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Culinary diplomacy and an American bureaucrat's food choices in China

The internet is obsessed with what U.S. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen eats in China

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen tastes a cup of beer at Jing-A brewery in Beijing, China April 8, 2024.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen tastes a cup of beer at Jing-A brewery in Beijing, China April 8, 2024. (Florence Lo, Reuters)

BEIJING (AP) — Ever since she ate mushrooms that can have psychedelic effects in Beijing last July, Janet Yellen has united Americans and Chinese in wanting to know what she will eat next.

And now that the U.S. Treasury secretary is back in China this week, having stopped in Guangzhou and Beijing, many people are less interested in her travels to rebuild relations between the world’s two biggest economies, and more fascinated with what she’ll eat next and where.

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From her forays into Sichuan dumplings to Peking duck, mouth watering chicken or twice cooked pork — even Chinese politicians at the highest ranks of the party are taking notice of her popularity on the culinary arts scene.

Ahead of a highly anticipated bilateral meeting Sunday between Yellen and Premier Li Qiang at the Great Hall of People, he noted in his opening remarks that Yellen’s visit has “indeed drawn a lot of attention in society" with media covering her trip. She prefers to dine among other patrons and doesn't like partitions keeping her from other diners — making her silver hair highly recognizable when she's out and about.

The use of her chopsticks at a restaurant in Guangzhou has also been a particular observation.

A social media account run by Chinese state media posted a catchy video of Yellen on her first night in China, eating with the U.S. ambassador and other officials at Tao Tao Ju, a Guangzhou restaurant that dates to 1880.

The post, one of the most viewed on the Weibo microblog app the next morning, praised Yellen for holding chopsticks well but added, “as a U.S. official, Yellen needs to know more about China than just food. Only by knowing more about China can we set right the American view of the world, of China, of China-U.S. relations.”

And during a Sunday meeting with Dean of Peking University, Huang Yiping, he joked that China has been watching the news of her arrival as well as her dining, to which Yellen interjected: “My chopstick skills!”

In the U.S., Yellen also often stops for fast food and at local eateries during domestic trips ahead of events to promote Biden administration policies like the Democrats' Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure law, and becomes the news.

A stop last November at In-N-Out burger in San Francisco before heading to the airport to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting also became a viral moment.

In China, her very first viral moment happened when she unknowingly ate mushrooms than can become psychedelic when cooked improperly at a Yunnan restaurant called Yi Zuo Yi Wang during her first trip as Treasury secretary last July. Mushroom-gate went viral across the internet and the restaurant has since dedicated a part of its menu to Yellen's visit, where diners can order what she ate.

She told CNN at the time, “There was a delicious mushroom dish. I was not aware that these mushrooms had hallucinogenic properties. I learned that later.”

In China for a second time this week, Yellen is hoping to make headway on the issue of what she calls Chinese overproduction of solar products, electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries that she warns threaten global economic stability if left unchecked.

And this time around in Beijing, Yellen ate at Lao Chuan Ban, a popular Sichuan restaurant. She also had lunch with Beijing Mayor Yin Yong at the Beijing International Hotel.

On Monday evening, her last night in China, Yellen visited Jing-A Brewing Co. in Beijing — co-founded by an American — where she ordered a Flying Fist IPA, a beer made with American hops.

She took a sip and called it “excellent.”

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