For a real experience of Asia get your mouth and tastebuds around some of these beverages from across the region. With sake, butter tea, coconut juice and local whiskeys on offer, imbibing on the local plonk is one way of getting in touch with culture, experimenting with new flavours and trying to cope with the after effects. Cheers!
The Singapore sling
This famed cocktail is ubiquitous with the city of the same name and the Raffles Hotel where it originated in the early throes of the 20th Century. The drink created by the Hainese bartender of the time contained gin, cherry brandy, orange, pineapple and lime juice and was known as the gin sling, with associated potent effects. The current version differs a little from the original but is still part of the experience of visiting the Long Bar at Raffles.
This is one drink you’ll find almost anywhere in tropical regions of Asia. Not only is it a fantastic way to rehydrate but it’s also a bit of a meal unto itself – you can eat your way through the soft flesh afterwards.
If you’re after a coffee fix in Asia then Vietnam should satisfy even the most hardened connoisseur. This is not only because the coffee is strong and thick but because it all happens right in front of you. In Vietnam coffee is served while it is still brewing in single-cup filters. You watch the nectar drip into the condensed milk or ice below while savouring the aroma it brings. The whole experience is magic, particularly in a road side cafe watching life go by.
Lao Lao whiskey
Laotian rice whiskey should be handled with care and respect, that’s because the home brewed whiskey packs a powerful punch. It is made from fermented sticky rice and often has an alcoholic percentage of 40 or 45 so go easy on the good stuff. The taste isn’t that strong and while you may see locals downing it at an impressive rate, it has been linked to some horrific medical incidents of late involving backpackers particularly in Vang Vieng, Laos, given its unregulated nature and the additives it may contain. Proceed with caution!
Japan’s famous alcoholic beverage is also made from fermented rice but unlike the process involved in making wine, sake is actually produced by means of brewing more like beer. Sake is far stronger than either however with an alcoholic percentage of 18-20%. It can be served chilled or heated depending on the season and may be clear or cloudy. It also comes in a variety of flavours that can include anything from bananas to caramel sauce. It is drunk socially but also at ceremonies and celebrations like new year and the cherry blossom viewing.
Teh tarik actually means “pulled tea” and it’s well worth watching the preparation of the Malaysian beverage to best understand it. It is made from black tea, condensed milk and evaporated milk and the pouring process between two jugs, often with a lot of show, helps to give it froth, mix it and give a better flavour. This is called “pulling” the drink. It is often served with roti canai, a flat Malaysian bread, and has been recognised as a national drink in Malaysia.
If the idea of pulled tea doesn’t wet your whistle, Indian chai might. Chai, or tea, is made in India by boiling water, milk, lots of sugar and spices such as cardamom together. Sold from dawn to dusk throughout the sub continent this is indeed the national drink with stalls on every street corner, bus station and even on board trains. It’s as addictive as it is ubiquitous.
Tibetan butter tea
The Tibetan version of tea is definitely an acquired taste. Most people are not used to salty tea, but if you plan to spend any amount of time with Tibetans, Bhutanese or Chinese minorities, it’s best to overcome you’re initial aversion to the taste as you will be served this everywhere you go. The addition of butter also makes sense in the cold climate where it is served given the high energy it provides. Preparation varies but often water is boiled with handfuls of tea before salt is added. The tea is then strained into a wooden butter churn where the butter is added. Just remember etiquette is never to drain your bowl until you leave.
While known also as pearl milk tea or boba milk tea, the reference to bubbles is probably best fitting for on first glance it does look like you have black bubbles in your tea. Don’t let this put you off however for the bubbles are actually chewy tapioca balls or pearls. Most of the bubble teas have a tea base that is mixed with fruit, milk, ice or syrup making it all very slushy and sweet. However it is possible to get non-fruit flavours like coffee, taro or sesame. While this drink originated in Taiwan it has spread throughout Asia and also into the west.
Back to Vietnam, and the light lager of the Vietnamese (three percent) also makes this unique beverages list. This is because not only is Bia Hoi brewed daily and sold on bustling street corners at rock bottom prices, but it’s also the chance to take part in a cultural tradition. To find yourself a Bia Hoi junction, where Bia Hoi is sold, keep an eye out for people on plastic chairs sitting on the street with glasses of beer.