HOW AND WHY THAILAND PIONEERED ‘GASTRODIPLOMACY’ WORLDWIDE

Thai restaurants are up there with Indian, Chinese and Italian as among the most common worldwide. This is no accident, with Thailand a pioneer in one of the most successful and subtle soft power cultural programs ever implemented – culinary diplomacy.

“Maybe out of a million people who went to these Thai restaurants, perhaps 100,000 eventually ended up going to holiday in Thailand”.

In 2019, a crisis of diplomatic affairs was brewing between Thailand and South Africa.  Called upon by Komate Kamalanavin, the Thai ambassador to the African nation, Pisarn Soydhurum seemed the only one who could repair fractured ties. Soydhurum’s government-given responsibility was to research rumours of bad Thai food being served.

Something that only warrants a negative online review in most circumstances, he and a colleague from their Bangkok base were sent 10,000km to investigate.  “It was found out there are many errors, many mistakes, many distortions, many adaptations, modifications, wherever,” said the director of the Center for Thai Cuisine Promotion. “It makes the image of Thai food quite different from the original.”

As unlikely as Soydhurum’s exploits may seem, his trip forms just one piece of a wider choreographed soft power program implemented by the Thai government since 2002. Unbelievable situations like these, in which the kingdom’s most powerful government institutions devote attention to culinary transgressions in far-flung corners of the world, are not uncommon.

From that starting point in the early 2000s, the state has become a pioneer of gastrodiplomacy, exporting Thai cuisine, products and ultimately culture across the globe in a food-focused effort.

A country that handles its cuisine with the utmost seriousness, the kingdom has figured out how to turn a carefree dinner for most into a highly successful method for yielding tourism, exports and a stellar culinary reputation.

HOW AND WHY THAILAND PIONEERED ‘GASTRODIPLOMACY’ WORLDWIDE

Activities span various initiatives, from the launching of some 3,000 Thai restaurants worldwide, to the Thailand Authority for Tourism’s strides in bringing Michelin star certifications to the country two years ago.

Few branches of Thailand’s government seem untouched by culinary responsibilities, from the Ministry of Labour, responsible for testing Thai chefs before granting them permission to work abroad, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which carefully monitors the quality of Thai food in other countries.

“The main idea is they would like to use Thai culture and the culinary arts of Thailand to invite the people over the world, to enjoy what we call a kind of culinary diplomacy,” said Soydhurum. “One of [our] main objectives is to preserve, protect, and promote Thai culture.”

Thailand’s success in the field as evidence that such initiatives can translate directly into economic success at home.  “Maybe out of a million people who went to these Thai restaurants, perhaps 100,000 eventually ended up going to holiday in Thailand,” he said.

Globally, there are as many as 20,000 Thai restaurants, substantially more than the 5,500 in operation when the kingdom started its gastrodiplomacy initiatives in 2002.

HOW AND WHY THAILAND PIONEERED ‘GASTRODIPLOMACY’ WORLDWIDE

For 20 years, Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce has been awarding restaurants, both domestic and abroad, with the Thai Select symbol, certifying that they serve authentic Thai food.

HOW AND WHY THAILAND PIONEERED ‘GASTRODIPLOMACY’ WORLDWIDE

Thai cuisine’s reputation is something the government takes seriously. Nobody knows this better than Soyudhurum, who professionally researches the authenticity of Thai food for culinary arts school Dusit Thani College. Among his job descriptions is studying that subtle line between fusion and fiasco in global Thai cuisine.

Natiya Suchinda, director of the Thai Office of Agriculture and Industrial Trade Promotion reports that since 2002 Thailand’s food exports have grown by 200%. That’s in part due to the country’s growing reputation worldwide, but Natiya also cites one of Kitchen of the World’s central aims of promoting Thai produce internationally.

HOW AND WHY THAILAND PIONEERED ‘GASTRODIPLOMACY’ WORLDWIDE

Kate Akaraphan and her husband Roel van de Beek quite find themselves doling out travel recommendations frequently in their role as restaurateurs. They opened Menam Thai Kitchen five years ago in the small Dutch town of Nijkerk, where they became one of only a couple dozen in the country to earn the title of Thai Select among hundreds of competitors. Beek says he’s seen a direct impact in the small town’s familiarity with Thai culture as a result of their restaurant.

“Now they know it more because of us,” he said, adding that they’re frequently asked for travel recommendations. “They really want to see where this food is coming from, not just from our restaurant, but from the country itself.”