Food as Communication: A Case Study of South Korea’s Gastrodiplomacy
By Mary Jo A. Pham
Throughout history, food has played a significant role in shaping the world, carving ancient trade routes and awarding economic and political power to those who handled cardamom, sugar, and coffee. Trade corridors such as the incense and spice route through India into the Levant and the triangular trade route spanning from Africa to the Caribbean and Europe laid the foundations for commerce and trade between modern nation-states. Indeed, these pathways encouraged discovery—weaving the cultural fabric of contemporary societies, tempering countless palates, and ultimately making way for the globalization of taste and food culture. Facing such a rich history of food’s role in global politics and economics, this paper seeks to explore how food facilitates international communication by asking: What role does food have in the conduct of diplomacy? This inquiry is relevant given the rising popularity of “gastrodiplomacy,” a subset of public diplomacy.
In investigating these questions, I outline how food is capable of communicating national identity, make note of its historical role in foreign policy, define gastrodiplomacy, and finally, evoke South Korea as one particular example of a middle power using food as a central component of its public diplomacy campaign. I conclude that gastrodiplomacy, the practice of exporting a country’s culinary heritage in an effort to raise national brand awareness, encourage economic investment through tourism and trade, and engage on a cultural and personal level with everyday diners, is a potentially lucrative communication tool for nations seeking to distinguish their cultural and culinary assets for future boosts in exports, tourism, and nation brand awareness.
How Food Is a Form of Communication
Since biblical times, food has offered people the opportunity for communion and exchange. As one journalist remarks, “the history of a country is written in its food.” Thus, a country’s food and eating habits can be considered as intrinsic to national identity, touching all aspects of history, culture, society, and economy:
Every human being has to eat several times a day, everyday, as long as he (she) lives, and every human society has its own food preferences and way of eating. Furthermore, food is potentially related to all the principal features of national identity: It is often produced on the soil of [a] homeland; Culinary tradition is full of myths and memories; Eating is an important part of mass public culture; Food for survival forms an implicit element of modern citizenship; Food production and consumption constitutes the basis of national economy.
Food is a nonverbal means of communication; it is anchored in how we perceive the world (and what we make of it). It conveys our understanding of it through our identities—are we vegan, Indian, or German? As Carlnita Greene, associate professor and director of the communication and rhetoric program at Nazareth College, and Janet Cramer, associate professor of journalism and communication at University of New Mexico, highlight, “Food is much more than just a means of survival. It permeates all other aspects of our lives . . . [and] is a key factor in how we view ourselves and others.” Thus, in addition to forming a nexus for nationalism, food can also embody political statements. As Monica Smith states, “the act of consuming food may represent the basic locus of identity, conformity and resistance.” It is no wonder, then, how foods perceived as national dishes belonging to a certain country may ignite conflict.
 Annia Ciezadlo, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
 Hong Sik Cho, “Food and Nationalism—Kimchi and Korean National Identity,” The Korean Journal of International Relations 46, no. 5 (2006): 210.
 Carlnita Greene and Janet Cramer, “Beyond Mere Sustenance: Food as communication/Communication as Food,” in Food as Communication, Communication as Food, ed. Janet Cramer, Carlnita Greene, and Lynn Walters (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), ix.
 Monica Smith, “The Archaeology of Food Preference,” American Anthropologist 108, no. 3 (2006): 480–493.