There was a sudden surge of Korean restaurants in Ottawa's Chinatown, and so I convinced my friend to join me on a foray into the world of bulgogi and bibimbap. This was on the heels of the "Gangnam Style" craze and a few years after Korean flavours began popping up on American food-trend lists – admittedly, a little later in Ottawa due to its apparent tax on novelty. I was confused by all those tiny banchan, the two-bite marinated side dishes, wondering whether they were appetizers or condiments. I can still remember that first bite of kimchi: using chopsticks to lift off the top petal of fermented cabbage and letting its damp-sock funkiness penetrate my nostrils. Next came the prickly mouth feel, fiery heat and the wear-it-for-a-week reek of garlic. Stinky and brash and crawling with bacteria – hey now, that's no way to make friends!
But here we are, just a few years later, and kimchi has become the prom queen of the culinary world – a celebrity among food-trend watchers and fermentation fans. Today it's a topping for trendy hot dogs and quesadillas at chain restaurants, including Jack Astor's. Chefs like Momofuku's David Chang in New York helped pave the way by whipping up a batch of Korea's answer to sauerkraut on the Today show. Next, First Lady Michelle Obama got on board, tweeting about turning vegetables from the White House kitchen garden into kimchi. With its all-star PR team, it's no wonder that even a food so seemingly inhospitable to uninitiated palates could enter the culinary consciousness and become the hipster munchie du jour. Less obvious, perhaps, is that behind the sudden rise of Korea's national dish is the work of the Korean government putting its money where its mouth is.
Food has been shaping our view of the world, strengthening and severing bonds between nations throughout history. These days, the idea of using culinary marketing to garnish the image of a country has a spiffy new name: gastrodiplomacy. Scholar Paul Rockower, who helped popularize the term, calls it "the art of winning hearts and minds through stomachs." The graduate of the public-diplomacy program at the University of Southern California points to Thailand's successful 2002 Global Thai campaign. It made tom yum for Thailand what apple pie is for America. The Thai government offered small business grants for its own chefs to open Thai restaurants around the world and the number rose from 5,500 to more than 10,000 in 2013. "Countries are starting to realize the importance of promoting their edible nation brand as a way to garner more global attention," says Rockower.
Peru (pisco diplomacy) and Taiwan (dim sum diplomacy), along with South Korea (kimchi diplomacy), were among the next wave of countries to invest in advertising signature dishes and drinks. Some provided soft-loan financing to restaurants abroad; others facilitated travel for their best chefs to go to food competitions and festivals. So when a country like Taiwan hoped to differentiate itself from neighbouring China, it ignited a following for "stinky tofu" (part of its U.K. campaign). The goal? Everything from boosting tourism and increasing trade to less tangible perks like better relationships among nations. At the level of embassies and consulates, you might say gastro-diplomacy has shifted the emphasis of traditional talks held over rubber-chicken dinners to a time when the food on the plate does the talking.
So where does Canada – land of the Beaver Tail – stand in all of this? Is there any chance for poutine diplomacy? Apparently, oui. The Canada Brand Initiative is a multimillion-dollar marketing plan to boost interest in Canadian food. Its spokesman, Patrick Girard, is quick to point out that the focus is mostly on raw ingredients available for the export market, such as beef and blueberries. Yet there have been a few attempts at culinary branding, including the creation of a temporary outdoor café in Japan selling poutine and maple lattes to people in a region hit hard by the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. A more widely known (and largely mocked) pilot project, launched in Mexico City, relied upon a maple-leaf-branded food truck that served a version of poutine topped with Oaxacan cheese instead of cheddar curds.
Showing off what, when and how we eat is a window to who we are. That's how Heon-jun Kim, the Counselor for Cultural and Public Affairs at Canada's Korean Embassy in Ottawa, describes his country's national branding effort. It's what's behind the creation of the World Institute of Kimchi in southern South Korea, the first research centre to focus solely on a single dish. "Korean food is a cuisine of harmony," he tells me. "That's true for the way Koreans approach everyday life too." It's a message that's been carried like a flag by at least two different groups of young Koreans with a shared case of wanderlust. In 2011, a team of culinary students set off around the world on the Kimchi Bus to promote their national nosh with support from their government's food-culture outreach project. The young cooks, who popped up in Brazil during this past summer's World Cup, have been to more than 28 countries. They continue to visit major tourist spots, cooking schools, Korean language schools and stadiums, offering kimchi tasting sessions along the way. Meanwhile, the Bibimbap Backpackers set off on a similar trip, doling out bowls of the Korean dish, which stars rice topped with an assortment of veggies, meat and eggs seasoned with hot pepper-laced gochujang paste and sesame oil. The two crews happened to converge for the first time at an event at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Food, as we all know, is the easiest, most visceral and emotional way to start conversations with strangers. Standing befuddled in front of a french-fry vendor in Rotterdam, I once welcomed a lesson in Dutch history that led to my first encounter with peanut sauce on fries. I walked away with a profound taste-memory of the trip and an excellent recommendation for an Indonesian rijsttafel restaurant for dinner. The more we travel to eat and the more our amped-up global food culture pits authenticity and chow-hounding against the mainstream taste for fast food, the more disorienting it can be to discover that your latest genuine food epiphany is part of a gastrodiplomacy campaign.
And that's what gave me pause last year as I got in line for my first Korean short-rib taco at the world-renowned Kogi food truck in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Korean populations outside of Seoul. On the one hand, I was keen to experience what L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold describes as "food that makes you feel plugged into the rhythms of the city just by eating it." I like to think such quintessential moments help me repent for the sins from my backpacker days, eating McDonald's in Rome and ordering Domino's Pizza in Paris. But at the same time, I found myself wondering what separates Kogi from the Kimchi Bus. I worried that gastrodiplomacy might be turning us all into lacto-fermentation agents, unwittingly in the service of a global gastronomy network. On second thought, that didn't sound so bad. I lifted the paper plate under my chin to catch the juice, stained red from kimchi, as it dripped down my chin. It was an awfully good taco.