The China Blog, TIME

Beverage of Champions

So. Things to love about Beijing in winter.

Part One: Hot Coke with Ginger, A Possibly Magical Elixir

Growing up, the only time soda was served in our house was when someone was sick. The soda was ginger ale. You had to be very sick to qualify for it. And as soon as you were better, any extra cans were returned not to a cabinet in the kitchen, but to a closet that functioned as a kind of hardware shed. There the ginger ale was wedged onto a shelf alongside a carton of candles, my grandfather's toolbox and other items reserved strictly for emergencies. As long as everyone was healthy, the cans stayed on the shelf. Sometimes they aged there for years. Afterall, they weren't just there to be enjoyed.

It's possible this arrangement and the longings it generated might help account for my strong feelings about Beijing's favorite sickbed pick-me-up. But I've checked with people who led less fructose-deprived childhoods. And they agree. Hot Coke with ginger is a magnificent beverage far far superior to its pale tepid American cousin. It's so delicious in fact that it can make people (here's where I got the back-up) feel wistful about flu season.

I know what you're probably thinking. I was skeptical too. The first time a friend suggested heating up a can of Coke I suggested maybe he was the one who was sick. I was too weak to argue though so I watched him peel and mince up a few inches of ginger root and stir them into the fizzing brown liquid warming in a pot on the stove. The liquid hissed and foamed. He turned off the flame and immediately poured the contents of the pot into a mug. The cup fizzed some more and the ginger pieces obligingly floated to the surface.

My doubts vanished with the first whiff of sinus-tingling vapors. Something miraculous had occurred in the pot. (I'm no chemist, but I'm betting it has to do with the same properties of cola that allow it to dissolve pennies.) As the ginger and Coke commingled, the ginger flavor exploded, replacing the familiar taste of the soda with something exotically ambrosial. The liquid had thickened ever so slightly and just enough bubbles remained to gently scratch the back of an itchy throat. This drink was not just not wacko, it was genius.

The recipe is cola neutral. I use Coke because that's what is most available in my neighborhood. In some parts of China, I'm told, people use Pepsi. In others all you can find is something called Feichang Kele or "Extremely Cola." Extremely Cola is distributed in bottles and cans whose red labels and slanting white script bear a probably actionable resemblance to a certain American brand. I haven't tested out its ginger-absorbing properties, but it probably works just as well as the real thing. An ordinary-sized ginger lobe will suffice, but as far as I can tell, no amount of ginger is too much. Eating the sticky brown bits with a spoon out of a drained cup is not a pleasure on which one wants to skimp.

According to Mr. Ti, the TIME Beijing bureau's longtime driver and authority on Chinese culinary conventions, before soda was widely available in China people made the beverage with brown sugar water. Generally speaking, Mr. Ti is a traditionalist. But he approves of Coca Cola--he sips it through long straws he pre-chills in the bureau refrigerator--and on this matter he is firmly behind innovation. "I could never go back to brown sugar," he confided last winter as he handed me a steaming fizzing mug.

By this point, hot Coke with ginger had long been a special thing with us. The first time Mr. Ti saw me chopping up ginger and coughing in the bureau kitchen, I saw a new side of Mr. Ti. Ordinarily his demeanor occupies a spectrum that ranges from matter-of-fact to taciturn. But at that moment he was neither. "You have a cold don't you?" he asked hovering over my shoulder and bouncing slightly. The tone in which he asked the question was oddly congratulatory. "You're making Coke with ginger aren't you?" I nodded. Mr. Ti beamed. "Allow me" he said and shooed me out of the kitchen. I returned to my desk. A few minutes later Mr. Ti appeared in my doorway, still grinning. He was a holding a matching cup and saucer and he placed them, with a courtly flourish, on my desk. There was doily in between the cup and the saucer. Mr. Ti is not a doily kind of guy.

He stood in the doorway long enough to watch me take my first sip. "You like to drink this," he declared almost to himself as much as me. "It's a good drink." Ten minutes later he came back with a fresh mug. I didn't get much sleep that night (hot Coke with ginger's one small flaw is that it must be consumed in moderation), but I already felt much much better.

From then on, whenever I've had a cold, the special Mr. Ti has materialized with cup in hand. I'm sure neither of us would say that we exactly look forward to my getting a cold. But I think I speak for both of us when I say we don't mind it too much either.
Susan Jakes

Reader Comments

Posted by zzyzx
January 15, 2007

It sounds very interesting, modernized traditional cold medicine. Part of me wish to try it, but there is another part unwilling to catch a cold or flu. My curiosity goes wild about if it only works out the colds or flus people get in Beijing or China or can also take care of the rest ones in the world. Again, enjoying what you wrote.

Posted by Pen
January 15, 2007

Wow. I'm *almost* looking forward to trying this recipe the next time I'm down with it. Thanks for sharing this story; very entertaining.

Posted by frank
January 15, 2007

I couldn't believe that somebody are still trying it out. I thought it oly spread like wildfire during bird flu epidemic time. I'd like to know what taste of it apart from ginger flavour.

Posted by Mingi
January 15, 2007

Something flashed in my head when I read this blog entry. While I was living in South Korea a few years ago, a guy I know recommended as flu remedy a cocktail of 'soju' (pretty much tastes like cheap vodka) and spoonfuls of mustard. He said it'd raise my body temperature like no tomorrow, and guaranteed results by the next day.

I never tried it. Now that I think about it, I wonder whether he hated me....

Posted by 刚
January 15, 2007

i am a chinese living in mainland china and i never heard of this strange recipe.
ginger soap was usually used if one gets flu but when i was a little boy, but much different from this one.

why give us some more details about this magicial medicine?

Posted by Boyce
January 16, 2007

If you want a change of pace with your hot drinks, I suggest you head to Q bar in Beijing and try their mix of milk, melted dark chocolate, Amaretto and mint. I can't guarantee its medicinal properties other than to say it cures drowsiness.

Posted by Pony
January 17, 2007

Wow. This makes me really wish I wasn't allergic to ginger. *sigh*

Posted by v
January 17, 2007

Do you think this works with Caffiene-free coke?

Posted by YL
January 20, 2007

When my son started sniffling and coughing last week (in true Beijing winter tradition), our 'ayi' (home helper-cum-baby sitter) unhesitatingly suggested the same remedy -- "it must be Coke, and not Sprite," she stressed. I was horrified but of course my son now goes around saying that Coke is medicinal ...

Posted by yy
January 22, 2007

I am a Canadian Born Chinese, and I grew up with this remedy. If you don't have ginger, then you can use some lemon. Really, it just tastes something like hot lemonade with a twist. I say it works way better than neocitran, and it doesn't have a "no driving" warning.

Posted by Stevo
January 30, 2007

Fantastic! A new take on a remedy an Indian friend of mine gave - 8 inches cubed ginger,2 fresh lemons squeezed, loads of honey, two pints of saucepan, boil then chuck in a tea bag.... Make sure you eat loads of the ginger cubes. Superb. Works everytime. I have a cold coming on now and I have in front of me a big bottle of coke, so gonna give this a go! I'm almost excited that I have a cold!!

Posted by Deductor
January 31, 2007

A national health promotion and disease prevention initiative bringing together many individuals and agencies to improve the health of all Americans WBR LeoP

Posted by Jean
February 5, 2007

Ha, soda in the hardware closet -- sounds familiar. We'll have to try the remedy.

Posted by don
February 14, 2007

hey I was just talking to our little chinese girls thats will be with us for the remainder of the school year to learn english and she recomended this receipe as my daughter is down with a cold .It taste great but Im not sure how long you have to boil it .I enjoyed your story

Posted by Yan
February 27, 2007

This receipe is common in Hong Kong family... Coke only, not pepsi or others...mum just let it simmer in low heat until the ginger or lemon be tender enough for squeezing the juice out

Posted by Ebrahim amiri
February 27, 2007

I'm drinking some right now! You just have to love how the ginger makes you sweat!

Posted by kiki
April 10, 2007

most restaurant in hong kong have this drink on menu. it's a traditional herbal drink for flu. taste great too ^_^

Posted by kitchen remodeling
May 19, 2007

Interesting blog. I'm sure comeback to visit you again.

Posted by Julie
May 31, 2007

I've been drinkin ginger ale for an upset stomach... not a cold or flu... I'll try this. Does anyone know if "diet" or "caffeine-free" coke will work the same? Sounds yummy!

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About The China Blog

Simon Elegant

Simon Elegant was born in Hong Kong and since then China has pretty much always been at the center of his life. Read more

Liam Fitzpatrick

Liam Fitzpatrick was born in Hong Kong and joined TIME in 2003. He edits Global Adviser for TIME Asia. Read more

Bill Powell

Bill Powell is a senior writer for TIME in Shanghai. He'd been Chief International correspondent for Fortune in Beijing, then NYC. Read more

Austin Ramzy

Austin Ramzy studied Mandarin in China and has a degree in Asian Studies. He has reported for TIME Asia in Hong Kong since 2003. Read more

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