Silk Road on a plate
The ancient Silk Road has brought about economic and cultural exchanges in China and abroad, as well as a variety of new fruits and vegetables including grapes, watermelon, eggplant and garlic that have appeared on dining tables ever since. [Photo provided to China Daily]
There are dates from Tunisia. Grapes－and raisins－from China's Xinjiang. Coconuts from Southeast Asia. Wines from Venice. In a line of cooking stations, a Czech chef bastes a roast, an Indonesian chef tosses noodles in a bright yellow sauce, and a dozen of their peers whip up "the best foods their countries have to offer".
If the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May was all about global development, last week's Belt and Road Gastrodiplomacy Meeting was all about food.
"There is great synergy in these ideas," says Guillermo Gonzales-Arica, a former ambassador from Peru. "There is cultural culinary fusion at one end, and improved commercial and economic relations between these nations on the other."
Gonzales-Arica notes that the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, once called food "the oldest diplomatic tool", whether it's served at a state dinner for leaders or a culinary festival for regular folks.
His own mission: Use "gastrodiplomacy" to create an economic chain of value that begins with the native products of every country.
The veteran diplomat thinks every embassy should have a resident chef to help promote its foods. To promote that idea, he invited embassies across Beijing to enter chefs in a competition at the Belt and Road-themed event. Claiming the top prizes were Colombian chef Ana Montoya, who took first place, followed by the Maldives Jeehan Saleen and Denmark's Krista Kirstensen.
Meanwhile, exhibitors hawked food products from countries along the old Silk Road as China celebrates a modern manifestation of the ancient trade route in the Belt and Road Initiative.
"Since diplomat and imperial envoy Zhang Qian's expedition westwards more than two thousand years ago," the Xinhua News Agency noted in a feature this month, "a path connecting China and the outside world has come into being. The path, known as the Silk Road, has brought about economic and cultural exchanges in China and abroad, as well as a variety of new foreign produce to foodies across the nation.
As a result, new fruits and vegetables have appeared on dining tables ever since, including:
Grapes: Originating in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the grape entered China from Dayuan, during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Dayuan was an ancient country in the Ferghana valley in central Asia, which was famous for grapes, alfalfa and ferghana horses.
Pomegranates: The pomegranate originated in the region of modern-day Iran, and has been cultivated since ancient times around the Mediterranean and northern India. The fruit was introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and was considered an emblem of fertility and numerous progeny.
Walnuts: Brought back by Zhang, the walnut is also known as the longevity fruit. It can warm and invigorate the body, and often serves as a key ingredient in Chinese pastries.
Garlic: Garlic is native to southern Europe and central Asia. During the Western Han Dynasty, Zhang introduced this species in the onion genus, Allium, to China. During ancient times in China, foreign tribes were referred to as "Hu troops", so garlic was originally referred to as "Hu garlic".
Eggplant: Originally domesticated in India and Southeast Asia, eggplant was brought into China during the Han Dynasty, and became a common vegetable in the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420).
Sesame: Introduced into China by Zhang, sesame has many species, with most being wild and native to sub-Saharan Africa. Sesame indicum, the cultivated type which is edible, originated in India.
Dates: The date palm was cultivated for its edible sweet fruit. Ancient peoples in the Middle East ate the palm dates; the tree juices were fermented into wine; the trunk of the palm tree was used as construction timber; and the palm leaves were woven into baskets, mats, brooms, beds and ropes, and made into furniture.
Spinach: Spinach is thought to have originated in ancient Persia. The earliest available record of the spinach plant was recorded in Chinese, stating it was introduced into China via Nepal.
Carrots: Originally cultivated for its leaves and seeds, the plant was first introduced into far western parts of China, and then Dunhuang of Northwest China's Gansu province.
Watermelon: Watermelon, which originated in the deserts of Africa, was brought along the Silk Road to western China and ancient Ouigour, located in today's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Luffa: This gourd, which originated in India, was introduced into China during the late Tang Dynasty and became a common vegetable in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Cabbage: Leafy cabbage was domesticated in Europe before 1000 BC. It traveled through western China before arriving in China by the Hexi Corridor, a part of the Silk Road in Gansu province.