Food is essential to life. It not only fuels our physical bodies but can feed our soul. Food can connect people across time and space, and across cultures. Often the most central part of any culture, the food we eat can do more than taste good and give energy. It can also be a vehicle for diplomacy.
Culinary diplomacy, otherwise known as gastrodiplomacy, is a form of political diplomacy in which different countries and cultures connect over food. Hillary Clinton stated that this was “the oldest diplomatic tool” (Auer, 2018). When governments face head to head negotiations about certain issues, this process can be long and exhaustive, thus a meal is often a welcome break.
Or when two estranged nations come together for a historic meeting, what is on the menu can speak louder than any words. In 2018, North Korea and South Korea had their first diplomatic meeting since 2007 (Auer, 2018). Menu selection included flat sea fish, representing President Moon Jae-in’s roots in Busan, as well as French cheese and wine, which Kim Jong-un reportedly enjoys (Auer, 2018). By calling “upon all the regions of both Koreas, it’s a unifying menu”, indicating that food diplomacy can work to exemplify the bonds and relationships meetings intend to create (Auer, 2018).
Eating is one of the most primal, human functions and when this is shared with others, especially when they are your perceived enemy, it can remove barriers and lead to breakthroughs. When we share a meal with others, we are more open to them, seeing them as people rather than geopolitical opponents.
Yet this diplomatic and tasty phenomenon is not just reserved for heads of governments. Citizens take part in non-governmental culinary diplomacy whenever they go to a foreign restaurant and become familiar with the flavours from outside our borders.
This is exactly what the Thai government was thinking when they launched a diplomatic campaign called Global Thai (Lion Pride, 2019). In 2002, the Thai government sought to fund restaurant ventures that would promote Thai cuisine all over the world. The aim of this initiative was to get citizens of other countries to not just become familiar with Thai food, and by extension the Thai culture, but to fall in love with it. People are more accepting and embracing of foreign cultures when they understand it, especially when the food tastes so good. This can ultimately lead to an increase in tourism, which Thailand owes a considerable amount of its GDP to, and a boost in agricultural trade (Lion Pride, 2019). In 2002, Thailand had about 10 million tourists which increased to 39 million in 2019 (Thaiwebsites). Although not accountable for all of this increase, it is likely that this greater proliferation and promotion of culture, through popular and accessible means such as food, has played a significant role.
Following this, other governments in Asia have pursued a similar path, such as South Korea with its ‘kimchi diplomacy’. This involved the South Korean government supporting Korean restaurants overseas so as to increase the number of foreigners eating Korean food. At the South Korean Embassy based in the United States, the head of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Byung Hong Park stated that delicious food can be “the best way to have a relationship between countries” (The Kitchen Sisters).
Food is a core part of our lives and as such is woven into every culture on the planet. It is no wonder it can be used as a tool for diplomatic relations and a way to enter the hearts (and stomachs) of people all over the world. As outlined by Dana Lusa (2018), culinary diplomacy can be an effective means of soft power - influencing cultures from within rather than coercing from the outside through traditional hard power means, such as the military. This type of soft power allows states to take advantage of our globalised world whilst also catering to popular internet trends, such as the foodie scene (Lusa, 2018). Through the means of food, citizens can become familiar with another culture, thus feeling more closely aligned with that culture. It is this closeness that allows awareness of foreign issues to develop, and could lead to an invested interest in those issues. Having awareness and insight into other cultures can strengthen diplomatic ties. These ties can also manifest back onto the plate through the fusion of cuisines. Fusion food often has historical, colonial implications such as French influences in Vietnamese cuisine. Such as the introduction of coffee, bread and some vegetables that has led to the evolution of modern Vietnamese food today, like ‘banh flan’ - a Vietnamese creme caramel made with coconut milk (Monaco, 2015). Adopting and exploring cuisines allows for integration of cultures that leads to influence, which is how soft power diplomacy tends to operate. However, this integration has not always been peaceful and remembering that colonialsation has played a significant part in influencing food is important to note.
Think about the food you love to eat that is not from your own country. Are you more open or tolerant to this culture? Have you thought about travelling there because the food is so good? This is the power of effective diplomacy. The best part about food diplomacy is that we can all take part in it. It’s an accessible approach to understanding other cultures whilst giving both officials and ordinary citizens the first-hand experience of diplomacy.
Auer, Soraya (2018, April 26) Diplomacy on the menu: How food can shape politics. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-43901821
Lion Pride (2019, March 29) Gastrodiplomacy: Why are there so many Thia restaurants? The Official Lion Brand Blog. Retrieved from http://www.lionbrand.com.au/blog/gastrodiplomacy-why-are-there-so-many-thai-restaurants
Lusa, Dana (2018) The role of food in diplomacy: Communicating and ‘Winning hearts and minds’ through food. Medijske Studije, 8(16). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322765721_The_Role_of_Food_in_Diplomacy_Communicating_and_Winning_Hearts_and_Minds_Through_Food
Niu, Isabelle (2018, December 28) From governments to refugees, food is now diplomacy. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1496148/from-governments-to-refugees-food-is-now-diplomacy/
Thaiwebsites.com (n.d). Tourist arrivals to Thailand by nationality 2002 to 2012. Retrieved from https://www.thaiwebsites.com/tourists-nationalities-Thailand-2012.asp
Thawebsites.com (n.d). Tourism statistics 2000 to 2021. Retrieved from https://www.thaiwebsites.com/tourism.asp
Monaco, Emily (2015, December 16). The French influence on Vietnamnese cuisine. Epicure & Culture. Retrieved from https://epicureandculture.com/vietnamese-cuisine-french-influence/
The Kitchen Sisters (n.d). Kimchi Diplomacy. Retrieved from http://www.kitchensisters.org/present/kimchi-diplomacy/