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How to avoid Stephen Harper’s culinary faux-pas in China

The first time you taste Stephen Harper's elbows, your head recoils a bit as though you've been hit. After a few bites, you get used to the wasabi-hot mustard that the Prime Minister apparently likes his meat dipped in, although Beijingers still swear there's a better way to eat your braised pig's leg.

During his visit to China earlier this month, Mr. Harper took a page from U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden's playbook and staged a photo op at a well-known Beijing restaurant, Yi Wan Ju. Mr. Harper, his wife Laureen, along with Canada's new "goodwill ambassador" to China, Mark Rowswell, ordered three bowls of Yi Wan Ju's famous fried-sauce noodles. (Mr. Biden pulled a similar eat-beside-the-locals publicity stunt on his own visit to Beijing last year.)

It was one of the few moments on Mr. Harper's five-day, three-city trip that allowed him to interact with ordinary Chinese, and he left an impression. The chairs that the Harpers and Mr. Rowswell – who is famous in China as his comic alter-ego "Da Shan" – sat on are now covered with gold cloth. They're to be looked at, but not sat on, by the restaurant's other customers.

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And Mr. Harper's decision – the staff here calls it an error – to dip his pork in the hot "jiemo" mustard sauce his cabbage was floating in has spawned a new dish dubbed Harper's Elbows that sells for 25 yuan (about $4) a plate.

Well, not quite. Harper's Elbows (the thinly shaved meat comes from the foreleg of a pig) is less a new menu item than it is a regular serving of the restaurant's braised pork elbows, but with a small dish of the jiemo mustard on the side.

"Harper didn't know how to eat it, so he ate the meat together with the jiemo cabbage," the restaurant's gregarious host, Brother Ho, said Monday, smiling at the memory. "I was surprised."

"We Chinese don't eat it this way. We thought 'maybe they do in Canada'." But, Brother Ho noted, Da Shan had lived in China long enough not to make the same mistake.

Instead of letting it the culinary faux-pas pass quietly, the enterprising Brother Ho decided to call it a culinary creation. "We thought afterwards, 'maybe we can promote this.'"

And they have, with the already-popular restaurant seeing a 20 per cent surge in business since Mr. Harper's visit received wide coverage in the Chinese media. Plastic copies of the full Harper Meal are laid out on the table he sat at: there's also a plate of salted peanuts, a pyramid of sweets, and a can of Coca-Cola similar to the one Mr. Harper used to wash down his otherwise authentic meal.

Few locals, however, have asked to try Harper's Elbows, with most turning their noses up after the first bite. "Most people prefer it in the usual style," said Song Lihua the waiter who served the Harper table on Feb. 9. In other words, the bowl of garlic, soy and sesame sauce that Mr. Harper overlooked while dipping his meat in the cabbage.

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And how about the Prime Minister's chopstick use?

"Not good," Brother Ho snickered. "Like yours."

I looked at my hands and realized I was holding my own chopsticks upside-down.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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