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Governments find their way to the public's heart - through the stomach

Wednesday - 4/24/2013, 8:56am  ET

Thai.jpg
More and more governments are connecting with the foreign public over their national cuisine through state- and citizen-sponsored programs. (Thinkstock)
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Alex Beall, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The Korean dumplings in your grocer's freezer, the new Thai restaurant on the corner and that Burmese curry you ate for lunch are doing more than satisfying your craving for an exotic and flavorful meal. These foods are also helping to foster international relations.

A new diplomacy program -- called gastrodiplomacy -- is giving food a seat at the negotiating table. This type of diplomacy seeks to incorporate a country's traditional food into the everyday life of the foreign public. This, in turn, expands that's county's diplomatic influence.

"Gastrodiplomacy basically acknowledges how food plays a core role in national identity, culture and communication," says Mary Jo Pham, a graduate student in the School of International Service at American University, who researched South Korea's gastrodiplomacy campaign. "What you experience when you sit down to a dish of Pad Thai is so much more than just a dining experience. When you immerse yourself in a new foreign cuisine, you are partaking in another culture's heritage."

This type of public diplomacy, which has been around for 10 years, helps countries increase national brand awareness, economic development and foreign investment through tourism and trade, namely agricultural trade. It also helps consumers in the recipient country since it provides them with more options in the marketplace and new food experiences.

"It's about talking to the average diner, the average shopper and sharing not only a tasty delight that South Korea has, but also the cultures behind the food and the brand behind the food as well," Pham says.

The term gastrodiplomacy originated from an Economist article, but was popularized by Paul Rockower, the communications director for American Voices.

While highly visible private events, such as a state dinner at the White House, are forms of gastrodiplomacy, the public implementations are also important in the role of government interactions.

"Gastrodiplomacy is just one tool in the arsenal of public diplomacy," Pham says. "It's just one tool that benefits a government that wants to improve its strategic communications in the 21st century and that wants to harness smart power."

Rockower explains that public gastrodiplomacy is mostly used by middle powers that lack military or political power, such as Thailand, South Korea and Peru.

"You're starting to see more and more countries appreciate the role of food as cultural diplomacy because it really reaches people on an emotional, visceral level," Rockower says. "You can talk and talk about how great your culture is but if you actually get to taste it and get to smell it and really get to experience it hands-on you'll get a deeper appreciation and you'll want to learn more about the place that you're tasting."

There are, of course, challenges with the program. Because the practice is a new development, current shortcomings are limited to the public's ignorance of the specific programs or the consumer's dislike of a certain food.


A wide range of countries have adopted their own gastrodiplomacy campaigns. Here's what's happening in the U.S. and around the world.

United States

Though the U.S. is not a middle power, it created its own gastrodiplomacy campaign to celebrate its regional cuisine.

The State Department launched its Culinary Diplomacy Partnership Initiative in September, which named about 80 chefs to be part of the American Chef Corps to serve American dishes for foreign leaders. These chefs also travel abroad to teach the foreign public about regional American cuisine.

The U.S. chose regional chefs to represent cuisines from different areas of the nation.

"This is a way of focusing in on Cajun cuisine, focusing in on the differences in barbeque, trying to show the nuances of American cuisine," Rockower says.

American citizens have also started their own food-focused ventures to promote U.S. foreign relations.

The Pittsburgh-based project Conflict Kitchen is a takeout restaurant that only serves foods from countries that are in conflict with the U.S. The cuisine changes every six months and has featured Iranian, Afghan and Venezuelan menus.

The group hosted a joint meal via Skype between Iranians and Americans during which the Americans ate Iranian food, the Iranians ate American food and participants discussed the conflict between the nations.

New York's Global Kitchen blends cultures within the city through hosting immigrant-led cooking classes to preserve traditional recipes and culture and provide a platform for cultural exchange.

Thailand

The Thai government was the first to implement a gastrodiplomacy program on a state level in 2002. It established the Global Thai campaign to increase global awareness of the county's cuisine by increasing the number of Thai restaurants worldwide. The program also trains Thai chefs.

"(Gastrodiplomacy is) the fact that you can go to a Thai restaurant and eat Thai food and meet Thai people and understand more of what that culture is about," says Sam Chapple-Sokol, who researched the topic in graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and now acts as assistant course manager for José Andrés's course "World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization" at George Washington University.

The campaign opened and certified thousands of new Thai restaurants internationally, including Thai Town in Woodley Park. A second campaign, Thai Kitchen of the World, was later created to educate the public about Thai products and food.

South Korea

In 2008, the government of South Korea began the Global Hansik campaign to share the country's culinary heritage with the world. To carry out this goal, it set up the Korean Food Foundation, which builds up the Korean food industry, trains Korean chefs and provides scholarships to chefs who want to study abroad. It also recruits Korean celebrities to represent the culinary brand.

The Korean government partnered with the CJ Foodville food services company to open Korean restaurants. Together they opened the restaurant B.B.Go, a Chipotle- esque chain that serves a traditional Korean mixed rice bowl dish called bibimbap. Other measures include the opening of Korean food trucks in New York and DC and the Bibimbap backpackers, who travel the world to serve Korean food.

"The Korean government has also gone ahead to pick up on contemporary food trends," Pham says. "It's not just about talking about gastrodiplomacy, but talking about how we can get foreign diners to eat Korean cuisine."

Peru

Spearheaded by celebrity Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, Peru is working to reclaim and share the country's cuisine. It's encouraging the growth of a new generation of Peruvian chefs, the establishment of new cooking schools and the use of indigenous ingredients and cooking techniques.

International efforts include an educational outreach program to teach others about Peruvian food and adding Peruvian food to the Mediterranean diet.

Taiwan

Taiwan invested $38 million into a four-year program to host international food festivals and sponsor Taiwanese chefs and their restaurants and create other means to promote Taiwanese cuisine.

One event at the Sackler Gallery allowed guests to view the film, "Eat Drink Man Women", by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee, while eating a traditional Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

Spain

Unlike other countries' government-run programs, Spain's gastrodiplomatic campaign is maintained by leaders in the Spanish culinary arena, such as José Andrés, owner of Jaleo and Oyamel. The chefs are opening restaurants internationally and sharing the Spanish tradition of tapas, or small appetizers and snacks. The government has recently become more involved in this process, but has still not harnessed this movement completely.

Malaysia

Like the programs of other countries, Malaysian Kitchen for the World opened food trucks and restaurants to share its food. But unlike others, they also set up Malaysian night markets where the public can experience the culture and taste the food.

Australia

A 2010 movement in Australia worked to soothe internal race relations. Sparked by acts of violence against Indian students, the Vindaloo Against Violence campaign urged the public to eat at Indian restaurants as a protest against the racism and an effort to incorporate the Indian community into Australian society.


There are other international events and organizations that bring together the chefs of the world including the Embassy Chef Challenge held in D.C. and the annual meeting of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs, a club comprised of the head chefs for heads of state, including the White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford.

Gastrodiplomacy is becoming more widely adopted by countries looking to increase their international influence, such as India, China and Indonesia.

"What's unique about gastrodiplomacy is there is a market there," Pham says. "People have to eat. There's really nothing greater in terms of relationship building than the opportunity to sit down at a table and enjoy a meal together."

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