When U.S. Diplomats Visit China, Meal Choices Are About More Than Taste Buds

Beijing beer made with American hops, to highlight the trade relationship between the two countries. Tibetan food, to send a human rights message. Mushrooms with possible hallucinogenic properties, just because they taste good.

Where, what and how American dignitaries eat when they visit China is a serious matter. Choices of restaurants and dishes are rife with opportunities for geopolitical symbolism, as well as controversy and mockery. Chopstick skills — or a lack thereof — can be a sign of cultural competence or illiteracy.

An exorbitantly expensive meal can make an official look out of touch. Too cheap or informal, and you risk appearing undignified. Authenticity, history, cooking technique and taste can all affect the perception of a meal choice.

When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken started a trip through China on Wednesday, part of the Biden administration’s efforts to stabilize the relationship between the two countries, some on Chinese social media wondered whether he would have time on his visit to stop and try some of the city’s famous xiaolongbao (soup dumplings).

One recommendation that he do so came with something of a political warning: “Eating xiaolongbao is just like handling international relations,” a commentator wrote on Weibo. “If your attention slips even a little, you’ll burn your mouth.”

Mr. Blinken did in fact visit a renowned soup dumpling restaurant that night. It’s unclear how much he considered the symbolism of his dumplings, but by indulging in a traditional popular snack, and by attending a basketball game, the optics suggested there was a more cordial spirit than on the trip he made last year, soon after a Chinese spy balloon drifting across the United States had heightened tensions.

But Mr. Blinken’s eating habits have drawn far less interest than that of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Over two trips, this month and last year, her meals in China attracted so much attention that the state-run Global Times deemed it a form of “food diplomacy.”

Last year, Ms. Yellen made headlines when, at a restaurant in Beijing serving cuisine from Yunnan Province, she ate mushrooms that were revealed to be mildly toxic and could cause hallucinations if not cooked properly.

Ms. Yellen later said that she was not aware of the mushrooms’ potential hallucinogenic properties when she ate them and felt no abnormal effects. Still, the story sparked a brief craze for the mushrooms in China.

This month, during a four-day trip to China, Ms. Yellen visited a famed Cantonese restaurant in Guangzhou, and a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing. The dishes she ordered were quickly posted online, drawing broad approval from commenters for the variety and affordability of the dishes ordered, her chopstick skills and the fact that she and her team sat among other diners instead of in a private room.

The dishes Ms. Yellen and her team ordered were classic meals from their respective regions and were not modified to foreign tastes, according to Fuchsia Dunlop, a London-based cook and food writer who specializes in Chinese cuisine.

“They haven’t chosen really expensive, show-off dishes and ingredients,” Ms. Dunlop said, speaking about the Sichuan meal. “This is very much what everyday people in Sichuan like to eat. This menu was chosen for flavor, not prestige.”

According to a Treasury Department spokeswoman, the department generally solicits suggestions from staff at the local embassy for restaurant recommendations when Ms. Yellen travels. Then, Ms. Yellen will research the restaurants herself and make the final decision.

On occasion, specific establishments will be chosen to convey a diplomatic message, the spokeswoman added. She cited Ms. Yellen’s visit this month to a brewery in Beijing that uses American hops, aimed to highlight the significance of American agricultural exports to China.

Some restaurants where Ms. Yellen has dined at have capitalized on her fame, like the Yunnan restaurant where she ate the mushrooms, which released a set menu based on what she ordered, called the “God of Money” menu, a nod to her position as Treasury Secretary.

Ms. Yellen isn’t the first American dignitary to turn Chinese restaurants into overnight sensations. In 2011, a visit by then-Vice President Joe Biden to a Beijing noodle restaurant sent its business skyrocketing, according to Chinese state media, and led the restaurant to create a “Biden set” noodle menu.

In 2014, after Michelle Obama visited a hot pot restaurant in the city of Chengdu, the restaurant said it would create an “American First Lady” set menu. Articles in Chinese media noted approvingly that Ms. Obama was able to handle the spicy soup, which was not toned down for a foreign palette.

Her visit to a Tibetan restaurant in the same city, however, attracted controversy, and her staff at the time readily acknowledged that the venue had been chosen deliberately to show support for the rights and religious liberties of Tibetans in China.

But for Mrs. Obama’s husband and other U.S. presidents, Chinese cuisine served at official state banquets is often Americanized or customized to better suit a foreign palette.

In 2009, President Obama was served a Chinese-style beef steak and baked fish, according to Chinese state media, and in 2017, President Trump ate dishes including kung pao chicken and stewed boneless beef in tomato sauce. Both meals finished with fruit ice cream, which is highly atypical of traditional Chinese meals.

But even those meals may hint at an international trend, Ms. Dunlop said. Mr. Obama’s menu contained “very safe, conservative choices that would be appealing to foreigners,” she said, while Mr. Trump’s menu was slightly more contemporary and showed off more Chinese cooking techniques.

That shift, Ms. Dunlop said, “may reflect China feeling a bit more confident with Westerners’ familiarity with real Chinese food” in 2017 versus 2009.

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