I’ve been eating adobo ever since I can remember. My adobo is the chicken and pork preparation, cooked exactly as it appears in the photo accompanying this article. It is the national dish of the country I come from and a derivation of the Spanish word adobar, which means to marinate raw food in a stock of vinegar and herbs. This is one legacy of Spain to the Philippines after three and a quarter centuries of colonization. Spanish presence is evident in my old country, not just in foods but also in Filipinos’ names, like mine. I come from a family of twelve children one father, one mother and we all have Spanish names. Adobo is cooked differently depending on the region. The northern way is prepared using vinegar. The Greater Manila Area adds soy sauce to the marinade. And, the Bicol Peninsula adds coconut milk in the last minutes of cooking. Whichever way this dish is prepared, I savour and eat it with plain steamed rice. And, I have to add – adobo is not a contentious dish, meaning, no other country or region has an issue with the Philippines as to its origin.
In the past two decades, disputes have arisen about what country owns which dish. Kimchi has been the centre of dispute among South Korea, China and Japan. It is a spicy and hot fermented cabbage identified as South Korea’s national dish, integral to every South Korean meal and designated by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of that country. In BBC Travel of December 18, 2020, China became a claimant to the origin of kimchi, giving rise to an online debate in social media between China and South Korea. In 2001, kimchi’s recipe was codified after Japan designated kimuchi, a spicy dish of fermented vegetables, as an official food for the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996. South Korea petitioned WHO and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s Codex Alimentarus to establish the international standard for kimchi. The word gastrodiplomacy became the rallying cry by South Korea in its campaign for kimchi.
Gastrodiplomacy is a strategy used by countries in conducting cultural diplomacy through their cuisine. The word was coined by The Economist in 2002 to describe Thailand’s effort in promoting its cuisine worldwide and was popularized by renowned culinary diplomacy experts Paul Rockower who wrote “Gastrodiplomacy is predicated on the notion that the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach “, and by Sam Chapple-Sokol who wrote, it is “the use of food and cuisine as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation”. Over the past two decades, gastrodiplomacy has been used to argue and defend the origin of dishes for heritage and economic purposes. One good thing that has emerged from these disputes is that people worldwide have become aware of the existence of these dishes and had gone out of their comfort levels when it comes to food. They have become adventurous in their choices of what to eat and I am one of them.
Among the foods involved in culinary diplomacy are the following: feta cheese which the courts in 2005 ruled in favour of Greece against the European Union; pork sausage for which Slovenia obtained the Protected Designation of Origin from the EU against Austria; Pavlova, a dessert named after Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova and an issue still being debated by Australia and New Zealand; hummus, a dip made from chickpeas, the origin of which is still unresolved between Israel and Lebanon, despite the information that Arab Jews brought the dip to Israel in the 12th century; croissant, which we’ve always associated with France but which Austria claims to have originated from “kiptels”, a crescent-shaped pastry created by an Austrian bakery to commemorate Austrian victory over the Ottomans; beef wellington, whose origin was always obvious to me, ie, Duke Wellington who won in Waterloo over Napoleon Bonaparte, but then again, wrapping meat in pastry has always been a French idea; and, Swedish meatballs which are not really Swedish at all but Turkish when Sweden sadly admitted that the recipe was brought home to Sweden by King Charles XII after living in Bender for several years which was then under Turkey rule.
BBC Travel, Canada, in its May 6th, 2021, digital issue, discussed poutine, a dish comprised of fries, cheese curds and gravy. It’s a French word for “mess”. Poutine was created in 1957 in Cafe Ideal, in Warwick, a rural town between Montreal and Quebec City, when a customer in a rush, ordered a takeout of fries and cheese and the owner said something like “but it’ll be a mess”, but acquiescing nonetheless. Gravy was added years later. The dish spread to cafes and bistros in the 70s, fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s in the 80s, and nationwide in the 90s. Harmless as poutine may be, it evoked feelings of heritage and cultural divide in Quebec, reminding the French-speaking province of the almost sovereignty campaign it would’ve won in its referendum of 1995 when Canada won by a very slim margin. To date, cultural and linguistic divide exists between Canada and Quebec, with poutine as the latest issue to come between this Francophone province and Canada. Nicolas Fabien-Ouellette in his 2016 thesis “Poutine Dynamics” writes poutine “should be ideally labelled explicitly as Québécois and not a Canadian one to further underscore the cultural context to which it actually belongs”. Poutine soul and identity has remained an issue for Quebec and Canada. Unquestionably, it has become a favourite among Canadians, myself, including. At the CNE Food Building, before the pandemic, there were several booths serving poutines, original and with different toppings, and there was always a long line in these booths. The word poutine itself says its origin.
With all the abovementioned food disputes, and I mentioned only a few of them, one thing as emerged from all these food debates. I am one of the many food lovers who have discovered that there are foods out there worthy of my palate. And I welcome any food debates if they help me understand other people’s cultures. As Hillary Clinton, who travelled extensively addressing diplomatic relations with the US in her capacity as Secretary of State during the Obama administration, once said, food is “the oldest diplomatic tool”.