From Recipes to Racism: The Nuances of Gastro-Diplomacy

How would you react if you were told that the sushi that you just bought at the quicki-mart is a symbol of cultural oppression? Or that the way that you gleefully lick your fingers after finishing an enchilada is an inadvertent form of racism? Understandably, you might not want to taco ‘bout it. However, the poor cultural appropriation of food in places such as food canteens and in politics may be a hindrance to cultural diplomacy. It recent years, the dishes of immigrants have become checks on a cultural scavenger hunt for Caucasian hipsters.

Nation branding has been a long praised public diplomacy technique, where countries aim to manage their reputation by cultivating a popular profile to the rest of the world. An issue may arise when the inverse occurs and centuries of cultural and historical evolution are subsumed into oversimplified menu items. Japan may be reduced to ramen and sushi, Mexico is reduced to tacos and France is reduced to croissants. Although this may create positive cultural exchange, there is a concern that the oversimplification certain culture can be borderline insensitive.

There is a propensity for some states to commercialise ‘Middle Eastern food’, such as falafel, whilst refusing to address the issue of Islamophobia within Western countries. Similarly, there may be a great appreciation for tacos but a refusal to address issues such as labour equity and immigration problems. This was highlighted recently when Donald Trump decided to celebrate Cinco De Mayo with a questionably offensive taco tweet. This undertone of xenophobia is compounded by the contradiction between Trump’s saucy lunch and the delight he takes at the prospect of building ‘a wall’ to keep out those pesky Mexicans (who apparently have to pay for lunch and the wall). In short, Trump wouldn’t perform too well on a first date.

Donald Trump Tweet
Donald Trump raised a few brows with his infamous taco tweet

If you are still wondering how good Trump’s taco tureen really was, it was reviewed by Eater New York’s food critic Robert Sietsema, who stated:

“. . . I also ordered “beef tacos” ($13.50) which turned out to be a fried tortilla bowl heaped with romaine lettuce, grated yellow cheese, and plain ground beef that was so devoid of flavor, it rendered an insult to Mexicans every bit as profound as Trump’s previous pronouncements. Trump food is bland.”

 The issue of racism through food is becoming more prolific. Recently, students of the Ohio Oberlin College protested that there was cultural insensitivity involved in the serving of culturally appropriated food such as sushi or banh mi in the college dining halls. One Japanese student named Tomoyo Joshi complained that “the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful.” At the same time, there is criticism of food being described as ‘exotic’ and ‘strange’ when it is common for a particular culture. If you have ever sampled a Century Egg from Japan, then you cannot really be blamed for this assessment. This also raises the concern that there is some hypersensitivity regarding issues of cultural appropriation, where the intention may actually be to appreciate and praise foreign cuisine. Also, it might be hard for low-wage dining hall staff with sub-optimal ingredients to nail the nuances of duck a l’orange.

Similar criticism has been levelled a bit closer to home, towards Australia’s Kitchen-Cabinet star, Annabel Crabb. The popular cooking show has revealed that food can also have political meaning. Crabb stated that “food is something we all have in common” but this is not necessarily true, when we reflect on the particulars which shape the way different civilisations prepare and enjoy food. Though Australia may be aficionados of the party pie and the sanga on bread, not all food can be grilled on a barbeque and enjoyed with a dollop of tomato sauce.

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George Pataki and a giant Jerusalem wall cake: taking gastro-diplomacy to new heights

Member of Parliament Penny Wong provided an interesting insight during a recent episode, where she prepared a Malaysian fish dish, stating that food is part of her cultural survival and her method of retaining her cultural identity. Perhaps we can perceive the consumption of foreign food as a sign of our acceptance and tolerance of multiculturalism?

Interestingly, when Scott Morrison appeared on Kitchen Cabinet, there was no mention of his refugee policy or his decision to transfer a boat carrying Sri Lankan refugees, including Tamils, back into the hands of Sri Lankan authorities, yet his meal of choice was Sri Lankan samosas (which he pronounced as “ScoMosas”). It seems strangely ironic that he was enjoying the food of the people he sought to prevent from entering Australia. A few days after this episode was aired, human teeth were found in meals served to refugees imprisoned on Manus Island pursuant to Morrison’s policies.

Australia’s attempt at cultural appropriation has not been successful in softening the criticism of our refugee politics in the international eye, with the UN still expressing “profound concern” after Morrison capped medical communications on Operation Sovereign Borders.

Whilst gastro diplomacy may, on occasion, be slightly misguided, it can be a successful tool if applied carefully and sensitively. Multicultural exchange and the subsequent dissemination of foreign cuisines is a testament to great diversity in Australia. But let’s be honest – who hasn’t enjoyed a kebab at two in the morning after a big night out?


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