29 Jan 2016 20:32 IST

Breaking bread with heads of state

Perhaps a Global Indian fine dining programme would add flavour to the country’s interests abroad

When we invite friends over for a meal, especially those whom we have recently befriended, special care is taken to understand their tastes and adhere to the dos and don’ts. The food, we have realised, plays a delectable role in starting off a lifelong relationship, or reinforcing an existing one. You indulge someone’s taste-buds, and you will, in most cases, win his or her heart. And when you don’t, the message is clear — it’s going to take some more effort to create a menu that one likes.

France has sent a similar message to Iran. Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, is set to fly to Paris as part of his landmark European tour, after sanctions on the West Asian country were lifted earlier this month. But looks like the Iranian leader won’t have the luxury of enjoying a formal meal with his French counterpart François Hollande. The Iranian side insisted on a wine-free meal with halal meat, based on Islamic codes. But for the French, a meal without fine wine is deemed equally sacrilegious.

It will be interesting to see if Hollande and Rouhani are able to overcome these culinary challenges and sign deals worth billions of dollars.

Crucial to negotiation

Food has played an important role in diplomacy. Holland, a known foodie otherwise, told a gathering of Club des Chefs des Chefs (a club of chefs of heads of state) in 2012: “Your profession is difficult and demanding, but very useful for international relations. Depending on whether you make our guests happy, negotiations can be fortunate or unfortunate. You accompany the process. If you wreck a dish, it’s harder to plead a cause.”

For centuries, kings and nobles have used food and wine to reach out and make peace, and have sometimes manipulated high-spirited guests into divulging state secrets. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, the 19th century French politician, often called the best diplomat the world has known, once told Napoleon: “Give me good cooks, and I’ll give you good treaties.” And Talleyrand did have a great chef, Antonin Careme.

Slip of the tongue

Back home in India, we seem not to have relied enough on our culinary legacy to achieve diplomatic victories. In fact, when President Pranab Mukherjee tried his hand at culinary diplomacy in Israel last year, it ended in embarrassment. Trying to endear himself to his hosts, the President said, “The Indian population enjoys the taste of hummus.” However, he pronounced hummus as ‘hamas’, the Palestinian militant group. Fortunately, the Israelis turned out to be gracious hosts.

Though the social media made the most of the President’s slip, Mukherjee must have taken solace in the travails of former American President George HW Bush. In 1992, Bush was attending a state event in Japan and in attendance were the then Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and more than 100 diplomats. Bush suddenly vomited and fainted, giving satirists, humorists and TV anchors back home in the US a field day. It is recorded as the only incident of a US President vomiting on a foreign tour.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a vegetarian, has opted to have menus that reflect his personal tastes. For instance, at the India-Africa summit in October, most of the days the menu favoured vegetarian dishes, especially Gujarati. Things were different in 2011, when India threw a ‘mouth-watering’ lunch for 15 heads of state in Addis Ababa. It is said that wives of two of the heads of state helped the chefs prepare the delicacies.

Food as ambassador

Though tandoor chicken and dal makhani have become world famous, India could learn a thing or two from Thailand which, in 2002, launched the first government-led culinary diplomacy drive. Called the Global Thai programme, it built over 10,000 Thai restaurants around the world by 2013. South Korea, Peru, Malaysia and even the US, followed suit with their versions of the Thai programme. The US, disturbed that consumers the world over considered the McDonald’s burger as authentic American food, wanted to change that perception.

There have been independent initiatives too. One of them is Conflict Kitchen, a take-out restaurant in America’s Pittsburgh that serves ethnic foods of countries with which the US is in conflict. In 2010, it started off with Iranian food, and rotated to Afghani, Cuban, North Korean, and Palestinian cuisines. Thought up by an academic, the Kitchen got grants from several philanthropic bodies and also holds film screenings and educational programmes.

India doesn’t need a Conflict Kitchen. But with Modi passionate about India’s foreign affairs, perhaps a Global Indian programme would add flavour to the country’s interests abroad.