How the Thai Government Made the Whole World Fall in Love with Thai Food

Food Features gastrodiplomacy
How the Thai Government Made the Whole World Fall in Love with Thai Food

Food may not always be an obvious source of power. But as the substance that not only keeps us alive but also in many ways brings us meaning—ritual, community, nourishment—it should go without saying that food is a powerful force, one that has the ability to shape what we eat, what we think, who we are. It’s understandable, then, that some would seek to harness this force. One example is gastrodiplomacy, when food is leveraged to essentially build a nation’s brand and strengthen ties with other countries.

One of the most successful gastrodiplomacy campaigns is an initiative launched by Thailand in 2002 called “Global Thai.” The goal of this program was to increase tourism and food exports to boost the Southeast Asian country’s economy. To say it was successful is an understatement. Within a decade, the number of Thai restaurants in the world had almost doubled, largely thanks to loans the Thai government distributed to people willing to open restaurants abroad.

When the initiative began, an article in the Economist said that the program could “subtly help to deepen relations with other countries.” It seems to have worked. Go to any suburban town, midsize city or booming metropolis in the United States, and you’ll undoubtedly find at least one, if not many, Thai options to choose from. Pad Thai (which doesn’t exactly originate from Thailand) can be found at Thai restaurants and sports bars alike. And Thailand is now considered one of the world’s top tourist destinations, with travelers flying all over the world to experience the country’s bustling cities, idyllic beaches and, yes, incredible food scene. The Global Thai program undoubtedly drove some of that popularity; there’s been a 200% increase in tourism to Thailand since the initiative was launched.

Tourism isn’t inherently good for the people who live in the country in question, of course; there’s no guaranteeing that the money spent at multinational hotels and resorts eventually trickles down into the hands of the citizens of that country. Tourists can be a nuisance to locals, cause gentrification and act disrespectfully toward the culture of the country they’re visiting. I’m not making any claims about the benefits of increased tourism, beyond making a profit for the tourism industry in the country in question. But there’s undoubtedly something powerful about enticing the whole world to eat your food (or, at least, some version of your food, colored as it may be by the local cuisine in the foreign country in which it lands).

Thailand isn’t the only country that’s utilized gastrodiplomacy to strengthen ties with other countries and cultures. The United States has the American Culinary Corps, a group of chefs and other influential food figures “who participate in programs and events on behalf of the Department of State in the United States and abroad to foster cross-cultural exchange.” Japan’s Japan Brand Working Group has a culinary arm that similarly aims to build ties with other nations through the medium of food. And Peru launched a similar initiative, called Perú Mucho Gusto, which has helped spread Peruvian food across the globe.

Do these programs have a limited scope? Sure. That’s especially true when we consider the fact that some nations have significantly more visibility and influence on world cuisine than others do. But the fact that so many governments pour time and resources into developing these campaigns should indicate to us just how powerful food can be. Maybe, when we eat a cuisine that’s not our own or share food from our own country with others unfamiliar with it—and do so displaying respect, curiosity and open-mindedness—we’re in some ways contributing to a more collaborative, more delicious world.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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