Thai food is everywhere: in the last twenty years, Thai restaurants have taken off all over the world. There are now 15,000 of them globally. However, the number of Thai restaurants is rarely in line with the number of Thai immigrants. In the US, there is one Mexican restaurant for every 650 Mexican Americans. But there is one Thai restaurant for every 55 Thai Americans. And that’s not a coincidence.
In 2002, the Thai government launched a campaign of gastrodiplomacy. This new form of foreign policy sits at the intersection of two distinctly twenty-first century trends: globalisation, and foodie culture. Gastrodiplomacy has been employed to extend Thailand’s cultural influence, promote soft power and function as a form of edible branding. Thai restaurants serve as pseudo-embassies, giving people the chance to taste food they would never have tried before.
Since the start of the campaign, tourism to Thailand has increased massively, and now travel and tourism accounts for over 10% of Thai GDP. One third of that spending was on food and drink.
But Thailand isn’t the only country to have launched a gastrodiplomacy campaign. Japan, South Korea, Lebanon, and Taiwan also engaged, using food to distinguish themselves as small countries.
Gastrodiplomacy also functions on a small scale. The town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania has taken in twenty times more refugees than any other town in the US, and one of them, Mustafa Noor, a 25-year-old Somali refugee, runs a programme which asks Lancaster residents to have dinner at the homes of refugees. They use food to bridge the gaps between their cultures, and try to counter the entrenchment of stereotypes surrounding refugees following the 2016 elections. The success of his programme, and those like it, has shown that gastrodiplomacy moves food beyond a symbol of national identity, allowing something that once seemed exotic and alien to become part of everyday life.
Find out more at Vox.