Diplomats’ Choice

The Dalai Lama likes to say he’s an Indian because he’s eaten dal and rice for decades. This tends to get the Chinese riled — but then anything he says gets them riled. But he did, in his sublime way, encapsulate the strength of food diplomacy. If you are what you eat, then if you eat foreign cuisines you should come to see them in a new, more favourable light.

Food as an instrument of a nation’s soft power can work beyond just seducing taste buds.

Culinary capacity is often a sign of a country’s arrival as a nation of note. When the US made its first stab at global influence after World War I, the meat-and-potato meals its diplomats served were cited by Europeans as evidence the Americans weren’t ready. It took another World War before they got it right. (Europeans still sneer at the wine US envoys serve, but should actually sneer at American beer.)

A rising Japan showcased its ability by mastering French cooking. A Western diplomat marveled, “they are one of the few countries confident enough to offer his own cuisine to the French president.”

When asked if that was why Jacques Chirac visited Tokyo so often, a deadpan Japanese diplomat deprecatingly said, “Also, he likes Japanese girls.”

If a people produce such mouth-watering stuff, then they can’t be too bad, can they? An article in Foreign Policy magazine, “The Way to America’s Heart is Through Its Stomach”, described how small countries pushed their delicacies on to the plates of the superpower to gain influence. Also, it’s profitable: the US imports $60 billion worth of specialty foods. Palestinian independence is underwritten by Americans who buy half a billion dollars worth of hummus.

And there’s a PhD thesis waiting to explain how the British embrace of chicken tikka masala as a national dish helped pave the way for Tata’s effortless purchase of the erstwhile British Steel, Tetley Tea and Jaguar.

And let’s not forget the McDonald’s Theory of International Peace, which argued that no country where you can buy a Big Mac goes to war with a similar nation. Disproved, sadly, when the US bombed Serbia, but it’s still about 99% accurate.

Food can also be a weapon of subtle mastication. A Western MNC executive said how the rivalry between Japan and China plays out at banquets. “The Japanese can make Chinese food better than the Chinese. So they always offer Chinese food to visiting dignitaries from Beijing.” How nice, you think, until you factor in East Asian face. “The Chinese don’t have the ability to master Japanese cuisine. So they can’t serve Japanese food when a visitor comes from Tokyo, yet the Chinese fare they give is inferior to what the Japanese served. Complete loss of face.” What’s brilliant is that the humiliation is accomplished through the exquisite quality of the food.

Generally food builds bridges. Consider Conflict Kitchen, a Pittsburgh takeout that serves foods from countries that the US government is hostile to. Despite an eclectic menu of North Korean noodles and Iranian bread, last heard it’s thriving.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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