food.

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A time warp of a place, this restaurant is decked out with the worldly effects of Nina, a Harbin resident from 1911 to her death in 2001. Everything from her piano to silverware, tea-sets and grandfather clock is on display, including a series of portraits and photographs. The café owner purchased her estate when she died, and elected to put them on display. And we can be thankful for it. Have a tea (or vodka) here by all means, but the Russian food, including borscht and piroshky, is underwhelming.

Leaving the restaurant and continuing north, take the underpass beneath Youyi Jie (pausing briefly to glance eastward at the old tram station topped by a clock tower). Continue on pass Harbin’s Flood Control Monument to the south bank of the Songhua River.

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From here you can sink a Harbin beer or three at one of the tents either side of the Flood Control Monument, before promenading westward through Stalin Park, named in 1953 to celebrate Sino-Soviet camaraderie. Look out for a few old wooden restaurants from the Manchukuo period. If you’re got the energy, catch a ferry (or cable car) across the water to Sun Island.

And, after all that, if you still want snow and ice, grab a cab to the 2017’s Harbin Indoor Ski Resort, the world’s biggest, kept at a balmy -2 degrees’ Celsius year round.

Baijiu’s Journey to the West by Thomas O'Malley

This article first appeared in Discovery, the inflight mag of Cathay Pacific.

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Is China’s firewater about to break into the global mainstream?

In the grey-brick alleyways of old Beijing, there’s a buzzing little joint that fuses Western bar culture with Chinese booze. Capital Spirits specializes in tasting flights of baijiu, the national spirit of China that’s as old as Kublai Khan with a kick like an angry camel.

Often described in the Western media as the world’s most-drunk spirit you’ve never heard of, baijiu is similar in potency to whisky, usually distilled from sorghum, a cereal grain, and a bottle costs from a few bucks to the price of an iPhone or three. Traditionally paired with food, baijiu is the toast of Chinese banquets and business dinners, knocked back neat in thimble-sized glasses. It tastes … well, tasting notes are nothing if not contradictory: pineapple, cheese, soy sauce, liquorice, anise, mushroom, gasoline, old socks. Confused?

It’s an understatement to say that complexity is written into the DNA of baijiu. Unlike most spirits which are distilled from liquid, crafting baijiu is a process more akin to making cheese or sourdough bread than booze. At baijiu distilleries, a solid ‘mash’ of grains and starter is left to ferment in pits – sometimes for many months – absorbing layers of flavor-packed bacteria before being distilled and then aged in terracotta jars. Some baijiu producers, notably Luzhou Laojiao from Southern Sichuan, have been using the same funky mud pits for centuries, while also recycling part of the old mash with every new batch (known, poetically, as “1000-year pit, 10,000-year mash”).

Luzhou Laojiao, it’s worth noting, is just one of four ‘aroma’ categories of baijiu, which can subdivide even further. The notion that there is a common baijiu flavor is a misconception that irks non-Chinese advocates like American Bill Isler. “Comparing two styles of baijiu isn’t like comparing bourbon to scotch, but rather comparing bourbon to mezcal,” says Isler, CEO of Ming River, a new brand targeted at the global bar market. Depending on whether it’s a ‘strong’, ‘light’, ‘sauce’ or ‘rice’ aroma baijiu, flavors can range from toasty rice to overripe tropical fruit to caramelized shitake mushrooms.

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Isler’s journey as a professional baijiu pusher began in 2014 as the co-founder of the aforementioned Capital Spirits. Beneath the worn beams and flickering Edison bulbs of the ‘world’s first baijiu bar’, his cocktails and mixed-aroma tasting flights came with a side of schooling on the oft-misunderstood spirit. The bar earned a diverse clientele, from curious expats to hipster locals. What was more surprising, according to current manager (and Isler’s cousin) David Putney, was that bigwigs from major Chinese baijiu companies were also dropping in to see how this upstart bar was successfully promoting their antiquated booze to a young, global audience.

For a bit of context, this played out not long after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on lavish spending among officials, which meant that baijiu suddenly lost its best customer – the government. Prices plummeted, and baijiu brands were forced to tweak their lines and broaden their appeal. It worked – Guizhou province’s Moutai, the official baijiu of state banquets, became the world’s most valuable spirits brand in 2017. (Out of the top five the only non-baijiu is Johnnie Walker whisky at four, one spot above Luzhou Laojiao.) Meanwhile, young Chinese drinkers, for whom baijiu had been the uncool tipple of officialdom, started getting turned on to new brands like Chongqing’s Jiangxiaobai, which sponsors rock festivals, has savvy styling, and is lower in alcohol (and cost) than traditional varieties. 

But the question of whether China’s favorite tipple can become more than an exotic curiosity in bars overseas is a tricky one. In “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits”, American author Derek Sandhaus suggests that, “a good cocktail may be the perfect delivery system for taking baijiu from Chinese restaurants into the bars and clubs of the world.” The rise in the West of other once ‘alien’ spirits backs up this theory. Vodka was Commie rotgut until the Moscow Mule, and later, James Bond’s vodka martini (shaken, not stirred). Tequila, likewise, was propelled to stardom via the Margarita - but let’s not mention those tequila shots.

One barrier to concocting baijiu’s ‘Moutai Mule’, as one article neatly put it, might well be its variety. Since each style of baijiu is so different, there can be no one-size-fits-all cocktail, although new brands like Isler’s Ming River have been blended under the tutelage of New York bartenders for increased cocktail compatibility. But there’s still baijiu’s inherent umami complexity to deal with, so only the most ambitious mixologists need apply. Mixologists like Phoebe Ling, a bartender from China’s Shanxi province who opened Shanghai’s Healer Bar in 2016, pouring joyfully experimental cocktails that celebrate baijiu, Chinese huangjiu (a sake-like rice wine) and traditional liquor infused with medicinal herbs. Unsurprisingly, big brands are lining up to work with Ling, who has performed at events across the country. “Baijiu can make good cocktails if we understand its aroma like we do the botanicals in gin and the esters in rum,” says Ling, “but I think more time is needed for bartenders to really get to know its unique qualities”.

So when can you expect to see a bottle of baijiu on the back shelf of your local bar? “Within five years, baijiu will reach the sort of level where mezcal is now,” reckons Putney of Capital Spirits, referring to tequila’s smokier cousin currently having its time in the sun. But whether that growth can stick around for the long term, he is less sure. “Will baijiu be accepted as a spirit of the world in the same way as whisky and tequila, or will it mostly be consumed in restaurants, like sake? That’s the question.”

By some measures, though, the revolution is already underway. “Baijiu-focused bars have opened in places as far away as New York, Liverpool, Stockholm, and Buenos Aires,” notes Isler, who reckons that baijiu is a natural fit for this new era of craft appreciation and connoisseurship. “Bartenders around the world are always looking for something new and different in flavor and aroma that has a compelling cultural heritage along with a handcrafted production method,” says Isler. “Baijiu delivers on all fronts.”


 3 Baijiu cocktails

 Name: Mandarin
Where: Healer, Shanghai
Chinese kumiss (fermented mare’s milk), baijiu, Campari, rice wine.

 Name: The Paper Crane
Where: Capital Spirits, Beijing
Mix equal parts Luzhou LaoJiao baijiu, Amaro Montenegro, Aperol and lemon juice. Shake well over ice and double strain over a large ice cube.

 Name: Monkey Writes a Poem
Where: Kings Co Imperial, New York
1.5 oz Ming River Baijiu, 0.75 oz Giffard Banane du Bresil, 0.5 oz Mattei Quinquina Blanc, and Orange Bitters. Stir; serve on large ice cube with star anise & orange twist.


Bill Isler’s baijiu aroma cocktail guide

 Light aroma Can play like a gin mixing with a broad array of brighter flavors like citrus. Includes Beijing’s famously potent Erguotou brand.

 Strong aroma Strong aroma baijius are more like a high ester rum and lend themselves to tiki-style drinks. Includes Luzhou Laojiao and Ming River.

 Rice aroma Made from rice rather than sorghum, these have a vodka quality but their delicate flavor is easily overpowered. Includes Guilin Sanhua.

 Sauce aroma With its umami saltiness, sauce aroma baijius have nothing analogous in the western tradition. They add an interesting savory edge to a Bloody Mary. Includes Moutai.