The Chinese DNA

Jeremy Oliver raises a glass to China’s wine drinking culture and invites Australians to embrace an Asian perspective to enjoying the wine lifestyle.
jeremy oliver
matthieu joannon

Like most Australian capitals, Melbourne is an international city populated by restaurants offering a multiplicity of different cuisines. Yet do Melbourne’s Thai restaurants faithfully present the same culinary experience you find in Bangkok? Do our Indian restaurants serve food that would be immediately identifiable to a citizen of Mumbai? Would you ever see the traditional Australian concept of a Chinese menu actually presented in mainland China or Hong Kong?

The answer to each of these questions is a resounding no, but more importantly, does it matter? Of course not. The market for authentic expressions of cuisines such as these – even in a city of such gastronomic pride as Melbourne – is so small that only a handful can actually flourish. Australian fusion cuisine evolved for good reasons – and commercial reality is one of them. To some extent, most of our Asian restaurants have adapted what they do to suit the local market.

If they are to connect and take root, all cultures need to do this when they are exported into other countries. After just a short time in Australia, Jacques Reymond realised the French cuisine for which he was rightly famous had to be entirely re-engineered around Australian ingredients. Once he got his head around that, his contribution to Australian cuisine went off the charts.

So, what should we expect when we take wine to a market like China? In a recent article, one of this country’s leading wine critics questions some of the ways in which he has seen wine consumed in China, including the drinking of a rich shiraz or cabernet with steamed fish and the not uncommon social etiquette procedure in China of toasting an entire glass in a single movement. But are we correct to view the development of a wine culture in China through an exclusively western perspective?

China has a 4,000 year-old culture of cuisine which westerners have tried and failed to change in the name of wine education. We have attempted to show them how to serve a single dish at a time – to which we can easily pair a wine – and in doing so revealed a complete lack of understanding of Chinese culture and the importance of retaining and developing this culture to Chinese people.

Australians have done more than any other wine exporting country to engage with China and its people. Too often however, we fall into the same trap of expecting Chinese wine drinkers to suddenly behave as if they lived in South Yarra or Chelsea. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Why bother trying to change someone’s DNA?

Chinese people bring all sorts of dishes to the table in an order that while making little sense to westerners, is entirely logical and intelligent to them. It’s completely irrelevant, even impossible, to try and match a single wine to dishes served in this way. The shiraz that might not have accompanied the steamed fish might indeed have worked perfectly with six or seven other dishes on the same lazy Susan.

Australians – private and Government – have wasted millions of dollars in China demonstrating that Australian wine goes perfectly with western food and the way we eat it. Yet every promotional wine and food event in China should only feature authentic Chinese cuisine – but with as many Australian ingredients to complement as possible, naturally!

Like it or not, Chinese people have always toasted each other as a mark of respect and friendship. Why bother trying to change someone’s DNA? These same people can, if and when they want to, relax over wine and drink it ‘our way’.

We need to let Chinese people admit wine into their culture their own way. We need to be a little more supportive and a lot less precious. We need to listen more to them, to see what they want from wine and a wine lifestyle, and then give that to them. If we open our eyes, the answers are already right in front of us. 

Sure, we should keep on teaching wine culture as we know it, but just as they have done with the internet, with fashion, with their own ways of choosing products and information, Chinese people will pick and adapt what they want and leave alone what they don’t. Just as we do in Australia.

I can’t see any reason not to encourage Chinese people to enjoy wine the way they want to. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Australians believed the highlights of China’s vast culinary entirety to be lemon chicken and beef with black bean sauce.