"Food is our common ground, a universal experience." -- James Beard
One of the more delicious forms of public diplomacy has recently emerged in the global consciousness: gastrodiplomacy. Public diplomacy is a field predicated on the communication of culture and values to foreign publics; gastrodiplomacy, most plainly put, is the act of winning hearts and minds through stomachs. It is a public and cultural diplomacy endeavor that the governments of Korea and Taiwan have recently embarked on. There is an old American public diplomacy maxim, "to know us is to love us;" Taiwanese and Korean gastrodiplomacy posits it a little differently and declares "to taste us is to love us."
Gastrodiplomacy was a technique perfected by Thailand, which first used its kitchens and restaurants as outposts of cultural diplomacy. Given the growing popularity of Thai restaurants around the globe, in 2002, the government of Thailand implemented the "Global Thai program" as a means to increase the number of Thai restaurants. The Thai government's rationale, The Economist noted, was that the boom in 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."
More recently, both Korea ("Kimchi Diplomacy") and Taiwan ("Dim Sum Diplomacy") have been engaging in culinary diplomacy to help increase global recognition of their respective nation brands.
Seoul initiated the "Korean Cuisine to the World" campaign in April 2009, with stated goals of increasing Korean restaurants abroad fourfold to nearly 40,000 by 2017. The ₩50 billion (US$40 million) fund will be used to promote Korean cooking classes an internationally-acclaimed cooking schools, help support Korean culinary students with grants and scholarships to attend culinary schools and international food fairs. Korean cuisine also got added attention with the local Los Angeles creation of the Korean-taco truck, which quickly gained a culinary cult status and has been popping up all over America.
Meanwhile, Taipei recently unveiled a plan to promote Taiwanese culinary diplomacy. The sad culinary reality is that most people associate Chinese food with the heavy, sauce-laden fare that is promoted as typical Middle Kingdom cuisine; meanwhile, for those not of the foodie bent, the notion of Taiwanese cuisine draws a blank. That creates a tremendous opportunity for Taiwan to conduct gastrodiplomacy in order to brand its own cuisine as a healthy, light alternative to the heavy image associated with Western versions of Chinese food. The lighter, healthier side of Taiwanese cuisine, with its unique flavors and textures could really tempt global tummies as it creates awareness of what Taiwanese food entails.
Through the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Taiwan is set to invest NT$1.1 billion (US$34.2 million) through 2013 to engage in Taiwanese gastrodiplomacy and promote Taiwanese cuisine at the global dining table. As part of the campaign, Taiwan will host international gourmet festivals as well as help send local chefs to ply their culinary skills at global culinary competitions. The initiative will support the introduction of Taiwanese restaurants abroad, with a focus on major overseas shopping malls and department stores as well as sampling stations for Taiwanese cuisines at international airports. Moreover, the gastrodiplomacy plan is anticipated to enable local businesses to set up 3,500 restaurants in both Taiwan and abroad, and generate close to NT$2 billion in private investments.
At home in Taiwan, the government is planning to establish a new Taiwanese food foundation- a culinary think tank that will assist coffee shops and restaurant chains that promote Taiwanese foods abroad. The creation of such an institute could not come at a better time. Recently NPR's Morning Edition featured a story on the immense popularity of Taiwan's coffee store 85C, which recently set up shop in Irvine, California. The Taiwanese coffee chain has been introducing American palates to Taiwanese tastes with fares including iced-sea salt lattes and squid ink buns, and has been greeted with lines of customers stretching out the door. As one who has tried the iced-sea salt latte here in Taiwan, I must say it is surprisingly very good and has a flavor very similar to that of salted caramel ice cream mixed with coffee.
Real public diplomacy towards America doesn't exist solely on the coasts but also very much in America's heartland. Korea would be wise to introduce Korean barbecue across the hills and plains of America. Carry out Korean culinary diplomacy to Texas to introduce Korean barbecue to Texas cowboys. Or for that matter, promote Korean barbecue to Kansas City, to Memphis and the Carolinas to challenge for the global barbecue crown.
Meanwhile, Taiwan could market its Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which could easily become the next popular soup dish. With its savory taste and tempting aroma, Taiwanese beef noodle soup could be a very marketable cuisine in the culinary diplomacy department. Having done public diplomacy work in Texas, I can only imagine how much the Lone Star state, or any other state that constitutes cattle-country, would enjoy a hearty bowl of beef noodle soup.
For the wide swathes of Americans who don't travel abroad, it is through culinary experiences that Americans often discover other parts of the world. Korea and Taiwan's respective gastrodiplomacy efforts help familiarize the foreign; both campaigns would be wise to broaden their culinary diplomacy outreach to America's heartland.
Paul Rockower is a gastronomist and recent graduate of the Master's of Public Diplomacy program at the University of Southern California. Rockower is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, researching Taiwan's Public Diplomacy. He is the Communications Director for Public Diplomacy Corps, an organization dedicated to bringing public diplomacy to the public.