“The natural wine movement has made consumers and buyers a lot more aware. How do we champion smaller producers, to give them a piece of the cake? That for me is how [wine] feeds into gastrodiplomacy. How do we share? Of course, there will be more popular regions and varietals… but my work is rooted in a curiosity to learn. I don’t want to keep tasting the wines that taste the same way. Homogeneity is not sexy,” says Harman.
It can take just one wine or producer to transform a region. Harman recalls: “I worked in a region called Sierra de Gredos where many vineyards had been abandoned. The work [to produce wine] can only be done manually. Without a brand name, like Rioja or Ribera del Duero, the wines can’t be sold beyond a certain price, as there’s almost no domestic or international market for them. [Growers would] be in a deficit. Why would they bother making wine then? This is a story that happens all over the place – in parts of Greece, the Canary Islands, there are a lot of abandoned vineyards. Just over a decade ago, there was a producer called Comando G who really believed in Sierra de Gredos because it had excellent soil, elevation, diurnal shift, and old vines. They brought those vineyards back to life with the same investment of time as planting a new vineyard. You’d [now] see their top wine on a restaurant wine list for about 600 euros.”
Shifting gears, one of the most famous examples of how a country is perceived via its food and beyond its borders, is Thailand’s sponsorship of overseas restaurants.
Wine and Thai food may seem like disparate categories, but both have felt the effects of gastrodiplomacy, and in some ways had to work to combat the roadblocks it created. Chefs Emshika Alberini and Chutatip ‘Nok’ Suntaranon have felt the trickle-down benefits of the Thai government’s efforts.
Alberini opened Chang Thai Café in Littleton, New Hampshire, in 2008. The closest Thai restaurant was 20 miles away, in Vermont. “That type of diplomacy affected every part of life. When students came here to the US to study, even they opened Thai restaurants. It impacted a lot of people.” Alberini’s background is in business organisational management and political science.
“Every five or ten years there’s been a different wave. Back in 2010, Andy Ricker said [pad thai] is done – we’re doing street food. That was the second wave. We’re in the third wave of Thai restaurants [in America]. You see Thai restaurants with sushi. Even my restaurant has sushi. Now things are getting more artistic. You’re seeing more food art, more small plates.”
“New generations of Thai chefs showcase their own niche, from their heritage or their own experience. We all branched out. Overall, Thai gastrodiplomacy has had a huge impact to the Thai people to become entrepreneurs. It’s really a good thing if we carry this investment momentum [to] attract more tourists to our country.”
Suntaranon, chef-owner of Philadelphia’s Kalaya, credits the Thai government’s efforts. “Thai food has greatly evolved in the U.S. in the last 20 years, thanks to gastrodiplomacy. Thai food in America has been heading in a better direction with a newer generation of chefs cooking Thai food in a more authentic way. The audience has changed, the ingredients from Thailand have become much more accessible, and customers have become more open-minded. I believe the establishment of Thai restaurants all over the world has helped me personally, as my customers come in wanting authentic food, and it really helps me to get a warm welcome from my audience and customers. I think it’s going to keep getting better.”
I posed the questions of how effective Thai gastrodiplomacy was to Andy Ricker of Pok Pok.
Ricker cautions: “I claim no authority here, just personal opinion and experience. Yes and no, on the effectiveness. In the 'yes' column, until very recently… your average westerner's only introduction to Thai culture was via their neighbourhood Thai restaurant. The most positive expression of Thai culture to the world is their cuisine. Many a vacation was planned after visiting ABC Thai; and meeting the friendly proprietors and being told what you were eating was ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ Thai food, then hearing about beautiful beaches and exotic cities where this food was cheap and even better than the stuff you were getting close to home. This was my experience, and boy, was I sold. The Thai government recognised this fact and doubled down on it with a few different tourist-aimed programmes. From a commercial view, this was very successful.”
Ricker continues: “In the 'no' column, I would argue that what we once thought of as ‘authentic, traditional Thai food’ in the west became its own genre of food. The diversity, depth and breadth of the food of Thailand had been pretty much ignored by the Thai government in favour of a codified, easy-to-understand menu of dishes that were relatively easy to make with food products available in the west, leaning heavily on Chinese food merchants for ingredients. Sadly, the rest of Thailand's incredible regional, local, street, indigenous cuisine was shunned, rather openly, in favour of what a very conservative elite deemed to be truly ‘Thai’ food. You've heard of the Thai flavour robot? And the government in Bangkok moving to ban street food right after being named the best street food in the world? (They backpedaled and denied but that was a show of true colours).”
“These days, the government is embracing more of Thailand's cultural culinary diversity through the tourism agency TAT, mounting campaigns like Thailand, Kitchen of the World, Thailicious Journey, and by wielding what they call ‘soft power’ in relation to food. It still skews conservative and Bangkok-centric but at least there is some change. Meanwhile, there is an amazing uprising of wickedly talented younger Thai chefs who are moving Thai cuisine into the future.”
Mark Padoongpatt, author of Flavors of Empire says: “There were hundreds of Thai restaurants in existence (outside of Thailand, before Thailand, Kitchen of the World). They pushed boundaries and experimented with local ingredients. Saying that the Thai government is responsible for all these restaurants, doesn’t take into account history. Rather, the Thai government was very aware of the growth overseas and was like, ‘Interesting! How might we use that.?’.”
Padoongpatt continues: “We’re not tools of the Thai government. We’re not going to follow blindly. People aren’t foot soldiers of gastrodiplomacy. It’s reductionist to think that Thai people don’t have creativity of their own and this is all the result of a foreign government trying to insert themselves in local cuisine.”
Pok Pok was approached to take part in one of the government programs (Thai Select) and Ricker “was honoured that they would take notice of the growing notoriety of Pok Pok but then I read the requirements and quietly, politely declined. Attempting to set recipes and menus in stone is no way to keep a vibrant, ever-changing cuisine alive, and completely ignoring the food of three out of four main regions while doing so is unacceptable.”
At the end of the day, private citizens are at the heart of gastrodiplomatic relations. Success and innovation come from individuals, at least in the instances of reviving wine-growing regions and developing a nuanced, regional-focused exportation and exploration of cuisine beyond government sponsorship. What we didn’t talk about at Terroir and only touched upon here, is when gastrodiplomacy is too successful, adding to a country’s geopolitical arsenal, obscuring the cuisines of neighbouring regions, and adopting them under the umbrella of a cuisine that doesn’t exist except in the rest of the world.