The game of gastrodiplomacy
How governments around the world market and leverage influence through food. Words by Dan Hong. Illustration by Sinjin Li.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 7: Food and Policy. Each essay in this season will investigate how a single or set of policies intersects with eating, cooking and life. Our ninth newsletter for this season is by Dan Hong. In his essay, Dan writes about ‘gastrodiplomacy’, the phenomenon in which governments use cuisine to leverage influence, and how global appetites and the restaurants you eat at are formed by these informal policies.
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The game of gastrodiplomacy
A story of how governments around the world market influence through food, by Dan Hong
In the summer of 2021, I stumbled across the Japanese cafe ‘Soya’, slightly off the main tourist drag in central Athens. From the street, I could see that its shelves were lined with furikake seasoning, fermented pastes, and dried fungi, products I had never seen before in Greece. In the two years I’d lived in the city I had seen many sushi restaurants but, unlike Soya, their menus were usually heavy on ‘pan-Asian fusion’: a mix of sushi rolls and bao, bulked out with mayonnaise. Intrigued, I sat at the only table available and ordered a homemade bento box from a small blackboard menu. I was instantly soothed by the first mouthfuls of rice: they were fragrant and savoury, and accompanied by freshly cooked vegetables, pickles, and rolled omelette.
As I ate, I spoke to the owner, acknowledging the difficulties of the pandemic for restaurants and small businesses. She was quick to respond: ‘But the cafe gets support from the Japanese Embassy. They want to show Japanese food to Greek people’. This caught me by surprise. At the time, I was working as a diplomat in Athens and had never heard of such a project. ‘Japanese diplomats come here quite a lot,’ she added after a pause. ‘Sometimes the ambassador, too.’ On my walk home, I wondered what drew the Japanese Embassy to this small cafe. Was the Japanese government using Soya to counterbalance the more commercially successful but ‘inauthentic’ restaurants? In which case, what else were they doing outside of Athens? And were other countries doing the same?
For centuries, food has been present in the theatre of diplomacy. In his Politics, Aristotle discussed the social eating that took place between ambassadors of Greek city states in the fourth-century BC, highlighting how this was used as a means of fostering amity before getting to the hard talk. In On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes, François de Callières, the seventeenth-century French envoy of Louis XIV, wrote, ‘A good table is the best and easiest way of keeping [the ambassador] well informed’, and that ‘when people are a trifle warmed by wine they often disclose secrets of importance’. But with Soya, the Japanese government was doing something different – and far more intriguing. They were pursuing ‘gastrodiplomacy’, a state-led policy of promoting national cuisine to foreign audiences; a way of marketing national identity through culinary culture. Public diplomacy specialist Paul Rockower describes it simply as ‘winning hearts and minds through stomachs’.
The term ‘gastrodiplomacy’ was coined by the Economist in 2002 in reference to the ‘Global Thai’ programme, which is considered the first official example of gastrodiplomacy. Although not the first time a government had sought to promote national food, the Economist argued that what made Thailand’s approach pioneering was their strategic objective to ‘not only … persuade more people to visit Thailand, but to subtly help deepen relations with other countries’. The programme included $3 million of cheap government credit made available to Thai people setting up restaurants abroad, along with business support and market research from officials in Thai embassies. The Thai foreign ministry even negotiated a new three-year visa for Thai chefs moving to work in New Zealand. This was followed by a communications campaign in which Thailand tried to shift its reputation from sex tourism to food tourism through a series of government-funded documentaries and foreign newspaper op-eds. In 2018, Vice reported that ‘At the time of the Global Thai program’s launch, there were about 5,500 Thai restaurants beyond Thailand’s borders; [by 2018] there [were] over 15,000. The number in the US increased from around 2,000 to over 5,000.’
Since this initiative, many other countries have followed suit in a variety of ways. In 2009, South Korea committed $10 million of funding for South Korean chefs to travel abroad and attend culinary school. In 2011, the Peruvian government launched an internet campaign in which celebrities including Al Gore, Eva Mendez, and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa were filmed endorsing Peruvian cuisine. Gastrodiplomacy has become a particularly popular tool with East and Southeast Asian governments, as rapid economic growth has led to an increased desire for countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and South Korea to establish themselves on the international stage. Because they do not yet command the same geopolitical influence as the more traditional heavyweights of diplomacy (countries on the United Nations Security Council or the G7, for instance), they have sought to establish themselves by other means, gastrodiplomacy being one of them.
This is why gastrodiplomacy tends to be aimed at Western audiences: countries want to increase their influence where global power has long been concentrated. However, with Western political and economic hegemony receding, there are increasing cases of gastrodiplomacy targeting new centres of gravity in Asia; for instance, Malaysian gastrodiplomacy targets the UK, the US and New Zealand, but also China. Taiwanese gastrodiplomacy is similar, but with an added emphasis on Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The diplomatic tool often becomes a way to command recognition and status abroad; utilising cuisine to leverage what influence already exists.
In the 1960s, my father’s family moved from Malaysia to London after my grandfather landed a job at the BBC. They lived near Bayswater, alongside much of the diaspora. Back then, Malaysian cuisine was in scant supply, with only a couple of restaurants dotted around Bayswater and Chinatown, so my grandmother would improvise, cooking dishes at home with the Thai ingredients stocked in local Chinese supermarkets. Today, however, Malaysian cuisine in the UK is on the ascent. Over the last ten years, laksa pastes have popped up in every high street supermarket (lower-quality versions, albeit), while quality Malaysian restaurants have sprung up across all boroughs of London. Unusually for diaspora restaurants, many of these occupy prime, central real estate (although the hokkien mee at Papayaya, near where I grew up in south-east London, is proof to the doubters that good food does exist in Bromley).
This rising popularity can be traced to the fact that Malaysia has been actively pursuing gastrodiplomacy in the UK for over a decade, through its ‘Malaysian Kitchen for the World’ programme. As part of this initiative, the Malaysian High Commission have run a food festival at Nottingham University (the top UK destination for Malaysian students); a collaboration with Tesco; and public shows with MasterChef and BBC Good Food. Malaysian chefs drove around the UK in a food truck, performing cooking tutorials and giving out free samples on high streets. In 2010 alone, Rick Stein spoke to The Guardian (‘It’s perplexing to me that Malaysian food is not more widely known in Britain as it’s quite as exciting as Thai or Vietnamese’) The Times (‘I love Thailand but there can be a sameness to the food — here [Malaysia] the wonderful diversity of Indian, Chinese and Malay cooking blows your mind’), The Independent (‘I'm captivated by Malaysia; the food is particularly interesting’) and The Telegraph (‘I'm very keen on Malaysian cuisine’) mostly without mentioning he was ambassador for Malaysian Kitchen for the World.
Curious to know what else was behind the boom in Malaysian cuisine, I asked several Malaysian restaurant owners for their opinion. They pointed to the growing population of Malaysian students (now the eighth-largest overseas group in UK universities) and the prominence of Malaysian-born UK-based celebrity chefs, like 2014 MasterChef winner Ping Coombes and 2022 Bake Off winner Syabira Yusoff. Restaurateurs, who are on the front line of championing Malaysian food, are naturally reluctant to ascribe too much of their success to the government, but the fact is many chefs at the best Malaysian restaurants in London over the years (Zainuddin Yahaya of Tukdin, ‘Kak’ Ani of Makan Cafe, Pak Awie of Melur) started out working at the Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bayswater – a restaurant subsidised by the Malaysian High Commission to the extent that a nasi lemak costs a mere £4, but only to those who can show a Malaysian passport at the door (and their friends).
Normah abd Hamid, my favourite Malaysian chef in London and owner of the eponymous Malaysian restaurant in Queensway Market, told me that to influence the market, you need to teach them about the culture of Malaysian food. ‘How do you eat nasi lemak? You gather each item onto your spoon and put it all in your mouth. We like to teach our customers this,’ she said. When Normah first moved to the UK, she hosted dinner parties open to all her neighbours in Notting Hill – including a young David Cameron, who lived nearby at the time. At these dinners she learned about the British palate and how to win over British taste buds, creating a relationship between cook and customer. It is this atmosphere of intimacy that she fosters at her tiny restaurant in Queensway Market, deliberately reminiscent of a kopitiam (a kind of Malaysian greasy spoon) with its dense seating and slow fans overhead. One of my favourite dishes is ‘Normah’s Nasi Lemak Crispy Chicken’, a diplomatic take on the British obsession with fried chicken designed to meet her customers halfway.
Not all attempts at gastrodiplomacy have been so successful. A common but ill-fated strategy has been the attempt by various governments to control the quality and authenticity of food overseas. In 2006, for example, Japan commissioned a taskforce of so-called ‘Sushi Police’ to assess the divergent quality of Japanese food abroad. ‘What we are seeing now are restaurants that pretend to offer Japanese cooking but are really Korean, Chinese, or Filipino,’ stated Toshikatsu Matsuoka, Japan’s Agricultural Minister at the time. ‘We must protect our food culture.’ Secret inspectors were sent to Paris to observe eighty Japanese restaurants, of which one third were denounced for ‘crimes against authenticity’ and did not receive official accreditation from the Japanese state. And Japan is not the only country operating in this way. Last year, Italian Minister Lollobrigida announced that only Italian restaurants that used ‘the majority of ingredients coming from Italy’ would be officially certified as authentic. Clearly, being a global hegemon of food culture can make one neurotic.
To me, these attempts to control the foreign reproduction of cuisine do not seem credible. Very few customers are aware that ‘authenticity certificates’ exist, and I suspect even fewer care that they do. Who takes restaurant recommendations from the government, anyway? When I asked Japanese restaurants in London if they had witnessed the Sushi Police, most had never heard of them, even though the city is densely populated with Japanese restaurants.
These initiatives also show how gastrodiplomacy can descend into what sociologist Michaela DeSoucey has called ‘gastronationalism’: a response to globalisation through ‘a form of claims-making and a project of collective identity’. A good example of this is the concept of the ‘Mediterranean diet’, which has a long history of being exclusionary. The never-ending stream of articles touting its health benefits have created a huge industry, and gastronationalist policies in Europe have seized upon this. In 2013, the Mediterranean diet officially joined the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, as proposed by Italy, Greece, Spain, Morocco, Cyprus, Croatia, and Portugal, while ignoring most of the Middle East and North Africa, despite their integral role in the development of Mediterranean cuisine.
Is gastrodiplomacy’s slide into gastronationalism inevitable? The way food is associated with identity, combined with diplomacy’s pursuit of the national interest, means gastrodiplomacy will always have at least a tinge of nationalism. I saw an example of this last summer, at an exhibition in Marseille which concerned the Mediterranean diet. The exhibition indulged in common tropes of French traditional farming practices, communal eating, and bounty, but it remained Eurocentric, failing to describe the historic role of colonialism and the migration of Muslims, Arabs, and Jews in the Mediterranean diet’s formation. As I walked through the exhibition, I felt its message: ‘Return to the earth! Return to the hearth!’ But it was to Western tourists that this call was made, not to Mediterranean brethren across the sea.
Amid this, Taiwan’s Global Food Initiative is an instructive counter-example, demonstrating how gastrodiplomacy can be used as a form of resistance against other nationalist powers. Taiwan has been governed independently of China since 1949, but Beijing views the island as part of its territory. It has vowed to ‘unify’ Taiwan with the mainland, and not ruled out the use of military force. Taiwan’s Global Food Initative which was launched in 2022, is a response to this. It covers thirteen countries across North America, Asia, and Europe (including the UK), and deploys standard gastrodiplomatic fare: food festivals, newspaper op-eds, and support for Taiwanese businesses abroad. With these initiatives, the Taiwanese government’s stated aim is to diversify into new overseas markets – a response to Beijing tightening the screw on Taiwan’s economy.
However, Martin Mandl, an expert in Taiwanese gastrodiplomacy at the University of Vienna, thinks there is more to it. Speaking to me over Zoom a few months ago, Martin explained how Taiwan was using food to carefully promote a sense of Taiwanese cultural identity distinct from the mainland. ‘The Global Food Initiative relates to a broader political change brought in by President Tsai Ing-Wen,’ Martin said. ‘In response to a China in the ascendency, [Ing-Wen] has shifted the focus away from Taiwan’s shared Chinese heritage to a distinct national image around modernity, open society and democratic values.’
When it comes to food, this ‘shift of focus’ has manifested through an emphasis on the multicultural origins of Taiwanese food. Martin mentioned a documentary produced by Taiwan’s Tourism Ministry, which describes its food as created by ‘people from a host of backgrounds… [including] America, Japan, China, and Australia’, a claim that stresses a particular blend of multiculturalism in which Taiwanese food is shown not only as different from Chinese food but also sufficiently inclusive of it, delicately avoiding competing claims over ‘national’ dishes. At a recent international food fair in Sydney, a friend told me he witnessed Taiwanese products being sold, with their slight difference from their Chinese counterparts emphasised — like the fact that Taiwanese soy sauce is made from fermented black soybeans, rather than China’s yellow soybeans.
A Taiwanese diplomat told me that their method of gastrodiplomacy was simply to support Taiwanese food businesses in what they were already doing. Consider the bubble tea shop, with its sleek interiors and customised, colourful product: it already embodies the modern, open Taiwan that ex-President Tsai wanted to convey, the one that is a booming global market. Are all customers aware that bubble tea is Taiwanese? No. Are all these shops Taiwanese-owned? Again, no (indeed, many are Chinese). But the diplomat maintained that if they were making Taiwanese food more popular, it was still a success in their eyes. Since Taiwan cannot risk going toe-to-toe with China militarily, being overtly nationalistic or creating a ‘Bubble Tea Police’ (as Japan did with sushi) could be dangerous. So, Taiwan has taken a cautious approach, rallying the international community around its cause through the subtle medium of its cuisine.
Since the Global Thai Programme in 2002, the number of countries introducing their own gastrodiplomacy campaigns has been increasing. Globalisation has brought foreign cultures to our doorstep, to the extent that food is now one of the most common means of encountering other countries, and governments utilise that for their gain. I appreciate Malaysia and Thailand’s efforts to support their diaspora restaurants and chefs, but the rise in populist and nationalist politics around the world makes me worried that the future of gastrodiplomacy could mirror the gastronationalism that imposes doctrines and agendas on cuisine. Taiwan’s embrace of the multicultural origins of its cuisine is an antidote, though, and there are some hopeful signs that the UK might start to follow suit. Until recently, Britain’s cultural identity had mostly been promoted through music, sport, and film (consider the Harrys: Styles, Kane, and Potter), but in 2021 the British government appointed Indian-born chef Vineet Bhatia as its new ‘culinary ambassador’.
As demonstrated by Normah and her desire to teach people about Malaysian food, it is chefs who really know how to bridge the gaps between people and distinct cultures. This must be what the Japanese Embassy in Athens recognised when they chose to support the woman running Soya, and it is encouraging that Japanese gastrodiplomacy – once behind the Sushi Police – is willing to put money into developing small, independent eateries. Gastrodiplomacy is at its best when giving a platform to the real experts on the ground, and avoiding obsessions over national identity or attempts to control how people cook. Ultimately it is the restaurant workers and chefs, not the officials, who are the true diplomats.
Dan Hong has worked in diplomacy and is an occasional writer, based in Lisbon and previously Athens.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Sharanya Deepak, Rebecca May Johnson and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.