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Gastro-Diplomacy 101

gastro diplomacy, diplomacy, cuisine, food, culture, restaurants

Food as ambassador?

Hmmm. Now that’s really something to think about. In these difficult and trying times for international politics, here’s a thought that could really turn things around for the art of diplomacy. Well this is at least what the proponents of cuisine for cultural understanding think so.

It’s quite a practical and sensible concept. In fact, food has been a staple of diplomatic gatherings and business meetings for hundreds of years now. It may have played second fiddle to the small talks and formal discussions among attendees but no party can last through the night without the big “F-O-O-D”. Furthermore, everybody may disagree on an issue but most of the time, appreciation of the food served is unanimous. One only needs to say “Delicious!” or “Mouth-watering!” to confirm positive response.

Global Thai food

But how far has this interesting concept been applied? Thailand is leading the way in this direction. The Thais have long discovered that foreigners like their food so much so that there are about 5,500 Thai restaurants around the world!

In 2003, a government plan ambitiously called “Global Thai” boosted the number of Thai restaurants around the world to 8,000. It was then argued, that this would not only introduce deliciously spicy Thai food to thousands of new tummies, it would also encourage more tourists to visit Thailand. More importantly, though not as direct as they could hope, to help deepen relations with other countries.

Thailand, which has the distinction as the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized, has long enjoyed peaceful co-existence with its ASEAN neighbors and the rest of the world. With the successful food campaign, it further re-affirmed the international appeal of its culture.

Barometer of cultural understanding

Other countries can learn a great deal from the Thai experience, especially those whose local cuisines don’t enjoy the international fame as the latter does. To allay doubts of unbelievers out there, diplomats in Washington have pointed out from time to time that restaurants are often the only contacts that most Americans have with other cultures.

Indeed, tasting the food of an obscure or hostile country can open up new doors towards cultural understanding. This may sound trite but food still remains the best way to a man’s heart. Many will agree that the best time to talk about a sensitive matter is during meal time. There’s something about sharing a common dish (that is if you ordered the same one or at least tasted each other’s food which is likely anyway) that makes people disregard differences even for a while.

To illustrate, patrons of the Helmand restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland in US is likely to take at least a passing interest in and perhaps even sympathy for Afghanistan as they gorge themselves with Afghan food. Incidentally, the restaurant is run by no other than a brother of Hamid Karzai, then leader of Afghanistan’s interim government. Also, North Korea’s Worker’s Party has also opened several restaurants abroad, intent perhaps to show that its cuisine is not part of an “axis of evil”. Remember Mr. Bush’s infamous speech after 9-11?

Filipino haute cuisine

“Pinoy” haute cuisine? Cynics can raise their eyebrows all they want and say why? Well, this writer says why not? The Japanese did it. The Thais too. And let’s not forget the proverbial French. Before them are the Spanish and Italian which unfortunately have become part and parcel of almost all other cuisines.

The point is, everybody would get to have their time on the spotlight. Filipino cuisine has as much right for international stardom as the others. It’s tasty like Thai, exotic like Japanese and visually-appealing like the rest! What is lacking is savvy marketing and public relations campaign. A little help from the mother country’s tourism program will do wonders too.

A foreigner may not certainly be attracted to the current state of affairs our country is in right now, but our delectable food can definitely have something better to offer. One can mention a few favorites that could find its way in international palates. There’s the tangy “sinigang” (fish or pork meat boiled in tamarind-flavored broth), the flavorful “adobo” (chicken or pork meat cooked in soy sauce and vinegar) or the spicy “sisig” (chopped pork ears sautéed with onions & garlic). Also, choose from a variety of “kakanin” (sweet delicacies made from rice) that can put even the most expensive Belgian chocolate cake to shame.

Selling the concept

Think of it as part of the cultural program of a foreign affairs policy. Food should not only be considered as something to feed the guests or mere distraction to an otherwise dreary party. Utilize it to its fullest potential. Create unique flavors, tell interesting cultural notes about the food or make attractive table presentations.

It doesn’t matter how you do it: brochures, cook books or even performances. The famous “Singing Cooks & Waiters” is a good example of taking dining experience to a higher level. In essence, make the visit to the restaurant more worthwhile than just to fill an empty stomach.

Advice to the government: make it easier for Filipino restaurants abroad to import local ingredients and materials, and to source home-grown kitchen talents. Also encourage restaurant owners and budding food entrepreneurs by providing incentives from soft loans. The Thai government is already enforcing such policies, why can’t we? The private sector can also take an active part by establishing training centers that focus on local food research to pave way for a new breed of distinctly Filipino cuisine cooks.

Finally, the educational system should introduce into the curriculum of university Foreign Service program a standardized and comprehensive culinary appreciation course. This will go a long way in instilling the love for local cuisine to the minds of future diplomats and ambassadors. Hopefully, they can use it in promoting the country’s best assets in the international arena.

“Enough with sweet talk, just sit down and eat” may well be the next diplomatic mantra.
Published: 2006-04-15
Author: Royce Ambrocio

About the author or the publisher
The author has been writing professionally for 10 years now across various industries: TV, print, advertising, and online commerce. He has done scripts for TV, feature articles in magazines and newspapers and copywriting for consumer, tranport and service companies.

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