Kung Fu Cocktails

It’s a concrete paver, about a foot and a half long and maybe eight inches wide. It’s a couple of inches thick. It’s suspended between two piles of cinder blocks.

I’m supposed to break it.

I originally started taking Taekwondo lessons because my child, who had been taking them for a few years, got moved up to the “Adult” class with other teenagers. This was understandably stressful. She looked at me with enormous, wet eyes, told me earnestly, “It would be so much easier, if I had someone to practice with…” and I found myself – an awkward, middle-aged lump of a man – standing in a class with my kid and a bunch of teenage black belts, looking like Winnie the Pooh in a mongoose pit.

Now, after four years of awkwardly flailing my way toward some semblance of competence, I find myself testing for my own black belt.

Part of that test involves breaking a brick. Up until now, every belt test has involved breaking one or more pine boards of increasing thicknesses, but for the black belt test, it is a tradition to move up to a brick. Most students break their brick with a foot, stomping on it like the groom at a Jewish wedding. For reasons best known to the little man behind the curtain of my subconscious, I have decided to break mine with my hand.

Now, as I stare down at my brick, I realise that training for this moment by watching Kung Fu movies was probably not the most effective way of preparing myself. It’s a lot like getting ready to take the test for your driver’s license by watching The Fast and the Furious movies – extremely inspirational, but unlikely to help you with your parallel parking.

Nevertheless, there have been lessons to be learned:

Movie Number One – Big Trouble in Little China, 1986

I don’t pretend that this is the best movie ever made. It is, however, my very favorite movie of all time. It is a modern action comedy set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The hero, a truck driver/philosopher named Jack Burton played by Kurt Russell, sets out to recover his lost truck and help a friend rescue his kidnapped fiancé from a mystical, 2,000 year-old Chinese sorcerer/crime boss. A film critic in the 80s pointed out that Jack Burton has the courage, tenacity, and intelligence of a rainbow trout. This is accurate.

Last year, I ran into a stranger with a Big Trouble tattoo. I knew instantly that I would take a bullet for him.

I love this movie beyond reason.

So why haven’t you ever heard of it?

John Carpenter, who up to that point had built his reputation on directing suspense and horror movies, had a vision of a story where the hero was actually the sidekick, and the sidekick was actually the hero. Studio executives had a hard time wrapping their heads around this concept:

“Uh, it seems like your hero is actually the sidekick in this movie.”



As a result, the movie never got promoted aggressively and slipped past audiences in 1986 [1] and only gained a following years afterward as a cult favorite.

An important, but admittedly cryptic quote from Big Trouble in Little China:

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: “Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yessir, the check is in the mail.”

The Lesson I’ve Taken Away from Big Trouble in Little China:

You’re not really the hero of this story. Get over yourself.

Paying My Dues

2 oz. Jagermeister
1½ oz banana rum (see below)
1 oz Chili pepper rum (see below)
5 oz Ginger beer
½ Lime [2]

Combine the Jagermeister and banana and chili pepper rums together over ice in a collins glass.

Top with ginger beer and stir.

Garnish with half a lime.

This is a riff on a classic – the Kung Fu Cocktail, which calls for Pisang Ambon liqueur, which apparently tastes of tropical fruit with front-notes of banana. I did manage to track down a bottle of Pisang Ambon online. The martial arts are all about finding your limits. I, for instance, discovered the limit of my curiosity, which falls somewhere short of the hundred and twenty dollars a bottle of Pisang Ambon would run me. I decided to substitute banana rum for the Pisang Ambon [3].

The elephant in the room with this drink is, of course the Jagermeister. There is a reason why it is largely consumed by college boys who have been tempted [4] into dubious decisions by pretty shot girls; it is extremely sweet and herby. Too sweet and herby for banana rum to stand up to it on its own, as it turns out. It needs the acid from half a lime and the bite of a chili pepper to counteract its Jagermeisteriness. The ginger beer is slightly – slightly – more adult-tasting than the cola called for in the original recipe.

Iffy decisions are a specialty of Jack Burton. Breaking a brick with your fist is an iffy decision. Paying My Dues is a solid one.

Banana and Chili Pepper Rums

1 Very ripe banana, the type you might use for banana bread. I’ve mentioned before – and I’ll stand by this – that the best place to find very ripe, broken-spirited bananas is by the cash register at a convenience store.

2 cups White rum

Peel the banana, then muddle it thoroughly in the bottom of a large, wide-mouthed jar.

Add the rum, seal the jar, then shake vigorously.

Put the jar somewhere cool and dark. (I like to put it in the laundry room.) Shake it twice a day, for a week.

After a week, strain, filter, and bottle it.

This will give you a lovely, slightly cloudy rum that tastes of bananas, but is not terribly sweet.

To make chili pepper rum, use this same technique, but substitute four spicy jalapeños, chopped, for the banana. Check it for flavor and spiciness after four days, and every day thereafter.

Movie Number Two – Shaolin Master Killer (AKA The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), 1978

This is THE classic Hong Kong, Kung Fu, Training Montage movie of all time.

The plot is pretty standard:

A young man sees his village and family destroyed by an evil Kung Fu master and barely escapes with his life. He stumbles into a Shaolin monastery and learns that he is in the best place to learn Kung Fu himself. He begs to be allowed to study the martial arts so he can avenge his family, but is puzzled by the truly odd training methods the masters put him through. None of it seems to have anything to do with punching anybody – running across a moat by leaping onto bundles of sticks [5], carrying water in buckets held straight out from his body, etc… By the time he is done with this bizarre training however, he finds himself extremely strong and supernaturally light-footed. If you are a fan of the “Wax-On/Wax-Off” sequence in The Karate Kid, you will eat this up with a spoon. [6]

The best quote from Shaolin Master Killer:

A monk is showing our hero around the monastery. He asks him what kind of Kung Fu he wants to study.

Lio Yude: “The highest form.”

The monk takes him to observe a Zen master ask his students a philosophical question. When Lio Yude asks what this has to do with Kung Fu, the master speaks a mystical Word of Power and blasts him out of the courtyard.

Lio Yude: “I would like to study the second-highest form.”

The Lesson I’ve Taken Away from Shaolin Master Killer:

It’s time to get creative with your training.

I set up a breaking station in my basement, with re-breakable training boards suspended between cinderblocks. I spent the better part of a year, working my way up from an orange (easy-ish) board, to a blue one (harder), to a brown one (really difficult), to a black one (which I never managed to break.) I did seven push-ups every time I failed to break a board. One night, I ended up doing 230 of them. I’m still not sure whether this represented a victory or a failure.

Hi, Karate – Nice to Meet You

If you’re as old as I am [7], you probably remember a series of commercials from the 1970s for an aftershave called Hai Karate. They were… memorable. It was probably inevitable that there would be a tiki drink named after something so… intense? This is a riff on the original.

2 oz. Self-respecting rum – This week, a bottle of Kirk and Sweeny made the sacrifice.
1 oz. Lime juice
1 oz. Tangerine juice
1 oz. Pineapple juice
¾ oz. Ginger syrup
1 dash bitters

Combine all ingredients with ice in a shaker. Shake mercilessly.

Pour into a tall glass, or better yet, a really questionable tiki mug.

This is a very fruit juice-forward drink that would be a little too acidic without the addition of something sweet, like the ginger syrup. The combination of fruits might taste a little too generically fruity, if not for the addition of the ginger syrup.

“But wait, won’t that make this too sweet?”

That’s why we added the bitters.

Everything is starting to make sense again, isn’t it? Just wait until after you’ve had a couple of these cocktails.

This is an outstanding the-kids-have-been-telling-me-about-their-anime-series-in-far-far-too-much-detail-all-afternoon-and-now-they’re-actually-watching-said-video-and-I’ve-finally-got-a-blessed-moment-of-silence drink. If you’re a believer in Cocktail Hour, this is a very strong candidate for Thursdays.

Movie Number Three – Kung Fu Hustle, 2004

A common trope in classic Kung Fu movies is that of a student wandering the countryside, seeking out masters in a variety of disciplines and learning from them. Kung Fu Hustle turns that on its head. The hero of this movie is not an earnest and dedicated martial artist. He’s a small-time aspiring gangster. Instead of searching out masters of esoteric styles of Kung Fu, he stumbles on them and has to almost be forced to learn from them. Admittedly, their styles are unorthodox – ultra-sonic screams, curtain-ring fighting, and magical bakery combat. Sing, the hero, reluctantly accepts his role as a Kung Fu master, only when he is forced to.

I would never say this within earshot of Kurt Russell, but this may be the funniest Kung Fu movie ever made. Each scene makes sly references to movies from Enter the Dragon to Reservoir Dogs, to The Matrix. The hero fails – spectacularly and often. The Kung Fu masters smell of world-weariness and nicotine. The most powerful Kung Fu master is a short-tempered, chain-smoking, middle-aged woman in curlers, a housecoat and slippers. If you think that you don’t like Kung Fu movies, this is the one that will probably change your mind.

The best quote from Kung Fu Hustle:

Sing: I realized then that good guys never win. I want to be bad. I want to be a ruthless killer!
Bone: Ice cream!
Sing: Where?

Why Kung Fu Hustle is important in this context:

In the movie’s climax, Sing, the hapless hero is sent flying high into the air. As he reaches his apex, he has a vision of The Buddha and reaches enlightenment. As he plummets back to earth, he performs a legendary technique called The Buddha’s Palm and flattens his previously undefeatable rival into the bottom of a block-long, hand-shaped crater.

The Lesson I’ve Taken Away from Kung Fu Hustle:

Stop thinking and just break the brick.

Buddha’s Palm Highball

This is a take on a drink called a Dragon Bite. To balance out the fruitiness of this recipe, I’ve replaced the traditional rum with gin.

2½ oz. Gin – This week I’m using Collective Arts Gin with Rhubarb & Hibiscus; alternatively, I’d go with Death’s Door.
2 oz. Lychee Syrup (See below)
1 oz. Lime Juice
1 oz. Pineapple Juice
1 oz. Pomegranate Juice

Combine all ingredients, with ice, in a cocktail shaker.


Pour into a skinny collins glass.

Drink enthusiastically.

This is a bracing, just-sweet-enough drink.

It’s purple. I have no idea why.

You’ll take a sip of this and nod in approval. Then stop as you walk toward your sofa – presumably to watch a Kung Fu movie.

What is that flavor? It’s not bad… just,

… what is that?

It’s Lychee – one of the most popular fruits in the world. You just haven’t drunk it before.

No, seriously – try another sip.

I know, right?

Lychee Syrup

1 can Lychees in heavy syrup

Open the can of lychees.

Pour out the syrup into a measuring cup.

Eat the lychees.

I stare at the concrete paver for another few seconds.

I take a practice swing to get the placement of my hand right.

Get over yourself.

I take a second practice swing, hissing as I slowly bring the heel of my hand into position.

You’ve trained for this.

I take a third, slow-motion practice swing, imagining a target about two inches below the paver.

Just hit the brick.

I remember something my instructor told me once. Apparently, when he was testing for his fourth or fifth-degree black belt, his instructor had piled an absurd number of bricks on top of each other – far too many to reasonably assume he could break. He told me that sometimes, you just have to hit the bricks as hard as you can and hope for the best.

I give a quick glare to the brick, warning it to remember to obey the rules of physics, then shout the word, “PIE!” [8], and hit the brick. [8]


1 To be fair, we weren’t very bright in the 80s.

2 This works best if you have a cut on your hand. Squeeze the lime hard and scream through the pain.

3 It really is a pity that Pisang Ambon is so hard to get ahold of in the States. Try saying it in a Kung Fu voice: “Pisang Ambon!” You won’t be able to stop.

4 Let’s be honest – it doesn’t take much tempting.

5 When he masters, this, the senior monks cut the ropes holding the sticks in bundles and he has to learn to run across the water on the loose sticks.

6 Or chopsticks. Or something.

7 Let’s be frank here. You almost certainly aren’t.

8 Why “PIE”? I’m pretty sure that if you peeled away the layers of my brain to reveal my subconscious, you’d find a piece of pie. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.