Written By Darshan M (Grade 10)
Different cultures have numerous unique properties like language, fashion, philosophy, religion, customs, architecture, and many more, but perhaps one of the most important and consequential would be cuisine. Of course, since different cultures often develop in different regions with drastically different climates and thus different special ingredients, as well as the prevalence of meals often being a communal event, this has allowed many to argue that a region’s food can serve as a window to learn about its culture. Thus, with foreign restaurants becoming more common all around the world, a culture’s cuisine has the potential to boost its country’s image in the citizenry of other countries. With that in mind, a new term has developed called Gastro Diplomacy, diplomacy with food.
Gastro diplomacy is essentially what happens when a country expands its influence, not with military might or trade deals, but with its own national dishes. Thailand is probably the most notable example of this relatively new phenomenon, having embarked on an ambitious mission around the turn of the century to increase the number of Thai restaurants abroad from around 5,500 to over 10,000. This was possible only because Thailand’s government brought up schemes and funded these restaurants to set up branches overseas and maintain the authentic taste of their land. It’s not just Thailand however, many other countries have also taken hold of this interesting new practice, but… why?
To understand why a country might do this, perhaps we should understand the concept of soft power. Military power, diplomatic influence, and economic power are all examples of regular old hard power, how a country might exert its influence overtly. Soft power meanwhile is more about a country’s popular opinion amongst other countries, like a country’s brand image. So while hard power is about coercion, soft power focuses on attractiveness. Culinary diplomacy falls under the umbrella of cultural diplomacy, where a country uses its own culture to influence the hearts and minds of those outside. In a sense, it helps form what one could consider a country’s brand, but in a way that foreigners are most likely to be able to reach. Now although the two terms can be used somewhat interchangeably, there is a slight difference between Gastro diplomacy and culinary diplomacy. Gastro diplomacy is seen where countries use their food to influence the opinions of foreign publics, whereas culinary diplomacy is more between two different governments, like holding a dinner during negotiations.
If there’s an example of a country that has excelled in gastro diplomacy in recent decades, it has got to be the Republic of Korea. South Korea has worked to increase the number of Korean restaurants worldwide, promoting foods and slightly altering various dishes to make them friendlier to foreign palates. Gastro diplomacy can also allow more diplomatically challenged countries, like for instance Taiwan, to find their way onto the diplomatic stage. As well as helping boost its tourism sector, the island nation of Taiwan launched a more than $25 million program to promote foods and drinks in an effort both to boost diplomatic ties and try to distinguish itself in the minds of foreigners from the People’s Republic next door. Even countries as powerful as the United States have gotten on board with the idea, as the US launched a culinary diplomacy initiative in 2012 to promote American food abroad and among other world leaders.
So what does this all mean? After all with countries going out of their way to promote their food and their entertainment in your country, it can be easy to get a little conspiratorial. It can give one the feeling that a country’s restaurants are just there to influence locals’ opinion on them. But, if a country is going to try to exert its influence over another country, better food and movies than guns and politics right?
Featured Image Courtesy – Eastspring Investments