How Countries Use Food to Win Friends and Influence People


The spacious ground-floor space in the former residence of the Spanish ambassador in Washington, D.C., was packed with people. All around the walls, large, colorful, artistic pictures of Spanish ingredients and specialties revealed what the event was all about: Spanish food. The audience was composed of professionals and enthusiasts who had come to hear a panel discussion about jamón (Spanish air-dried ham), widely appreciated and made even more visible by the global fame of renowned Spanish chefs. The fame of products like jamón also grew thanks to the popularity of Spanish restaurants, especially those serving tapas—small bite-size portions that make a meal varied and fun. On the panel with me were a U.S. food scholar and several jamón producers from Spain. As an Italian food expert, I found myself in the position of discussing a delicacy often considered a close competitor of Italian prosciutto. During the jamón tasting that followed the panel discussion, audience members approached me to elicit my reaction about the supposedly heated rivalry.

This article is adapted from Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates by Emma Ashford (Georgetown University Press, 365 pp., .95, June 2022).

This article is adapted from Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates by Emma Ashford (Georgetown University Press, 365 pp., .95, June 2022).

This article is adapted from Gastronativism: Food, Identity, Politics by Fabio Parasecoli (Columbia University Press, 248 pp., $25, July 2022).

The event was part of a series called Eat Spain Up!, which its main organizers, Gloria and Luis Miguel Rodríguez, considered a form of cultural diplomacy to introduce Spain to foreign audiences and consumers and stoke interest in the country. When they started the series in 2013, Spain was at the worst of its economic crisis, so the first challenge for the Rodríguezes was to figure out potential funding sources, how private and public entities could collaborate, and what they might contribute toward economic goals such as tourism and food exports. With a grant from the Spanish Culture Ministry, events took place in Stockholm, Oslo, New York City, and Washington, D.C., featuring various Spanish regions and food producers. The events did not have a fixed format but responded to the needs of particular audiences and partners. They included master classes for culinary students and professional chefs, roundtable discussions, exhibitions, as well as screenings of films and documentaries about Spanish food.

Eat Spain Up! is a perfect example of the public-private undertakings known as gastrodiplomacy, a term first used in 2002 by the Economist to describe the Global Thai initiative. The Thai government launched it in 2002 with the goal of increasing the number of Thai restaurants around the world from 5,500 to 8,000. The initiative aimed to make it easier for both Thai and non-Thai restaurateurs to import food from Thailand, hire Thai cooks, and even get soft loans. The Thai government was intent on offering a positive image, possibly to counterbalance the negative perception caused by the country’s reputation as a destination for sex tourism. The label “Thai Select” was established to certify restaurants that employed Thai cooks and staff, included Thai dishes on their menus, and used ingredients and tableware imported from Thailand. In fact, agreements with foreign countries were signed to make it easier for Thai chefs to obtain work visas.

Many countries have embraced similar strategies. In 2009, South Korea’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishery and the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism launched the Korean Cuisine to the World campaign. The government, through the newly founded Korean Food Foundation and with the support of private companies, believed that Korean food (or hansik) could ride the wave of interest in Korean culture that followed the success of its TV dramas, films, and—above all—K-pop. Besides organizing culinary events around the world (I happened to be invited to one about soju, the national spirit), the campaign tried to promote Korean celebrity chefs and the royal cuisine of the Joseon dynasty, which ruled from the 14th through the 19th century. Embracing a certain cultural conservativism, the promoters deemed this historical approach to cuisine especially dignified, lofty, and refined—perfect to counterbalance the relatively recent culinary changes brought about by the Japanese occupation and Korean War. Moreover, South Korea zeroed in on kimchi as a winning product, thanks to its touted health benefits, its appeal as a natural product, the genuineness of its ingredients, and the centrality of traditional skills in its making. In 2010, the World Institute of Kimchi was born.

The term gastrodiplomacy has been used to designate global campaigns of soft diplomacy meant to increase interest in a country’s gastronomy and products in order to raise its profile, generate goodwill, and enjoy economic and commercial windfalls. Gastrodiplomacy has been variously described as a “government’s practice of exporting its national culinary heritage as part of a public diplomacy effort,” “the practice of sharing a country’s cultural heritage through food,” or more simply as “winning hearts and minds through stomachs.”

Although it has recently arrived globally, gastrodiplomacy is not new at all. Food has historically played an important role in official encounters, negotiations, and cultural exchanges among nations. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered “tabletop diplomacy” a central tool in showing off power and influence in discussions with international decision-makers. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 dinner with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, during which the U.S. president famously ate with chopsticks—an exceedingly rare skill among Westerners at the time—was as significant as the much more famous ping-pong diplomacy in the establishment of relations between the United States and China.

Conversely, food can cause diplomatic embarrassment. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II visited Belize in 1985 at a time when the country, which had gained its independence from Britain in 1981, felt threatened by neighboring Guatemala. The meal included roasted gibnut, a nocturnal rodent considered a delicacy by locals. While the queen diplomatically praised the chef, the British tabloids had a field day proclaiming that the sovereign had been fed “rat,” causing Belizeans to accuse the British press of racism and insensitivity. Needless to say, the gibnut suddenly acquired higher status and greater symbolic meaning in the Central American country.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s dislike for vegetables created awkward moments during his official visit to India in February 2020. On the occasion of the banquet at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the Indian president, the palace chefs prepared a menu designed to please him. Fish tikkas were served with Cajun spices instead of garam masala, and goat meat replaced Trump’s beloved beef, but the efforts were not particularly appreciated. During Trump’s visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, celebrity chef Suresh Khanna stuffed samosas with broccoli and corn instead of the traditional potatoes and peas, causing consternation among Indian gourmets. But apparently neither Trump nor the first lady tried anything from the specially designed vegetarian menu.

Former President Richard Nixon holds his chopsticks

Former President Richard Nixon holds his chopsticks

Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon holds his chopsticks as Chinese Premier Chou En-lai and Shanghai Communist Party leader Chang Chun-chiao reach in front of him for food at a banquet in China in 1972.Bettmann/Getty Archive

The growing number of gastrodiplomacy initiatives suggests that the value of food in diplomatic relations has become evident to many governments beyond its advantage in entertaining foreign guests. National authorities can use it to make a country more visible in an international landscape where food enthusiasts and professionals are increasingly drawn to—and even obsessed by—uniqueness, originality, and authenticity, partly as a reaction to the uniformity that many feel comes with globalization. Culinary diplomacy campaigns are particularly interesting for midsize countries that, due to their limited political or economic power, would otherwise have a hard time getting themselves noticed on the global stage. Food is supposed to allow such countries to improve the way international audiences perceive them. The marketing practice of branding is applied to international relations, with the goal of making a country more visible through easily recognizable features. The targets of such strategies are not only other governments but also foreign consumers, companies, and investors.

The emergence of gastrodiplomacy initiatives is, in itself, a direct consequence of food globalization, which allows ingredients, products, ideas, and culinary professionals to effortlessly circulate around the world. Heavily relying on social media and the internet, today’s gastrodiplomacy is particularly geared toward cosmopolitan foodies who share common values and predictable taste categories across borders, have the financial means and the interest to buy imported products, and can travel abroad. Gastrodiplomacy can also contribute to creating a sense of unity and national pride around food inside the countries that engage in it. It can even ideologically leverage nostalgia to smooth out domestic tensions, harking back to the good old times before modernity and globalization—like South Korea did with its idealization of the Joseon court and eternal, unchanging kimchi.

Does it work? It is difficult to gauge gastrodiplomacy’s outcomes, both domestically and abroad, because a variety of factors and sociopolitical processes affect the participation and collaboration of the various stakeholders necessary to secure its success. Targeted foreign audiences may well patronize Chinese restaurants, Mexican taco stands, or Turkish kebab stores on a regular basis, but many remain uninterested in knowing more about the cultures these foods come from—and do not consider them traditions worth exploring, apart from their accessibility and affordability. Lesser-known culinary traditions may not even appear on their radar, not least because of the limited numbers or relative invisibility of the immigrants connected with them.

This is the fate of many midsize countries, such as Thailand, South Korea, and Peru. Gastrodiplomacy tends, then, to remain an elite phenomenon—effective, at best, with a small stratum of foodies and professionals.

A waiter cuts Jamon Iberico at the entrance of one of the many tapas bars at Calle Cava Baja on Oct. 23, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.

A waiter cuts Jamon Iberico at the entrance of one of the many tapas bars at Calle Cava Baja on Oct. 23, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.

A waiter cuts jamón at the entrance of a tapas bar at Calle Cava Baja in Madrid on Oct. 23, 2009. Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Gastrodiplomacy is also connected with culinary tourism, as in the case of Taiwan. In 2010, its Tourism Bureau and Ministry of Economic Affairs inaugurated a promotional campaign to present the country as an alternative travel destination for Chinese-food lovers—with unique features determined by its colonial history and the presence of non-Chinese ethnic minorities. The government supported efforts to organize events abroad, establish a food foundation, and expand the global popularity of Taiwanese bubble tea, while private restaurant chains continued their work to indirectly promote Taiwanese food. The case of Taiwan is particularly interesting because its very nationhood is put into question by China and the identification of large parts of its population as ethnically Chinese. The country turned to tourism as a nonconfrontational way to assert itself, taking advantage of opportunities afforded by the globalized culinary cosmopolitanism while resisting its more homogenizing aspects.

Other countries have focused on their restaurant sector, the fame of their chefs, and the uniqueness of their cuisines to attract well-off tourists. In very different ways, that is the case for Peru and Denmark, whose booming culinary scenes appeal to foodies far and wide. Besides applying—so far without success—for the inclusion of Peruvian cuisine in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Peruvian government, together with public and private entities, has supported the promotion of its national gastronomy abroad through the creation of the Marca Perú brand, international events, films, documentaries, and even a bus trip of renowned chefs to the U.S. town of Peru, Nebraska, duly recorded in a charming video. Besides promoting the Peru brand and increasing citizens’ pride in their own nation, the focus on cuisine is supposed to provide opportunities for economic and social advancement as well, especially for less developed areas in the Andes and Amazon basin. Ingredients and food producers are expected to acquire prominence through the work of chefs—who, however, tend to flourish in the capital, Lima, and other major cities.

In Denmark, the idea of the New Nordic cuisine propelled the country’s chefs onto the international scene. Local ingredients, dishes, and practices that were on the brink of extinction were brought back, wrapped in trendy discourses of authenticity, sustainability, and creativity, which resonated with domestic and global media. The approach was not exclusively limited to Denmark, but the country has been able to build on the global stature of its chefs and restaurants to acquire a relevance unthinkable until recently, becoming a destination for gourmets from all over the world.

In recent years, a new international platform to showcase national cuisines as a form of gastrodiplomacy has emerged. Following requests from countries that wanted their culinary customs recognized and appreciated, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has expanded an already existing list—that of intangible cultural heritage—to include agricultural practices, food production, and gastronomic traditions that are place specific and derive their value from unique connections among communities, their material lives, and the local environment.

Inclusion of a culinary tradition in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage promotes appreciation for a community’s culture, which can bolster its members’ sense of belonging and pride as well as their engagement in keeping those practices alive. At times, the recognition reignites the interest of a community in its own products, which may have been considered plain, unexciting, or even backward. It has the potential to improve a country’s international status and visibility on the global stage. Inclusion in the UNESCO list also offers indirect economic advantages for tourism (gastronomic routes, events, infrastructure improvements) and product marketing.

The first three food-related traditions were inscribed in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010: the French meal, the Mediterranean diet (proposed by Italy, Spain, Morocco, and Greece, later joined by Cyprus, Portugal, and Croatia), and traditional Mexican cuisine. The list has been growing since then. Additions in 2020 include Malta’s il-Ftira, a sourdough flatbread; couscous as prepared in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia; tree beekeeping culture in Poland and Belarus; and Singapore’s food-hawker stalls. In 2021, additions included Haitian joumou soup and Italian truffle hunting, while 2022 saw the addition of Ukrainian borscht.

In 2013, South Korea succeeded in having kimjang, the making and sharing of kimchi, added to the UNESCO list. However, kimchi is produced all over the Korean Peninsula, which led the U.N. organization to add North Korean kimchi-making to the list as well. As part of South Korea’s gastrodiplomacy initiatives, the inscription not only reaffirmed the centrality of kimchi for national identity but also provided a justification for the country’s commercial claims on the product. South Korea saw this as urgent due to the commercialization of similarly fermented cabbage from China and Japan. Even the name has caused disputes: In 2020, China lobbied the International Organization for Standardization to acknowledge paocai (salted fermented vegetables), a name that can also refer to kimchi, arousing concerns in South Korea. Of course, measures against food products from other nations—such as boycotts and protectionist measures—have been a mainstay in international relations. There is only so much that gastrodiplomacy can smooth over.

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