Food is more important than we think. It fulfils a basic human need for sustenance – rich or poor, young or old – we all need food to survive. Food connects people. Enjoying a meal together with others helps to build and maintain relationships necessary for us to thrive. A universal language, food is a common thread that binds humanity in an increasingly fractured and divided world.
Home to over 600 million people living across ten countries, ASEAN is rich in diverse and delectable food offerings – sweet, spicy, sour and savoury – you name it, they’ve got it. Want to discover food in this region but don’t know where to start? Fret not. Here’s a guide to help you on your journey in exploring the gastronomic wonders of ASEAN.
Have a Rice Day
Food is an expression of our identity and culture. In some Asian societies, “Have you eaten yet?” is a ubiquitous greeting and conversation starter. Rather than expecting to elicit a detailed response on one’s caloric intake or serve as an invitation to dine, the phrase is a form of phatic communication. In other words, it is communication performing a social function rather than conveying or exchanging useful information or ideas. “Have you eaten yet?” is the equivalent of “How are you?” or “How’s it going?”, greetings commonly used in western societies. These perfunctory greetings play a role in establishing social interactions, based on shared cultural norms and understanding of the social context.
Especially in East Asian societies, it is not uncommon to greet someone with “Have you eaten rice?” For example, the literal meaning of “faahn” and “bap” in “sihk jó faahn meih a?” in Cantonese and “bap meogeosseoyo?” in Korean is “rice”. In these societies, rice is associated with life, health and well-being, and is often used synonymously with food and eating.
The importance of rice in Asia is not surprising, given that rice is a staple food and main crop in the region. In some ASEAN countries, the rice sector constitutes a big part of the agriculture industry. Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia are among the top exporters of rice in the world. Rice farming is thus a primary source of income in rural areas.
In addition to its vital role in the economy, rice assumes cultural and spiritual importance in a few Southeast Asian communities. In Thailand, ceremonies are conducted to pray to Mae Phosop, the rice goodness, for a bountiful harvest. Respecting the sacredness of rice, farmers in parts of the region go through purification rites before farming. In Bali and Sarawak, farmers are known to purify the paddy fields with holy water before sowing the rice seeds. It is also common in Buddhist and Taoist societies to make rice offerings to ancestral spirits, especially during the Ghost Festival, to remember the dead and offer prayers for blessings and protection.
Winning Hearts and Minds through the Stomach
You may have heard of ping-pong diplomacy and panda diplomacy but have you heard of gastrodiplomacy?
Gastrodiplomacy is the use of food as a diplomatic tool to achieve various objectives. Such campaigns are typically led by the government and aim to enhance relations with other countries and build a positive brand image by promoting and exporting its national dishes to the world.
One of the earliest pioneers of contemporary gastrodiplomacy is Thailand. Today, tom yum is synonymous with Thai cuisine just like sushi is synonymous with Japanese cuisine, thanks to concerted efforts to promote Thai fare. In 2002, the Thai government launched the “Global Thai” campaign to increase the number of Thai restaurants worldwide, with the broader aim of boosting food exports and tourism revenues. It did so by providing loans to entrepreneurs to open Thai restaurants in foreign markets, training chefs, certifying overseas Thai restaurants to ensure quality standards and authenticity, and exporting Thai agricultural products.
The result? A resounding success. The number of Thai restaurants outside Thailand jumped from about 5,500 in 2002 to over 20,000 today. But it is not just about numbers – the successful gastrodiplomacy campaign has led to global understanding and appreciation for Thai cuisine, enhancing Thai cultural presence and influence internationally.
When it comes to food and diplomacy, it would be remiss not to mention the “King of Fruits” – durian, a tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia. Love it or hate it, the thorny fruit is an instrument to advance diplomatic and economic interests.
Under former prime minister Najib Razak’s leadership, Malaysia engaged in durian diplomacy to deepen relations with China where demand for durians is skyrocketing. Since 2004, Thailand was the only country to export fresh durians to China under a special trading arrangement. Limited to exporting frozen durian pulp previously, Malaysia successfully inked an agreement with China in 2018, following several diplomatic discussions, allowing the Southeast Asian country to export frozen whole durians, which fetch a higher price, to China for the first time. The hunger for durians is good news for the tourism industry as Chinese tourists eager to taste the premium Musang King variety flock to various durian festivals across Malaysia.
Durian is no stranger to diplomatic events. At the 7th Malaysia-Singapore Leaders’ Retreat at Putrajaya, Malaysia, in December 2016, both countries signed the bilateral agreement on the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR) project, after years of bilateral discussions. Dubbed durian diplomacy by Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan in a Facebook post, the Singapore delegation was served durians to cap a historic day in Malaysia-Singapore relations.
Food for Thought
“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are” said Frenchman Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) whose work on gastronomy “The Physiology of Taste” is still widely celebrated till this day. We are what we eat. Food is intricately connected with identity and culture. Food reflects, influences and reinforces identity and culture, and vice-versa.
What does food mean to you? Does it play a considerable role in the construction of culture and identity in your country? How does food connect people in your community?
Food is more than what we put on our plates. Food is the common ground on which we tread.