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Culinary art packs a soft power punch

By Victor Paul Borg (China Daily) Updated: 2014-07-28 20:37

Mention China and most Westerners will think about its food. This is not surprising given the popularity of Chinese cuisine in the West, where some countries have more restaurants serving Chinese dishes than the traditional local fair.

Perhaps this is why China appears exotic and wondrous to many Westerners. And perhaps this is why German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her recent visit to China learned to cook gongbao jiding (diced chicken cooked with peanuts, chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns) from a cook in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.

Presumably, Merkel's gesture was aimed at using food as a cultural bridge between the West and the East. After all, having dinner together in China facilitates social bonding and establishes business relations.

There could be subtle reasons why Merkel's food moment happened in Chengdu. One of them could be associated with the economic emergence of Chengdu. Two airlines, KLM and British Airways, now fly directly between European cities and Chengdu, and Merkel was in the city primarily to visit a Volkswagen factory. Another reason could be the eminence of Sichuan cuisine.

I may be biased because I have lived in Sichuan, but after years of traveling and writing about food extensively I can say that Sichuan cuisine is probably the most varied and creative in the world. It owes its variety to the region's diverse topography and amenable climate that have fostered the farming of an impressive and rich range of spices and vegetables. Not for nothing was Chengdu honored by UNESCO as a food heritage city a few year ago.

Yet Sichuan cuisine is relatively unknown in the West. Throughout history, coastal provinces, especially Guangdong, have accounted for most of the migrant Chinese population in the West. As a result, Cantonese cuisine continues to dominate the Chinese restaurant scene in the West, although many now also serve dishes from other regions, particularly the ever-popular Peking Duck and some Sichuan fare such as mapo toufu and gongbao jiding.

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