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When food is fodder for politics

By Chris Peterson (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-07-31 16:00

What does the choice of cuisine say about a people? Listen to some of their famous leaders and you may find out

It doesn't matter which political leader you read about, they've all used references to food over the years.

Take Mao Zedong, for example. A native of Hunan province, he once berated a hapless Soviet official, saying: "You can't be a revolutionary if you don't eat chilies."

He also famously came out with one of his oft-quoted sayings: "A revolution is not a dinner party."

World War II leader Winston Churchill, as fond of his food as he was of his brandy and cigars, once rumbled: "It is as well to remember that the stomach governs the world."

Not to be outdone, iconic French president Charles de Gaulle, who led his country through highly turbulent times in the 1950s and early 1960s, once despairingly asked: "How can I govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese?"

Former French president Jacques Chirac, perhaps typifying the love-hate relationship that exists between France and Britain, was overheard in conversation with Russia's Vladimir Putin and then-German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder saying of his British allies: "Of course, one cannot trust a people whose cuisine is so bad. After Finland, it is the country with the worst food."

Hmmm. Well, moving on, as they say, I can't help but notice how a love of food and concern for health govern various cultures.

My mother-in-law, bless her, is from Vietnam, and inevitably we will arrive at her house in Ho Chi Minh City after having eaten either on a plane or from a sumptuous hotel buffet breakfast, and the question is always the same.

"Hello, Chris. Have you eaten?"

It was only after several years that my wife explained that in Vietnam this was not an invitation to an immediate four-course meal, but the local equivalent of saying "Hello, how are you?" The same, it turns out, is true in China.

You would no more answer that one with a long and detailed list of your recent ailments (at least, I hope you wouldn't) than I would answer my mother in law with "Oh, thanks very much, I will have a bowl of pho and some seafood, please."

I should say, for the record, that I have enjoyed many a fine Vietnamese meal at the family home.

Food, and the ritual surrounding it, plays a big part in various cultures.

In China, as in Vietnam and other neighboring cultures, getting together with family or friends around a hotpot in a restaurant is a high point, socially.

Doing business in Asia inevitably involves a more formal banquet.

I've never forgotten my first formal Asian feast, when I arrived in Singapore as a young correspondent in 1972. The meal was given by the local Chinese newspaper owners, and after a huge banquet of assorted animal parts (or so it seemed), my neighbor leaned back contentedly in his chair and asked me what I thought of the Reuters office at the time in Singapore.

It was located at an old villa on Peck Hay Road. A rather curious shape, the newsroom was located in the atrium and all the offices were located off a sort of circular gallery one floor up.

"Yes," reflected my neighbor, who must have been well into his 80s. "Before the war that was the best brothel and nightclub in Singapore. Count the number of bathrooms."

I think I mumbled a suitably astonished response and applied myself to the brandy that was now circulating.

Fast-forward a couple of months and I found myself newly appointed as a correspondent in Saigon, capital city of the old South Vietnam regime.

Every year, Cookie, our formidable Chinese amah, would usher us all outside for a couple of hours on All Souls Day while she and her acolytes constructed an enormous feast, pushing the desks together as a table.

Only after the wandering spirits had their fill were we ravenous round-eyes allowed back in to eat and drink what was left.

I think Mao was right - after eating that feast, none of us felt like starting a revolution.

Just a nice, gentle siesta.

The author is managing editor of China Daily European Bureau. Contact the writer at chris@mail.chinadailyuk.com

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