Asia, Imbibed

In my latest Real Travel column for National Geographic Traveler I talk about how I always like to sample the local brew (or grape) when I travel–it’s one of the fastest ways I know to dive into another culture.

Usually, I’m doing my tasting in the same place where the drink is made–wine tasting in Mendoza, warm cans of beer at a football match in London, tequila in Mexico, etc. But lately, in Hong Kong, I’ve been using spirits to explore far away places.

Hong Kong doesn’t really have an alcoholic drink to call its own. (In this hyper-intense business and finance city, our hometown drink of choice is yun yeung cha, coffee mixed with tea and boiled milk. It’s like Red Bull times twenty). When cocktail time rolls around, we drink the rest of the world. The British left their mark on local drinking culture–beer is the number one choice for our “Happy Hours” (which have the distinction of being the longest such “hours” in Asia– in my neighborhood, most bars clock HH from 3pm until 9pm).

But, thanks to an adventurous pal from Malaysia (hi Yvonne), I’ve found a new drinking culture here. That’s why, on many Tuesday nights, you’ll find me sitting at the horseshoe shaped bar of an Okinawan izakaya, hidden away on the 13th floor of a non-descript office building in Causeway Bay, holding a hand-tinted blown glass tumbler containing ice drizzled with an extraordinary clear liquid made from distilled rice: awamori.

The appeal of Ku-Suya Rakuen (that’s the name of this place) isn’t just the wonderful drink, which looks like clear sake but tastes like a light herbal whiskey. (Awamori is around 25-30 proof, stronger than wine and sake, but far less alcoholic than scotch or vodka). It’s the atmosphere. From the moment you step into the place, with its rough-hewn wooden bar and stools, and its collection of ceramic jars holding 100 different kinds of awamori, Hong Kong disappears. A buzz of Japanese fills the air. You are in Okinawa.

Hanging out at Ku-suya has gotten me to thinking about the way we travelers never stop traveling, even when we’re supposed to be settled down somewhere. In New York, I seek out those dark little corner bars and diners where Hispanic working men drink Presidentes from the bottle, while they fill the jukeboxes with quarters, playing their favorite bachata tunes…I am in virtual Santo Domingo. Other friends sate their wanderlust at uptown Irish pubs where the Guinness flows freely. Or cultivate their Francophilia over Cote du Rhone at a pitch-perfect Parisian-style corner bistro on Smith Street in Brooklyn.

I love being in Hong Kong, where I find a little adventure nearly every day. But every now and then it’s nice to have a shot of something–and someplace– else. And so, awamori. I haven’t yet been to Okinawa, but I have to say that, thanks to the local drink, it’s now in my top ten “next trip” list….

And, speaking of great local drinks…what makes them taste even better is when they have a cuisine built around them! Ku-Suya Rakuen is as much about the food as it is the drink. There, you can order some really extraordinary little dishes to accompany your awamori. Yvonne’s favorite menu item is: “Mascarpone Cheese with Fish Guts”.

And here’s mine: pickled sea grapes. They look like little jade pearls and taste salty like the ocean. When you wash them down with awamori, it’s like inhaling the fragrance of herbs on a moist summer breeze. Eat, sip, savor the spirit…ahhh, Okinawa.