Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Iron Chef meets Culinary Diplomacy

Late last week, I got a tweet from my friend and fellow gastrodiplomat Sam about the Embassy Chef Challenge.  With a lil luck, I managed to acquire a ticket— normally $250 but free for this media maven.

At the Reagan Building downtown, I arrived for this culinary diplomacy fest.  I would say culinary diplomacy over gastrodiplomacy because $250 a ticket is more high-brow than my gastrodiplomatic tendencies, but remarkable nonetheless. 

There was representation from a number of Embassies’ executive chefs, including China, Norway, South Korea, El Salvador, Jamaica, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago.  I was most excited to try the food from TnT. 

The event did not disappoint.  Given my veggie caveat of trying cultural foods, I quickly hopped off the veggie wagon.  The first station I tried was Norway, which had a delicious potato-leek soup with chunks of light flaky fish.  They had samples of Aquvit- the water of life- to cleanse the palate.

South Africa was a fav, with delicious bites of boerwoers (South African beef sausage) and tastes of biltong- South African dried meat that I dare not classify as jerky because that would be an insult to the far superior biltong.  They had wonderful South African cape wines to accompany.  I wish there was some amarula (Elephant Juice!) for dessert, but I can’t hold that against them.

Russia had a duck pie that was fair, but the Standard vodka was a nice touch. 

New Zealand was featuring its favorite lamb chops, and they were tender and tasty.

Jamaica had jerk kabobs, which were good but I will take the low-brow version on the Kingston streets.  But I realize that spice isn’t for everyone.

El Salvador had a delicious ceviche and the chef gave me a little shot of sangre de la tigre (“Blood of the Tiger”), the distilled juice of the ceviche whose tart tang was phenomenal.  El Salv also did the most outreach about the event, with lots of tweets to highlight their fare. 

Trinidad and Tobago was a delicious curry soup with a little fried piece of fish on the spoon.  Dynamite (ok, that was too easy).  Sam and I chatted with the chef (“Chef Tiger”) who spoke of the diverse elements that underscore TnT’s cuisine, drawn from its diverse population of Africans, Indians and Caribe heritage.  TnT also had a carnival queen to take pictures with guests; good cultural diplomacy is employing your best cultural assets.

I had the most fun with China.  The chef was making plates of his fare with chopsticks.  He was doling out shrimp, so I said in Mandarin that I don’t eat shrimp.  He laughed, and piled my plate with other food.  He pointed to the fork, so I asked him in Mandarin if he had chopsticks.  He laughed, and gave me the ornamental pair that was on display.  A lovely souvenir indeed.

And then there was the Korean table.  Korea was serving donggun legend rolls.  It was a roll of beef wrapped in kimchi, and it was fantastic.  They had a white rice wine to sample, and it went perfectly with the dish.  In the opinion of this gastrodiplomacy judge, Korea won the Embassy Chef Challenge.

On the whole, the event was a lot of fun.  I really liked the efforts of TnT and El Salvador to use culinary diplomacy to help educate on their culture.  I continue to be impressed by Korea’s culinary diplomacy outreach.  While the event was far more culinary diplomacy than gastrodiplomacy, it was a great bit of culinary diplomacy fun and nice to see Embassies getting involved in a creative way of showcasing their cuisine for public diplomacy purposes.

PS: Apparently the chef from the New Zealand Embassy won.  That came as a shock to me; I thought the NZ fare was good if unremarkable.  

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