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Eastern Gastrodiplomatic Efforts: Asian Nations as Pioneers in the use of Cuisine in Cultural Diplomacy

A  culture is comprised of narratives that  perpetuate certain values and morals, and then  channels them through media such as visual art, music and theatre.  This transmission can also be conducted through food and foodways, carrying these  values through the  process of sharing experiences and customs  revolving around a meal. From nostalgia to lessons on life, the preparation and sharing of food has been essential in the  education of young generations  in understanding  a certain way of life. Today, this ‘word-of-bite’ has only survived in cultures  that  have solidified and  protected  their  values through  the  development  and solidifcation of their national gastronomy, whether through UNESCO labelling as cultural heritage or through becoming a widely recognized part of the tourist offer.

Sociologists and anthropologists recognized this and began analysing the origins of dishes, their etymology, symbolism within the  society (cultural and/or  religious), as  well as  similarities and  differences between dishes  of  various cultures.  This metaphysical  value  can  be  projected  to  larger  scales  than  individual sentiments; if enough people give the same dish or food that  value it becomes a societal tool for bringing people together.  This means  that  these  dishes  are  capable  of uniting a  nation’s population if enough importance is placed on them at a metaphysical level. Hend Alhinnawi explains this perfectly in his blog:

“Food is a  catalyst,  not  only for families to  come together,  but  sharing  a  meal  often  creates  an environment for business partners, co-workers, community leaders, and educators to exchange ideas for a purpose far greater than basic nutrition. It is an important tool in building cultural understanding, and in turn, breaking down traditional barriers by providing insight into a culture that  might otherwise be unknown to a person”

(Alhinnawi,  2011)

Governments have recognized this value and began developing and incorporating outreach programs into their procedures, classified as gastrodiplomatic efforts, placing food as a priority in not only promoting a sense of national identity, but also stimulating exchange between cultures as to what they have to offer (of which food is the hardest to decline).

Paul Rockower first coined the  term  gastrodiplomacy, romantically defining it as  “a method  of reaching hearts  and minds through people’s stomachs” (Wallin, 2013). Later Sam Chapple-Sokol gave a more precise definition: “The use of food and cuisine as an instrument  to create  a cross-cultural understanding  in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation” (Chapple-Sokol,  2012). The term gastrodiplomacy has come into existence in the last decade and has been utilized by a variety of countries as a soft-power instrument for boosting their public image.

Countries have made their gastrodiplomatic efforts go across borders, in the hopes of promoting cultural exchange  and  a  rise in global awareness.  Most of these  nations  reside  in Asia, where the  concept of gastrodiplomacy  was  first  recognised.  These  include  nations   that   have  boosted   their  international recognition through the  spreading of restaurants throughout  the  globe, such as China, Japan,  and India. These examples have had indirect diplomatic results, as the government did not fund the establishment  of the restaurants,  but other nations’ governments did take direct action within the field.

One of the  pioneering countries in the  incorporation of gastrodiplomacy is Thailand, which launched the initiative ‘Global  Thai’ in 2002  through  opening  Thai restaurants around  the  globe. According  to  their government reports, the numbers went from 5,500 in 2002 to 10,000 in 2013, implying that their initiative is successful. Many agreed  that  this method  was an effective point of action for building a public image; diplomats  in Washington have  “point[ed] out  that  restaurants are  often  the  only contact  that  most Americans have with foreign cultures” (“Thailand’s gastro-diplomacy”, 2002). Others have taken their own initiatives to  promote  Thai culture, such as  Thai senator  in 2002 Mechai Viravaidya,  who owns several restaurants worldwide titled “Cabbages and Condoms”, which promotes birth control and assist in the fight against  the  spreading  of AIDS.  These efforts  can  be  interpreted  as  successful, considering the  overall increase  in Thailand’s popularity as  a  tourist  and  migration destination:  in data  made  available by the Department  of Tourism of Thailand, the  country has  experienced a  growth of 107%  in arrivals from all countries between  2002 and 2012 (Vanhaleweyk). The incorporation of Thai restaurants into daily life in other nations can also be seen as a positive result for the national brand of Thailand, and with the increase in the visibility of Thai culture one can conclude that Thailand’s ‘net worth’ on a global plain has increased in the last decade.

Another nation that  is promoting their public image through food is Taiwan. According to an article in The Guardian “President Ma Ying-jeou has ordered his envoys to start talking the language of food by launching a £20m ‘gastro-diplomacy’ campaign in the UK  and elsewhere” (Booth, 2010). Revealed in 2010,  ‘Dim Sum Diplomacy’  planned  to  promote  Taiwanese  food  as  an  alternative  to  Asian cuisine as  seen  abroad, specifically a healthier, lighter substitute  to the typically heavy national cuisines that are readily available in many metropolises. The government intended  to open 3,500 restaurants within Taiwan as  well as internationally, play host  to a variety of popular culinary events, as  well as  establish  a “Taiwanese food foundation  –  a  culinary think tank  that  will assist  coffee  shops  and  restaurant chains  that  promote Taiwanese foods abroad” (Rockower, 2010). Other goals included 10,000 jobs created by the end of 2013 and an additional 50 international brands.

Indirectly, the  Taiwanese movie industry has  also assisted  in the  expression of national identity through food. A  variety of films produced in the  last  two decades  have used  food as  a medium through which traditional and modern values have been expressed and translated  to the audience. An example of this is the comedy film “Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast,” which centres on a young girl who lives on fast food and  who enters  a  cooking competition for catering  (Hsu, 2013). This is reflective of Taiwanese culinary traditions, as many poorer families would use catering companies to replace the restaurant experience for special occasions, and serve food outdoors. This is referred to as “ban doh”, and the director of the film used this as a medium to communicate to both younger and older generations, bringing back a form of cultural heritage while making the audience laugh.

Another example is the  film “Eat Drink  Man Woman,” which uses  food as  a medium for communication between  family members, and simultaneously mirrors Taiwanese traditions and values. The plot is centred on a family of a widower Chinese master chef and his three daughters, who gather every Sunday in order to share a meal together, but end up dealing with the daughters’ personal problems. This is a perfect example of the  use  of gastronomy  to transfer  values to an audience, specifically Confucianism  in the  context of familial life (Khaw, 2012). In the case of this movie it is the acceptance of modern values that reflect natural desires (i.e. sexual desires of the daughters)  by the traditional values that  are based on Confucian beliefs (the father feeling as though his opinion has become obsolete).

These two films act as representatives  of a movement that  utilized food in order to express and transfer Taiwanese values and culture to general audiences, as opposed to exclusively for Taiwanese audiences. This can been  viewed as  an informal form of culinary diplomacy, as  it opens  the  door to understanding  the culture of a nation and offers the opportunity to better communicate ideals and values.

South  Korea is yet  another  country taking the  gastrodiplomacy world by storm, referred to  as  ‘Kimchi Diplomacy’. In 2009 the South Korean first lady Lee Myung-bak prepared a variety of traditional dishes for American veterans of the Korean War that took place in the 1950’s (Moskin, 2009). Her goal was to introduce an alternative view of South Korea to people that  didn’t experience it in the best  light: “I  wanted  to give them a new taste  of Korea as something positive and delicious,” she said in an interview (speaking through an interpreter), her first with a member of the Western news media since her husband took office the year before. “From the war, they do not have many pleasant  food memories” (Moskin, 2009). The first lady also proceeded to have similar affairs with the Japanese prime minister and his wife, Miyuki Hatoyama, where Mrs Hatoyama proceeded to help prepare  kimchi, stating  that  she  “wanted to experience making kimchi with bare hands” (“Kimchi Diplomacy”,  2009). The utilization of food in order to change a country’s image, no matter how small of an audience is being addressed, can result in mass turning of opinion through example. In addition to this initiative the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries set aside ten million dollars “to spend  in  2009,  including grants   and  scholarships  for  South  Koreans  to  travel  and  attend   culinary school” (Moskin,  2009). The South  Korean government  was  confident of its  being next  in line to  open restaurants abroad and bring foods such as tteokbokki, bibimbap and bulgogi to the international culinary world. They’re initiatives instigated  the  ‘Hallyu’ (“the Korean Wave”) in the  United States,  increasing their cuisine’s popularity and overall awareness  in Americans as to all that  South Korea has to offer. Whether through addressing the wider population, or simply through social interaction with other political figures, the South Korean First Lady managed to adapt a social aspect of her culture in order to open dialogue between nations and solidify relations, proving the real value of gastronomy in the political and social spheres.

Another nation that has developed an international gastronomic reputation is India, also known as ‘Samosa Diplomacy’. Indian food especially can be found at almost every corner in London, and there is a tendency for there to be at least one Indian restaurant in every capital of the West. Restaurants  aren’t the only way Indian food has acted as representative  of one of the largest countries in the world: in Australia the Uniting Church has played host to a monthly dinner for Indian students,  where they can express their stress  and fear concerning street  violence targeting them. Indian food is served, in order to assist in the comforting of the students  (Yudhvir, 2011).

Locally, efforts made by the government have been insufficient, but there have existed initiatives oriented towards promotion through gastronomy. Paul Rockower discusses an event conducted through government initiative: “In Delhi, the Indian Ministry of Tourism — in collaboration with a variety of other ministries and tourist boards, helps host the popular tourist destination Dilli Haat, a rural market-style center to showcase Indian crafts and cuisine from all across India’s varied 28 states” (Rockower,  2011).

There is great  potential  for India to further enhance  its already established  gastronomic reputation  and promote the great  cultural variety that  all its states has to offer, which leaves us anticipating where the government will take the country in the future.

In the case of each nation, the cultural narrative acted as a cohesive social force, uniting neighbourhoods, villages, regions, and the nation, offering a sense of belonging and pride. The private, public and civil sectors have  the   capability  to  resurrect  the   positive  narrative  through  a  systematic   approach  to  national gastronomy. As a relatively new discipline, gastrodiplomacy has  already proven itself effective as  a soft power instrument  of public diplomacy. Its importance is highlighted by the general trend of globalisation, where it is becoming more difficult, especially for smaller countries, to showcase their national identity. It has  the  potential  to reshape  public diplomacy through its promotion of gastronomic exchange between nations, as well as its strengthening  of cultures through accentuating  a sense  of pride for nationals. The number of ways in which a nation can utilize gastrodiplomacy is endless, which ultimately it leaves us to wonder what the ‘foodies’ of the world have in store for us in the future.


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This paper was written in 2015 for the “Art of Food” IGCAT expert meeting organised by IGCAT. and first published in the
Reader for this meeting.

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