India & Culinary Diplomacy: How Food Plays Into Politics

India & Culinary Diplomacy: How Food Plays Into Politics

Power is a strong currency for a country – and much like its monetary counterpart, it creates ripples with its fluctuations. While it is easy to identify power with the usual shorthand labels of hard power – nuclear arsenal, space power, military technology – many associated facets go unnoticed. Elements of soft power often prove to be just as effective. It’s difficult to imagine that a beautiful video for Incredible India can stand to be just as powerful as India’s entry into the space club – but on the international stage, these lines are often blurred. One of the most powerful pillars of Soft Power – and definitely one of my favourites – is culinary diplomacy. Sam Chopple-Sokol, something of a celebrated expert of Culinary Diplomacy describes it so: Culinary Diplomacy is the use of food and cuisine as instruments to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation between countries. It brings about a diverse intersection between food, politics and power. Most interestingly, culinary diplomacy envelopes not only the government, but also citizens. While formal government dinners extend government-to-government diplomacy in the backdrop of a carefully curated menu, the same diplomacy also finds itself in the hands of diplomat chefs to travel around the world, documentary filmmakers who capture food at its best and even reality shows like MasterChef Australia – which does wonders for Australia and the its culinary identity. Here’s a look at how Culinary Diplomacy makes its way around the world:

How did this form of diplomacy come about?

While ‘food’ and ‘international relations’ do not usually figure into the same sentence, a history of carefully planned state dinners beg to differ. A state dinner honouring a visiting head of government or a reigning monarch is one of the grandest and most glamourous affairs of the White House – something it certainly prides itself upon. A State Dinner is not only a formal declaration to celebrate and recognize another head of the state, it also an opportunity for the host to indulge his guest in what is perhaps the country’s best food. Over a spread of only the most carefully curated menu, world leaders engage in dialogues of sustainability, world hunger, and the political climate of their home States. The history of State Dinners is riddled with stories – dinners that directly affected the relations between countries. For instance, in 1954, the White House hosted the Soviet Delegation by Mao Zedong’s China and served the traditional South East Asian dish ‘The Tiger Fights the Dragon’. The only catch was that this dish was served as a centerpiece exhibiting a skinned car and a python. Terribly insulted, the delegation left the dinner and relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. – which were already in murky waters – worsened.

How the world navigates food and politics.

The strength of culinary diplomacy, interestingly, lies in its subtlety. An amusing example plays on Americans’ liking for Thai food – something they often pride themselves on. While one might think this is because the Americans have a refined palate, it is actually because the Thai Government mandated the opening of nearly 3000 Thai restaurants in the US by monetary support and guidance. Thailand had one objective: to establish itself as a country symbolic of great food, warm hospitality and cultural wealth. Today, a significant chunk of the International population thinks just this – a subtle yet powerful diplomacy mission accomplished! Many
countries have come together to take a more concrete route towards using this form of diplomacy in forming the Le Club Des Chefs Des Chefs, an international culinary organization that brings together diplomat chefs from across the world. These chefs keep in constant contact with their Heads of State and represent their countries around the world.

Indian royalty did it first.

In 1897, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda – a man of wealth, culture and a great passion for the arts – invited the honourable Maharaja Scindiya of Gwalior for dinner. An exquisite menu of Pure’a d’Asperges, Cauliflower a la Hollaindaise and Pistachio Pudding among other delicacies boast of an exclusively French spread for the Royalty of Gwalior. The menu runs a colourful reel for our imagination: a royal dinner of multiple courses served in glorious velvet- draped dining halls; the cutlery clinks as the Maharajas discuss matters of great importance; dabbing themselves delicately with his serviette, the Maharaja of Gwalior praises the food. The State of Baroda and Gwalior develop an alliance of trust and respect. In a time where every imperial holding was as powerful as a separate state, culinary impression was certainly a Maharaja’s priority. While dinner this form of table diplomacy has come a long way in terms of its medium in the course of a century, it remains the same at its core: using food as a way to strengthen diplomatic relations between two States.

India is home to a cultural confluence like no other - and in a place where the cuisine and dialect changes every few kilometres, it is not difficult to imagine that India’s political history sings of culinary diplomacy. Perhaps long before there was a name for it, rulers across the country used food to win hearts and minds. The Mughal dynasty – which won territory by bloodshed and war, went ahead to win hearts with food and art. The Mughal Emperors developed a distinguished and powerful way to build their identity in a foreign land that they had conquered: through their food. Today, Mughlai food – including the fan-favourite Biryani, Kebabs and Tandoori delicacies – is an inseparable part of the Indian cuisine.

Independent India’s tryst with food and politics.

An independent India too, soon realized the power it held in culinary currency. During her Prime Ministerial term, Indira Gandhi was famous for micro-managing state banquets. Often lauded for her refined palate and a taste for the exquisite, Mrs. Gandhi understood how food wove into the political fabric of India. In fact, she even asked the ITDC to open at Cypriot restaurant at The Ashok when India and Cyprus warmed up to each other after Archbishop Makarios was elected the Island’s first president in 1960. India and Cyprus share warm relation to this day. Food has never been futile.

A shining example of India displaying diplomatic strength was at The Industrial Fair at Hannover Messe in 2015, where the Indian Team of 28 chefs from six leading restaurants of India came together to serve 2,500 at dinner. The team followed the theme of ‘Prithvi Rasa’, extending the essence of India’s natural flavours. It was an exercise in furthering the notion of ‘Make In India’ and of course, a rather delicious display of soft power. 5

Modi: India’s new advocate for culinary diplomacy

In 2017, India hosted the erstwhile President Obama at the Rashtrapati Bhavan – and one question loomed: what will Modi serve Obama? Will it be an exclusively-vegetarian course? Will the cuisine be Indian – or will it be suited to the Presidents’ liking? What one Head of State chooses to serve another is a matter of utmost importance, not only to the government, but also the common man. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a diverse menu of vegetarian and Non-vegetarian delicacies that sang of the Indian cuisine – a diplomatic success.

While culinary diplomacy has never found itself at the forefront of India’s foreign policy, it has certainly found room in Modi’s efforts to strengthen international relations. At delegation talks with the Japanese Prime Minister in 2017, Modi expressed his desire for more Japanese restaurants in India. Culinary Diplomacy is a historical, well-strategized practice that established itself in formal State Dinners and over-the-table unions. With time, it has quickly manifested itself into new media. India certainly took advantage of this. In 2010 as well as 2014, Vikas Khanna cooked at the White House, putting a gourmet twist to the Sattvik cuisnine.

Food has the playful ability to translate well into other media. Which is why it doesn’t come as a surprise that this form of diplomacy has also found itself being manifested into unique ways. In Indian television series like Raja Rasoi aur Anya Kahaniyan, or YouTube Channels run by home cooks – the Indian citizen is carving a place for himself in this dialogue. Food writers and travellers carry the onus of the Indian identity worldwide, inviting an international fanbase for the Indian cuisine.

The global cuisine movement that has taken the world by storm calls for action – and to extend an impetus to India’s soft power, Modi must realize this. With the diversity and opportunity that the Indian cuisine has to offer, the only way for Culinary Diplomacy in India is up.

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