By Caroline Rexrode, Matilda Kreider and Jade Hurley
Asian cuisine has been used as a public diplomacy tool in the United States, specifically
from the country of Thailand. The primary philosophy behind food diplomacy, or public
diplomacy using cuisine native to one’s country, stems from culinary nationalism. We all
associate different foods with different places of origin–tacos, spaghetti, fried rice–and
especially in a globalized world, where we enjoy several cultures at once in the food we eat,
cuisine can be one of the first steps to learning about a foreign nation.
Culinary nationalism is a philosophy where the food of one’s country is closely related to their national identity, and such pride in one’s cuisine can lead to a government’s promotion of certain recipes as being a part of their nation’s heritage–it is a form of showing the world what you have to offer. This is why nations like Thailand have chosen to tie food closely to their national identity.
By spreading one’s cuisine into foreign nations, it is not a one-time occurrence of public
diplomacy. Food can be a quotidian diplomat, meaning, once there, its diplomatic properties of
education and friendship will be repeated day after day. Immigrants from places like Thailand
can encourage their friends in other countries to eat it, restaurants can be established, and the
diplomatic powers of food can be neverending. This was the philosophy behind the Thai
government’s decision to launch the first large-scale culinary diplomacy effort to encourage
people worldwide to try Thai cuisine, which was largely successful.
By 2015, a CNN poll found that Thai food is the world’s most popular cuisine. This is a shift in the eating patterns that we have witnessed in our lifetime, and watching the rise of Thai food is watching the rise of positive relations between Thailand and the world.
It has been a trend in America that foods of Asian origin take on a trendy reputation that
influences how Americans view Asian nations and people. Foods like sushi tend to start out in
urban hubs on the east and west coasts and spread into the continent and into rural areas,
giving them a reputation for being more sophisticated and trendy.
Bubble tea, which originated in Taiwan, can be found most readily in the U.S. on college campuses because it’s expected that Asian students will flock to it and eventually other students will follow, which has made bubble tea have a very youthful reputation. Other regional cuisines are popular with young people and can serve as social symbols, too, like Mexican food in the form of chains like Chipotle.
Another interesting foreign food phenomenon in the U.S. is the prevalence of food trucks. Food trucks build familiarity and can help people get to know parts of the world that they
wouldn’t otherwise. On an urban campus like GW’s, one can usually find 5-10 food trucks at a
time, and many of them are foreign cuisines like Chinese, Afghan, or Laotian. Due to the casual
and accessible nature of food trucks, consumers gain exposure to regional cuisines they might
never have experienced otherwise. Some of the food trucks on campus are even incredibly
niche, like Himalayan or Bermudian, exposing Americans to even more unusual foods. Also, the
presence of food trucks in suburbia as well as in large cities helps eliminate the urban elite
complex that is attached to some foods.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.