Ian Christe
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Drinks from a Chinese Grocery

By Ian Christe

On the same block as the two Chinese movie theaters in New York, there are grocery stores. I am already well-acquainted with the tart taste of two-for-a-dollar Gee Lee beer, but I want to look into the incredible selection of humble tin can soft drink concoctions. I sucked down can after can of amazing differences, until the sugar-soaked buds of my tongue were swollen and welty. Many of these drinks are like the eccentric Western potion Yoo-Hoo, suspect both in concept and delivery. At turns, I am delighted and disappointed by what I find.

The Lemon Barley Lucozade seems a great beginning: a fulsome and delicious variant of Squirt. I could drink a bottle every day. But the formula apparently comes from England, so it turns out to be too easy a start. For more authentic "pure energy," I tried Jan-li-bo replenisher, the Official Drink of the Chinese National Sports Teams. "Country Pear with a Burst of Honey" flavor has the same acrid burn of thawed Flav-R-Ice sticks. Not many drinks that only slip in 2.5% juice from concentrate would have the gall to lecture you on the Chinese tradition of harmony between man and nature. Turns out the burst of honey is the secret energy ingredient, which I have a hunch may be overshadowed by the 18g of high fructose corn syrup per one-cup serving. Call the company at 1-800-526-1688, and ask how many Chinese athletes have collapsed mid-competition after drinking this vile serum.

Vedan Carambola Drink (with Green Power) promises to taste better if the contents of its tennis ball can-shaped carton are served cold. I'm not sure what salty nut-flavored corn syrup tastes like hot, but I'd guess it's even more like rodent nutrient at room temperature. Wei-Chuan Peach Drink doesn't pack more than 10% into a twelve-ounce can, but the sugar and three carefully-selected acids provide half your daily Vitamin C needs and a pulpy peach pungency. Hubba hubba! Lotte Sac Sac Mandarin Orange Drink improves on the idea of orange juice by fortifying the tart brew with a healthy blend of sugars. The "sac" in the title refers to the juicy bits of pulp piled into the little can. All "drink" variants offer a wholesome artificiality, but Lotte smartly keeps the serving size below the sugar overdose level.

Hey-Song Sarsaparilla, looking like an errant can of Shasta, recreates the medicinal burn of Listerine better than any beverage I can recall. An intoxicating blend of four sugars, fizzy water, and "natural flavor." One place too much sugar is acceptable, even desirable, is Tung-I Coffee Square, which came in a non-descript little orange-brown-white can boasting "You Can Fly High." Rich in vitamin C, the cold canned coffee is deliciously slippery like an egg creme, in every way the equal of America's Capio. The white specks that float to the surface are most assuredly benign.

Tossing back a cool high snifter of Golden Sound Basil Seed Drink with Honey may be the closest I ever come to swallowing a mouthful of semen. A wee banana flavor creeps out of this chalky gray syrup, where are suspended a zillion tomato-like seed sacs. While the Basil Seed drink is a good way to freak out dinner guests, Oriental Mascot Grass Jelly Drink is a good way to grab homebody's interest, hiding several thousand tiny chunks of chlorophyll Jell-O in its dark color. Again, sugar is the primary flavor agent. Mesonna is a superior brand of grass jelly drink, and is also the only Asian power beverage whose name is a homonym for a Japanese noise artist.

Pennywort is the non-specific name for a round-leafed plant that grows in rock crevices and marshes. Foco Pennywort Drink carries the enviable dull black inscrutability of dirty mop water, offers a bitter spinachy peck and 20% of a person's daily iron needs. Despite amazing can artwork depicting an efficient social utopia, Taro Sha looks and tastes like sour milk, lima beans, and water. Yeo's Longan Drink is made from a vegetable that street vendors often hawk. It looks like little round brown eggs in clusters on a skinny tree, and it suits the fruit-sugar-water recipe better than any other "drink" I drank.

Hong Fu Rock Sugar Bird's Nest brew is made with top quality bird's nests from Thailand and white fungus from China. It smells like nothing, looks like cum with dandruff in it, and tastes like clean toilet water. It's supposedly very good for your lungs.

Finally, the noblest drink in all the well-ordered aisles -- a tall skinny can of Baxian Drink from National Brilliant Limited, made from lotus seed, chrysanthemum, malt, lily, and lyceum Chinese. A bearded wise uncle, old and healthy, gazes out intelligently from the front of the canister, saying "Baxian Drink has the effect of keeping good complexion, strengthening the vital energy, the state of blood and internal organs." And if that's true, with this charming blend of lotus seed, chrysanthemum, lily, and lyceum Chinese, he's really onto something. In fact, after swallowing 13 cans of sugar-coated optimism today, I can't help but feel great.