Food Diplomacy Next Front for South’s Nations

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The meal is a universal bonding ritual, a time for families or friends to socialize and catch up on the day’s activities. Food has the ability to transcend cultures and societies when humour, the arts, and diplomacy cannot. A person may know nothing about a particular country or culture, but they know what their appetite and palate likes. So it’s no surprise that countries in the South are turning to cuisine as a new weapon in their armoury of diplomacy and cultural outreach.

The phenomenon of ‘gastrodiplomacy’ got its start in Thailand. Thai cooking and restaurants had been on the rise around the world since the 1980s. But in 2002 the Thai government decided to use these kitchens and restaurants as new cultural outposts to promote brand Thailand and encourage tourism and business investment. The “Global Thai” campaign sought to increase the number of Thai restaurants around the world and boost Thailand’s cultural impact.

As The Economist reported at the time, more restaurants “will not only introduce delicious spicy Thai food to thousands of new tummies and persuade more people to visit Thailand, but it could subtly help deepen relations with other countries.”

Thailand’s 2002 campaign boosted the number of Thai restaurants around the world and made popular dishes like pad Thai and tom yum soup (http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/tomyumsoup_85069) familiar to many more people. They are now signature dishes, as synonymous with Thailand as hamburgers are with the United States.

Malaysia, whose varied and delicious cuisine is less known globally than that if its neighbour Thailand, has been running an aggressive campaign in Britain to promote its food. This included setting up a street market in the famous Trafalgar Square in central London: a high foot-traffic spot guaranteed to get the city’s attention.

South Korea also has been pursuing its “Kimchi” diplomacy, an ambitious US $44 million campaign to promote Korean food, or hansik (http://www.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/CU/CU_EN_8_1_5.jsp) as it is known, to more nations. They aim to make Korean food one of the top five most popular cuisines in the world. Using a master plan, South Korea is opening Korean cooking classes at top culinary schools like France’s Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America, increasing the number of overseas Korean restaurants to 40,000 by 2017, and promoting the food’s health qualities. The Korean staple of kimchi – a fermented, spicy cabbage dish – will be perfected at a “kimchi institute” to appeal to foreign palates (http://www.korea.net/detail.do?guid=45469).

Neighbouring North Korea has also turned to gastrodiplomacy with its chain of “Pyongyang Restaurants” (http://www.pyongyangrestaurant.com) around Asia and Europe. These eateries first appeared in China, near the border with North Korea, but have expanded widely during the last decade. Pyongyang Restaurants can be found in Vientiane, Laos; Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Bangkok and Pattaya, Thailand. In Europe, a restaurant has opened in the Dutch city of Amsterdam. The restaurants’ formula offers staff in traditional clothing, authentic North Korean interiors, North Korean art, cooking lessons, cultural performances, and singing. The food includes traditional Korean dishes like kimchi (fermented spicy cabbage), Pyongyang “cold noodle” and barbecued cuttlefish (squid).

One example of how gastrodiplomacy can work on the ground is the Kogi Taco Truck (http://kogibbq.com/), which serves up Korean-Mexican fusion food  in Los Angeles, California. This food truck moves around the city and uses social media like Twitter (www.twitter.com) to notify customers and fans of its location. The truck quickly developed a cult following and had lines lasting two hours as people ordered barbecued beef tacos topped in Korean “salsa roja” with coriander, onions, cabbage and a soy-sesame chilli dressing. The truck has been praised for bringing the appreciation of Korean food and culture to parts of the city that knew little about Korea.

A passionate promoter and chronicler of gastrodiplomacy is Paul Rockower, Communications Director of the Public Diplomacy Corps (http://publicdiplomacycorps.org), an organization dedicated to bringing
diplomacy to the public. He noted on the Nation Branding (www.nation-branding.info) website that “a keen eye for the irreverent is a must if you really want to make the nation brand stand out. Highlighting exotic tastes and flavors, and engaging in nontraditional forms of public diplomacy help under-recognized nation brands gain more prominence in the field of culinary and cultural diplomacy.”

For Taiwan, which has tense relations with China, which does not recognize it as a nation, gastrodiplomacy is a way to get the island’s message across. Taiwan is spending US $31 million on its food diplomacy campaign around the world.

“Taiwan has figured out it can do better outreach work through the kitchen table,” Rockower told The Guardian newspaper. “When someone tries a sea-salt latte (a Taiwanese drink) it creates awareness about Taiwanese culture. The Koreans embarked on Kimchi diplomacy partly because their brands weren’t being recognized as Korean – Samsung was being recognized as a Japanese brand.”

Resources

  • Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization: Is an international, nonviolent, and democratic membership organization. Its members are indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognized or occupied territories who have joined together to protect and promote their human and cultural rights, to preserve their environments, and to find nonviolent solutions to conflicts which affect them. Website:http://www.unpo.org/

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