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Korean food is having a moment.

Baum + Whiteman food consultancy recently chose Kimchi, Korea’s traditional fermented vegetable dish, as one of the top food trends for 2016. According to Google, Bibimbap was one of 2015’s top five ‘rising’ foods by search query volume. And T.G.I. Friday’s—the north star of mainstream Americana—has even experimented with adding Korean tacos to its menus.

So why is Korean food taking off in the U.S. now, decades after the largest waves of Korean immigration?

In addition to being delicious, there are deeper factors at play—namely, a large investment from the Korean government to promote and propagate Korean restaurants abroad. And it’s not alone: countries including Thailand, Taiwan, and Peru have developed official ‘gastro-diplomacy’ programs through which they invest aggressively in marketing their cuisines abroad, training chefs, easing trade restrictions, and using a variety of other tactics in the hopes of becoming the next big food trend.

As it turns out, so-called ‘gastro-diplomacy’ is gaining traction as a valuable form of international relationship building and stimulus for tourism. As Public Diplomacy magazine notes, these countries “have recognized the seductive qualities food can have, and are leveraging this unique medium of cultural diplomacy to increase trade, economic investment, and tourism, as well as to enhance soft power.”

In short, the latest food trend that you're obsessed with may be the result of a government effort to capture the hearts and minds of foreigners through their stomachs.

Pad Thai from Los Angeles to Laos: The Origins of Gastro-Diplomacy

To understand the roots of gastro-diplomacy, one needs to look towards Thailand—the original practitioner of gastro-diplomacy, and arguably, still the most successful.

In 2002, there were about 5,500 Thai restaurants globally, with very few outside of Thailand or the United States. Not only was general awareness of Thai cuisine low, it was extremely difficult to import Thai ingredients, let alone find chefs trained to cook with them. Seeing an opportunity to improve the perception of Thai food, and more importantly, the perception of Thailand as a tourist destination, the government launched the ‘Global Thai’ program.

Through Global Thai, the government set up culinary programs in Bangkok to train chefs, gave loans to would-be restaurateurs to help them start restaurants abroad, and helped chefs move abroad. New Zealand, for example, has a separate Thai Chef’s Work Visa, which allows qualified Thai citizens to live in New Zealand for four years and promises prospective chefs that they “can enjoy New Zealand’s scenery, culture, and friendly people.”

In addition to helping chefs find work abroad, the program makes it easier for Thai companies like S&P and CP to package and export Thai ingredients. One restaurateur told us that when she started her first Thai restaurant in 1995, most curries in the U.S. were made with evaporated milk rather than traditional coconut milk. Today, thanks to government support for manufacturers and producers, a host of traditional Thai ingredients including coconut milk and green curry have become grocery store staples.

Photo by Takeaway

 The Global Thai program helped propagate Thai food far beyond the U.S. to countries like Iceland and Nigeria; today, there are today more than 15,000 Thai restaurants worldwide.

And as Thai food has exploded in popularity, so too has interest in visiting Thailand. Since the launch of Global Thai in 2002, there has been a significant surge in tourist arrivals; this year, Thailand expects a record 32 million foreign tourists (up 7% from 2015, and almost 200% since 2002).

It seems that exposure to Thai food is driving factor. In a recent study, over a third of tourists visiting Thailand cited food as a critical reason for their destination choice. Those Icelandic Thai restaurants are paying off.

Bulgogi, with a Side of Foreign Policy

 As Thailand’s program gained press attention (the term ‘gastro-diplomacy’ was actually coined in an Economist article on Global Thai), other governments took notice. And no country assumed the mantle of gastro-diplomat more readily than South Korea.

In 2008, South Korea was struggling with an image problem. Despite being the world’s 13th largest economy with a strong reputation for technological innovation, the country ranked a disappointing 33rd of 50 countries on the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, a ranking of national brand images with respect to exports, governance, culture, people, tourism and immigration/investment. According to Simon Anholt, founder of the index, South Korea’s brand suffered because it was easily conflated with North Korea, and was less recognizable than its neighbors, China and Japan.

Disturbed by these results, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak formed the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. The director of the Council, Euh Yoon-dae, fretted that “Korea’s national brand is seriously weak… this is one of the tasks that the nation should address more urgently, as it strives to leap into the ranks of one of the world’s most advanced countries.” 

The council’s mission was to move South Korea from 33rd to 15th place on the GfK index by 2013—an ambitious target that Anholt urged against, stating, “No country has ever moved by more than one or two places in national brand index, and in any case, this isn't the proper way of using the index.”

Undeterred, the Council devised a plan to aggressively promote Korea’s cultural exports, like Tae kwon do and KPop, abroad. That same year, they announced a $77MN program called “Global Hansik”, which focused on improving international perception of Korean food and quadrupling the number of Korean restaurants overseas. 

It started with kimchi. The government established the Kimchi Institute to test various kinds of pickled vegetables for foreign markets, with the stated goal of “develop[ing] the domestic kimchi-making industry into the country’s strategic export market.”

According to the Institute’s director, Park Wan-soo, this requires fine-tuning the production technique and codifying different taste profiles for the traditional dish, “so that when we export it to the United States, we can tone down the spiciness and sourness, and when exporting it to Japan, we can heighten the sweetness.” The Food Ministry also published a French fusion cookbook with Le Cordon Bleu, featuring high-brow Korean-French fusion dishes like Camembert kimchi fritters and light kimchi-infused pastry cream mille-feuille. 

Kimchi in the making

But as the Hansik program doubled down on kimchi, the broader Korean food movement got a boost in the form of tortilla-wrapped bulgogi. In Los Angeles (home of the largest Korean ex-pat population), the Kogi food truck was already commanding two hour-long wait times for Korean tacos. As the tacos became a phenomenon, a number of Korean-inspired food truck and fast-casual restaurants opened all over the country.

Hansik took advantage of the trend. In 2010, Korean conglomerate CJ Foodville Co. founded Bibigo, a made-to-order bibimbap chain (one could call it the Korean answer to Chipotle). CJ Foodville joined forces with the Agricultural Ministry of Korea to promote these rice bowls around the world. They sponsored the Bibimbap Backpackers—a group of young Koreans travelling around the world to promote bibimbap—and took over a Times Square billboard with a commercial touting bibimbap’s “taste of harmony.”

With the help of Hansik, Bibigo has successfully grown into an international chain, and today, Bibigo is in 8 countries, including the U.S., UK, and Japan, with the intent to be in 20 countries and 1,000 locations by 2017. Bibigo has also expanded to grocery items, including frozen bibimbap and Korean pantry staples like Gochujang, a hot sauce for which the press release reads, “Move over Sriracha, there's a new sauce in town.”

Not all Hansik promotional efforts, however, have succeeded. In 2010, the Korean government announced that it would invest $4.4MN to launch a 330-square-meter flagship Korean restaurant in Manhattan. The project, however, was soon abandoned when no one signed up to run the restaurant. And in 2011, the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp. commissioned the K-Pop sensation Wonder Girls to sing a song extolling the taste and health virtues of Korean food. The resulting “K-Food Party” (chorus: “It’s a K-Food Party / It’s a K-Food Party / C’mon everybody / Make the smart choice”) received a lackluster fan response, and has racked up “only” 511,000 views on YouTube. In comparison, Wonder Girls singles like “Nobody” and “Be my Baby” have 41MN and 38MN views respectively.

As for Korea’s broader branding ambitions, success was mixed. In 2012, Korea ranked 26th out of 50 on GfK’s 2012 Brand index, falling short of the Council’s ambition to reach 15th. Yet ascending seven spots in four years represented a significant gain—Korea far surpassed Anholt’s prediction, and moved above the average ranking for the 34 nations represented in the OECD. (In 2013, the new administration disbanded the Presidential Council on Nation Branding.)

South Korea has also seen gains on the more tangible, and arguably more important, metric of tourism. Between 2009 and 2015, tourist arrivals increased by 70%. The Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) attributes this, in part, to foreign interest in Korean culture.

Can a Food Go Viral—and Stay Authentic?

Ultimately, gastro-diplomacy programs are all about wooing a global audience, and that often means trading off authenticity for mass appeal. Korean chefs, for example, found success by counterbalancing kimchi’s sour, garlicky taste with Mexican ingredients. And even Thailand, still considered one of the most successful examples of gastrodiplomacy, has struggled to maintain its authenticity as it caters to an ever-wider audience. (Interestingly enough, the most popular Thai dish, Pad Thai, only dates back some 70 years.)

In 2014, then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra experienced several underwhelming and inauthentic meals abroad. While Thai food had become one of the most popular cuisines the world over, she lamented that “the flavours of Thai food in many restaurants and in hotels abroad are deviating from the authentic ones.” To combat this, the National Innovation Agency (NIA) built a taste-testing robot called e-Delicious to rate foreign Thai food against government-set standards for authenticity. This robot, which has an electronic ‘tongue’ that can gauge sweet, salty, bitter, and umami flavors, has been marketed for $18,000. Thirteen recipes for popular dishes were tested through e-Delicious, and the approved versions codified in an iPhone app.

Despite garnering press, it does not seem that e-Delicious has had an impact on Thai cooking abroad. David Thompson, chef of the first Thai restaurant to win a Michelin Star, told BBC, “It's a gimmick, a foolish idea. Any cook, any sound practitioner or craftsman knows that a robot can never analyse the product of the human hand." It’s unclear if any e-Delicious machines have been sold.

Delicious Diplomacy 

While gastro-diplomacy is a relatively new area of study and investment, it has gained traction with academics (USC and American University have added gastrodiplomacy courses) and policy makers. In addition to Thailand and Korea, countries like Malaysia, Peru, Taiwan, Australia and the United States are jumping on the gastro-diplomacy bandwagon—and seeing positive results.

In 2013, for example, Tourism Australia wanted to publicize its cuisine to luxury travellers and get more of its restaurants represented on premier lists like San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants. So the board invited eighty-six “cultural influencers” (including many 50 Best judges) to fly business class to Australia and partake in a gastronomical tour. The next year, Australia’s presence on the 50 Best list doubled. 

Similarly, Peru launched a gastro-diplomacy program in 2011 spearheaded by the famous chef Gastón Acurio. That same year, the Wall Street Journal named Peruvian food, “the next big thing,” stating, “make room Spain and Korea, Peru is having its moment in the gastronomic sun.” In 2013, the restaurant Lima in London became the first Peruvian restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star.

(Lest you become too paranoid to enjoy your next ethnic meal, rest assured that foreign governments aren’t pulling the strings behind every foodie trend—Burmese, Ethiopian, and many other cuisines have grown in popularity without the aide of well-funded diplomacy programs.)

For many of these cuisines, gaining global reach means deviating from purely authentic tastes (spoiler alert: Korean pizza waffles just landed in LA). But so far, it seems exposure to these fusion foods has only whet consumers’ appetite for the real thing—a trend reflected in the tourism numbers for Thailand and Korea, and in the rise of culinary tourism across the world.

Just don’t plan a trip to Seoul for the tacos.

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