There is an enormous opportunity for creating highly-impactful Indian culinary diplomacy. The question is — can we, and will we?
Cesar Chavez, the Mexican American Presidential Medal of Honor awardee, and labour rights activist once famously said “if you really want to make a friend, go to someone's house and eat with him — the people who give you their food give you their heart”.
Having North Korean fare — spicier kimchi than in South Korea, naengmyeon or raengmyŏn, a cold buckwheat and sweet potato noodle dish, and soju, an alcoholic drink —at Pyongyang while being entertained by cultural performances from North Korea may be far easier and cheaper than actually travelling to the North Korean capital Pyongyang to savour the fare.
There are over 100 North Korean restaurants — Pyongyang and Okryugwan — across Asia. These restaurants provide the much needed foreign currency to the reclusive ‘hermit kingdom’ through their noodle diplomacy or chopsticks diplomacy initiated after the collapse of their main supporter, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in the early 1990s. Arguably, this has done more for North Korea than having eccentric former NBA star Dennis Rodman champion the country and its leader.
The idea of using cuisine for diplomatic reasons — soft power — for furthering relations with other countries isn’t, of course, new. It has been used over the hundreds of years by businessmen, monarchs and ambassadors.
In fact, Israeli-Palestinian relationships would perhaps have been worse if not for the efforts of some path-breaking travel outfits that are attempting to “bridging the gap between the two cultures in a different way — by encouraging visitors to break bread with locals on both sides of the unofficial border”.
Food is an integral part of any India-Pakistan person-to-person contact too. World leaders and politicians negotiate hard and long, often bitterly, frustratingly and sleeplessly. But they have to eat. So why not break bread with each other in more relaxed environments?
Johanna Mendelson-Forman, an adjunct Professor at American University, says, “food humanises people — it humanises your adversaries”. During the 20 months of negotiations for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, tensions were high and the talks nearly collapsed at least five times, according to the New Yorker. Negotiators had always eaten separately but on 4 July, America's Independence Day, the Iranians extended an invitation to the two sides to break bread together — with no shop talk allowed.
"It was the first time the Iranians and Americans looked at each other differently," says Mendelson-Forman. "They saw each other as negotiators first," agrees Dr Maria Valez di Berliner, a consultant in international transactions, "and then they saw each other as people". Within 10 days an agreement was finally reached, with both experts convinced it was made possible by the Persian meal the two sides had shared and the rapport it had helped foster.
Food is something most people enjoy consuming. Food is a sensory experience with all five senses involved in its consumption; seeking variety in foods is growing more common especially in the era of globalisation thanks to rising incomes, travel, media coverage of food through blogs, TV programmes, events, chefs, restaurants and street food, and availability of affordable and different cuisine. People are becoming more adventurous, chefs are becoming more experimental, fusion foods are the rage along with expectations of healthy, tasty, quality food that is different.
However, culinary diplomacy or gastronomic diplomacy as an instrument of official state policy really happened with Thailand’s 2002 ‘Global Thai’ programme. The idea was to increase the number of Thai restaurants worldwide, which, according to The Economist, would "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". The programme has been a resounding success with the number of Thai restaurants outside the country crossing 15,000 in 2018 up from 5,500 in 2002. With this success under its belt, the Thai government is making a push to increase Thai cuisine in new regions (especially in the Middle East) while being one of the top five exporters of halal food by 2020 according to its stated five-year plan.
Apart from Thailand, other countries that have such official culinary diplomacy programmes include Peru (Cocina Peruana Para el Mundo or Peruvian Cuisine for the World), Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and Mexico. Japan has taken some steps too to further its culinary diplomacy programme. Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak campaigned, in part, with the slogan “Korean cuisine to the world” to showcase the health benefits of Korean food. An estimated $77 million was invested in 2009 to launch this programme that included setting up of Khimchi institutes with a mandate to include Korean cuisine in the syllabus of internationally-recognised culinary institutes. Groups such as the Bibimbap Backpackers travelling around the world promoting bibimbap — a mainstay Korean dish with an assortment of meat, vegetables, eggs on top of rice seasoned with red pepper paste and sesame oil — to strangers were encouraged. When the leaders of the two Koreas met earlier this year, the menu included flat sea fish to remind Moon Jae-in of his hometown port city of Busan, but so too will Swiss rosti, a nod to the school years Kim Jong-un is said to have spent in Switzerland.
Malaysia is pursuing gastronomic diplomacy through its “Malaysia Kitchen for the World” programme since 2006. Such food globalisation contributes to the trade and to other local industries such as tourism. With over 647 Malaysian restaurants worldwide in 2012, the country is pushing hard on the food diplomacy front. In fact, the pungent smelling fruit durian is generating rocketing demand (and more lucrative returns to farmers than palm oil and rubber) thanks to its popularity in China. The government of Malaysia through the Malaysia External Trade Development Agency under Ministry of International Trade and Industry has taken proactive steps to promote Malaysian cuisine and restaurants overseas with the aim to increase the interests of the international consumers towards Malaysian cuisine. Furthermore, by increasing these interests, the aim is also to boost the affinity towards Malaysian food products, while stepping up the exports of processed food, food ingredients, agriculture produce, and attracting tourists to the country. Marshalling internationally-renowned chefs, arranging food festivals in major cities, pushing for coverage in food media and for Michelin Awards for Malaysian restaurants and appointing ‘gastrodiplomats’ as culinary ambassadors are the major initiatives launched to popularise Malaysian cuisine.
It is said that Japanese chefs and government tend to promote culinary nationalism, which prompted the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Japan to successfully advocate for washoku — traditional Japanese cuisine of rice and miso soup and other dishes based on seasonable ingredients — to be recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an intangible cultural heritage asset in 2013. Sushi is the best-known Japanese dish globally when a ‘sushi boom’ was witnessed with the government, in 2006, attempting to introduce a certification system for Japanese restaurants worldwide, but this didn’t come to pass after criticism that it was appointing itself as the ‘sushi police’.
The Les Club des Chefs des Chefs (CCC), an association of 18 chefs of heads of state, who use culinary diplomacy to strengthen international relations, through their work at the White House, Rashtrapati Bhavan and more to promote their national kitchens. India hosted the chefs in 2016. Giles Braggard the founder of this club said, “chefs are great diplomats and good food helps in easing negotiations”.
The United States can taste a good diplomatic opportunity just by smelling it and well before it sees it. The country isn’t far behind in launching its culinary diplomacy in the way it does best. The initiative is driven by the private sector with support from the state. Academic institutions like the University of Southern California have culinary diplomacy as part of the their Public Diplomacy Programme bringing out issues on gastrodiplomacy in its publication, while the American University has a gastrodiplomacy course with sessions on topics like “is the kitchen the new venue of foreign policy”.
People like Sam Chapple Sokol, a research consultant and culinary diplomat, runs Culinary Diplomacy, that is at the nexus of food, culture and international relations. In September 2012, the US officially launched its Culinary Diplomacy Partnership Initiative. More than 80 chefs, including White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, former White House executive pastry chef William Yosses, and Spanish-born chef Jose Andres, were named members of the ‘American Chef Corps’. The initiative is organised by the US State Department Office of Protocol. One goal of the programme is to send members of the chef corps to American embassies abroad on public diplomacy missions to teach about American cuisine.
An unhappy memory that will go down in the annals of food diplomacy for being unprecedented took place in 1992 between the second course — raw salmon with caviar — and third course — grilled beef with peppery sauce, when the then president, recently deceased H W Bush, made history by being the first sitting president to vomit on the prime minister of Japan.
Where Does This Leave India?
Intrepid Indian entrepreneurs — overwhelmingly out of necessity, not choice — have emigrated and set up Indian restaurants. These are mostly small, unprofessionally-run with untrained staff, with self-taught cooks producing unimaginative, oily, unhealthy food in unhygienic conditions. There is a great danger of about a third of these estimated 17,000 restaurants closing shop in the UK as they haven’t kept pace with changing tastes, rising costs, customer expectations, technology and lack of skilled expertise in the kitchen and in running restaurants. Indian food and restaurants have come a long way in the UK though since 1809 when Dean Mahomed set up the first restaurant dedicated purely to Indian cuisine, with chicken tikka masala being proclaimed as the British national dish in 2001, according to former foreign secretary Robin Cook, currently employing over 100,000 people and contributing 4 billion pounds to the exchequer. And, 90 per cent of these restaurants are owned by British Bangladeshis. An estimated 3 million Indians — among the wealthiest and educated — live in the US and yet there are just over 5,000 Indian restaurants compared to over 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the nation and about 50,000 Mexican restaurants. Sadly, the quality of fare leads one to lament about why delicious Indian food is surprisingly unpopular in the US. A 2015 Washington Post article had this to say, “many point to the fine culinary skills needed to create quality Indian cuisine, which result in higher prices. Everyday Americans don't expect to pay above a certain price level for food, which leaves only sub-par Indian food as an option. And once you've had bad Indian food, it takes a while to want to roll the dice again.”
With a massive range of cooking styles, a vast array of recipes from all states of India, heady aromatic flavours, bewildering spread of ingredients, India should be a global foodie’s paradise from fine dining to street food. There is an enormous opportunity for creating highly-impactful Indian culinary diplomacy through Indian food entrepreneurs with innovative and trained chefs, usage of technology, customer service, branding, upgraded recipes to suit different palates, showcasing of Indian spices, ingredients and flavours, cooking styles, hygienic kitchens and well laid out interiors. This requires training, awareness generation, usage of technology, co-opting of global influencers and, of course, capital. When Italian, American, Thai, Chinese, Mexican food is making rapid inroads into India and catering to changing Indian palates, it is high time that India deployed its food heritage for purposes of its culinary diplomacy. Indian restaurants and chefs are slowly making a mark on the global food scene with a few attaining celebrity status.
Will internationalising Indian cuisine destroy its ‘Indianness’? Research has shown that globalisation will not make local cultures disappear if the local culture and flavour is strong and rooted. As Vargas Llosa is quoted in the 2001 book Food Tourism around the World, “all that is valuable and worthy of survival in local cultures will find fertile ground in which to bloom!” Food neo culturalism has been engendered nowadays among urban citizens around the world, where international foods like the pizza which originated in Italy or a burger that originated in America or a sushi that originated in Japan have been accepted with changes to cater to local dietary preferences. Yet, none of these foods have lost their status as the cultural properties of their countries of origin. Such fears are therefore unfounded given the incredible connection Indians have with their food.
It is time that India considers cultural diplomacy as a strategic mission for the country, mobilises its diplomatic corps and embassies, encourages the private sector that facilitates the establishment of training centres, enables the certifications for Indian food, trains chefs and other personnel, kitchens, creates sourcing channels for various ingredients, cooking styles, techniques and practices, quality, hygiene and health standards, branding including the mythology around Indian food and drink, popularises Indian recipe while creating new and innovative ones, and much more. A tall order? Not when seen in context of a rapidly growing $3 trillion plus global food service market waiting to be tapped. So, will we?