Propaganda, stir-fried and roasted

2010-07-01Asia Times

BEIJING - Ideas and good writing may be fun, good music can be soothing, the cinema and theater are certainly entertaining, and sports and video games are heart-racing. All that is good and well, and all are the flesh and blood of the soft power that many countries try to build and whose management the United States has possibly mastered.

Still, all these forms of influence on people's minds and souls come to nothing if compared to the old, solid conduit to the deeper recesses of the spirit, touching directly the deeper entrails of the body: food.

Nothing can make us happy or sad, ultimately do or not do something, and influence us to go to or avoid a place or a person like good or bad food. Here in China, nothing is more Chinese than Chinese food.

Yes, there are other cuisine. French is chic, Indian is hot, Japanese is cool and Italian is family. But Chinese food is paramount. There are millions of Chinese restaurants outside of China. Even in Italy, the heartland of food conservatives and the home of mom's pasta, at one point there were over 10,000 eateries marked by Chinese characters. Still, few in China have recognized the philosophical and political value of food, except perhaps for Lu Yuguo, the chief architect of the dishes served by Beijing's top canteen, Made in China.

Trained in French cuisine and a wine connoisseur, he knows even more about the culinary traditions of the capital. He is very particular about the plebeian zhajiang mian (noodles with deep-fried sauce). The best sauce, he says, must have minced lean pork, not diced pork - or worse, pork fat. He is even more attentive about the noble morsels. The famous ''Peking duck'' begs to be roasted by the sweet flames of fruit wood, and anyway it is good only in Beijing, because the capital has the only two places that for decades, through extra hygiene and force-feeding, have bred the special breed of ducks fit to become ''Peking''.

Lu is a paladin of Chinese food advancement, at the frontline of the fight to conquer minds and souls, as even China's fiercest opponent will be conquered by the penetrating flavor of the jingjiang rousi (pork slices in Beijing sauce). Anyone with any pretense of being a VIP in Beijing will at one point pay homage at his Made in China, and thus offer the belly to the sweet and sour seduction of Chinese cooking.

Still the Communist Party, self-absorbed in the fumes of old-fashioned ideologies, fails to smell the soft-powering scent coming from the stove. In fact, Chinese food habits have undergone a massive revolution in the past two decades.

In the late 1980s, Chinese children were gradually introduced to the delicacies of Western food, ie American fast food, which seduced entire families with its hamburgers and fried chicken. In a diet mostly of rice and vegetables with only a little meat, a chunk of beef or a whole chicken leg represented a massive increase in protein intake. It was good for the growth of children, mothers thought.

Later, it represented an aspiration to a way of life mirrored in the environment of the place - clean, efficient, bright and modern. It was the first dream of becoming middle class and of emerging from the nameless mass of people all equally worshipping the Great Leader. Then came the milk, ice-cream, and other new dairy products that reformed the inner workings of the Chinese stomach, previously unable to digest milk derivatives. Those items also helped to develop the bone structure of Chinese kids, who have grown about 10 centimeters taller and 12 kilograms heavier in the past two decades.

Along came the new sweetened, bubbly cold beverages - Chinese traditionally drank mostly hot drinks, believing that cold beverages harmed the body. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and their allies have introduced a greater amount of sugar into the Chinese diet and the Chinese palate. Lastly, even a backbone of Chinese identity, tea - the one concept and item that China has exported all over the world and that seduced the West before the crumbling of the empire in the 19th century - has been partly challenged by the arrival of coffee. Even the drinking culture has changed, moving away from the almost poisonous yet manly consumption of high-voltage grain spirits to the more modest use of grape wine.

In a way, the more assertive, stronger China strutting around the word today is the result of this food revolution that absorbed a vast amount of American chow and its concepts.

Coming from this experience, China should be more than aware of the value of food and the potential of its own cuisine in a time of competition for soft power. Yet, except for a few isolated prophets of delicacies who cater to the needs of a few of the world's rich and famous, few of the Chinese ideologues appreciate the propaganda value of food. But at the same time, the three powerful arms of the party line - the People's Daily, the New China News Agency and Central Television - have been richly financed in their expansion programs abroad.

Still, what is more efficient in melting souls and bending backs: a few sweet or bitter words in a newspaper column or one savory morsel of crispy chicken? Chinese people, who would prefer to spend a dollar on good food rather than on anything else, should know the answer.

In the end, that is how it works. Despite the inefficiencies of official propaganda abroad, the unofficial and unintentional propaganda of food wins, since as any diner about to tuck into Master Lu Yuguo's duck might admit, a country that can serve up a dish so good, can't be that bad. (2010-07-01 Asia Times)


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