China’s continual efforts to squeeze Taiwan out of the international community limit Taiwan’s options for connecting with the outside world through traditional diplomatic channels. Not only does this undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty, but the resulting diplomatic isolation has also created a general lack of awareness regarding Taiwan around the globe. One of the most valuable cultural assets that Taiwan could utilize to gain more global awareness—as well as to distinguish itself from China—is its vast culinary tradition. Gastrodiplomacy, which public diplomacy scholar Paul Rockower describes as “the act of winning hearts and minds through stomachs,” presents an invaluable opportunity for Taiwan to enhance its nation branding by connecting foreign audiences with its diverse cuisine. 
Food is already a huge draw for tourists visiting Taiwan. A survey conducted by Xinmedia found that 60.7 percent of international respondents (the majority of whom hailed from Asian countries) cited Taiwan’s specialty foods as a main reason for wanting to go to Taiwan. Gastrodiplomacy has the potential to encourage foreign tourism, teach foreign audiences about the complexities of Taiwanese identity, and gain global support for Taiwan’s fight to protect its sovereignty. However, it is also important for future culinary diplomacy efforts to reflect Taiwan’s changing identity—and there is increasing awareness that Taiwanese food is more diverse than beef noodles and xiao long bao. New cultural diplomacy campaigns will need to acknowledge this. In addition to formal government campaigns, grassroots efforts to spread the word about Taiwanese cuisine through social media, video streaming platforms, English-language cookbooks, and specialized retail should also be utilized to reach foreign audiences in ways that feel more organic.
Images: Screenshots of Taiwan’s Government Tourism Website (above) and Taiwan Plus’ YouTube channel (below), showing how both promote Taiwanese cuisine. (Image source: Screenshots taken by the authors.)
Exposure to Taiwanese food can serve as an effective gateway for foreign audiences to learn more about Taiwan, and to entice them to visit. As noted in the soft power rubric developed by Irene Wu, travel is an important means of ensuring that attraction evolves into more sustainable, long-term affinity. Taiwan Tourism Bureau data shows that food is already a significant draw for tourists coming to Taiwan: in 2020 (before the imposition of strict COVID-19 border controls), 72.87 percent of inbound travelers cited “gourmet food” as one of their major reasons for traveling to Taiwan, while 71.35 percent ranked the island’s night markets as the top sight-seeing activity. Past government-led gastrodiplomacy campaigns, such as the “dim sum diplomacy” efforts of the Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) Administration, have attempted to raise the profile of Taiwanese cuisine abroad, while also using it as a tool to promote tourism. However, these earlier campaigns—in part due to the Kuomintang’s (KMT, 中國國民黨) belief that Taiwanese culture is “Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics”—have mainly focused on Taiwanese food that originates from China. As a result, these campaigns have often been ineffective at promoting Taiwan as a distinct country separate from China. For instance, a 2021 study conducted by Fame Pascua found that the name “dim sum diplomacy” was confusing to Filipinos, as dim sum is of Cantonese origin, and recommended that future efforts be reframed as “milk tea diplomacy” instead.
However, government messaging around Taiwanese cuisine has shifted of late to better reflect the diversity of Taiwanese cuisine, and more recent efforts include actively promoting distinctly Taiwanese foods to tourists. But despite these efforts, the Taiwan Tourism Administration (交通部觀光署) website’s categorization of foods of Chinese origin as “gourmet cuisine” and Taiwanese xiaochi (小吃 – “small eats”) as “Taiwan snacks” could perpetuate the stereotype that Chinese food is high cuisine and Taiwanese food is low cuisine. Additionally, a lack of clear messaging describing Taiwanese food as distinct and multicultural could also contribute to the myth that Taiwanese cuisine is merely a subcategory of Chinese cuisine rather than its own distinct entity.
In addition to official tourism campaigns, media such as YouTube videos, social media, and television programs that focus on global street food can also be used to lure more travelers to Taiwan to experience its cuisine in person.  The Taiwanese government-affiliated Taiwan Plus streaming platform has already attempted to take advantage of the growing popularity of food travel vlogs by creating original content focused on Taiwan’s culinary traditions and destinations. Taiwan Plus has even enlisted foreign YouTube content creators with substantial followings of their own to host some of these videos. These include Taiwan Top 5, hosted by Canadian Youtuber Luke Martin, whose street food-focused channel has 1.5 million subscribers. However, the Taiwan Plus YouTube channel has thus far struggled to reach a large audience (its current number of subscribers stands at 71.7K) and it is unclear whether it is successfully reaching a broader audience outside of Taiwan. Despite this, the food-related content of Taiwan Plus has been some of its most popular (currently, 10 of its top 25 videos are about food). If the platform’s viewership and reach can be improved, it could potentially emerge as a major player in the food travel vlog market.
Teaching the World about Taiwanese Identity through Cuisine
From Chinese Cuisine to a Distinctly Taiwanese Identity
In addition to the draw that Taiwanese cuisine has for tourists, it could also be an effective means of teaching foreign audiences about Taiwanese identity, since gastrodiplomacy can “heighten awareness of the distinctness of a nation’s unique culture.”  National identity in Taiwan has undergone seismic shifts in the years since its democratization, and the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people now identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. The most recent survey conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center has found that 62.8 percent of people in Taiwan identify as Taiwanese only; while 30.5 percent identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese; and only 2.5 percent see themselves as exclusively Chinese. The embrace of a distinct Taiwanese identity over a Chinese identity has radically changed the discussion around Taiwanese cuisine—a fact that Taiwan’s future gastrodiplomacy campaigns should work to reflect.
During the era of Kuomintang single-party rule, the government systematically repressed Taiwanese national identity—sometimes brutally—while simultaneously imposing Chinese identity and culture on the island’s inhabitants. During this time, Taiwanese cuisine was treated as an inferior subcategory of Chinese cuisine, while traditional Chinese banquet foods were considered haute cuisine fit for formal state events.  This view of native Taiwanese food began to change alongside the shifts in Taiwanese consciousness that occurred as a result of the end of Kuomintang rule and Taiwan’s subsequent democratization. The establishment of a national cuisine in Taiwan in the decades since its democratization became an element of conscious government efforts to highlight Taiwan’s distinct identity.  The inaugural banquet of Taiwan’s first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) president, Chen Shui-Bian (陳水扁), was the first to feature native Taiwanese foods—thereby marking a turning point for the development of a localized national cuisine and the overall reputation of Taiwanese food. Subsequent state banquets under Chen became “highly charged with symbolic references to indigenization and ethnic integration,” while Hakka and Indigenous Taiwanese cuisine became celebrated as Taiwanese “ethnic cuisine.” 
While the gastrodiplomacy campaigns of Chen’s successor Ma focused on promoting Taiwanese foods with Chinese roots like beef noodle soup, subsequent campaigns have attempted to highlight the complexity and distinct characteristics of Taiwanese cuisine. For example, the Taiwan Tourism Administration put on tourism promotion events in New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver in September of this year that included Hakka cooking classes and cocktail demonstrations by acclaimed Taipei bar Bar Mood, both of which featured local Taiwanese ingredients like guava and oolong tea.
Decentralized Efforts to Promote Taiwanese Cuisine
Complementing the official campaigns to highlight Taiwanese cuisine, many Taiwanese and Taiwanese American chefs, entrepreneurs, and writers have turned to Taiwanese cuisine as a means of spreading awareness about Taiwanese culture and identity around the world. These figures can serve as powerful cultural ambassadors, and should be utilized to help spread the word about Taiwanese cuisine and identity from a Taiwanese perspective. Additionally, promoting Taiwanese cuisine through these channels could potentially help to reach audiences in ways that feel more authentic or organic than government-led efforts.
One example of these types of efforts is the newly released cookbook Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories of the Island Nation, by Taipei-based Taiwanese American freelance journalist Clarissa Wei. In her book, Wei discusses Taiwan’s complex history of colonialism and immigration in order to emphasize Taiwan’s unique identity and dispel the myth that Taiwanese cuisine is a subcategory of Chinese cuisine. In a Taiwan Salon interview, Wei expanded on this argument, noting that key pantry staples in Taiwan like soy sauce and rice wine are more similar to Japanese ingredients than Chinese. She aimed to convey to foreign audiences that Taiwanese food is not Chinese food—but rather its own, separate, syncretic cuisine, shaped by centuries of immigration, colonization, and globalization, as well as the influence of indigenous culture.
Yun Hai—a Brooklyn-based online and brick-and-mortar shop selling artisanal Taiwanese pantry ingredients like cold-pressed sesame oil and soy paste—is another example of efforts put forth by the Taiwanese American community to spread awareness of Taiwanese cuisine outside of Taiwan. Much like Clarissa Wei, Yun Hai owners Lisa Cheng Smith and Lillian Lin have expressed their view that it is important to accurately represent the Taiwanese pantry and what makes Taiwanese cuisine distinct, especially at a time when Taiwan is under constant threat from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨). Yun Hai has also worked to spread awareness of China’s coercive actions against Taiwan and help Taiwanese farmers diversify their exports. Upon hearing of China’s efforts to economically punish Taiwan by banning imports of pineapple and other fruits, Smith and Lin decided to help Taiwanese farmers produce dried Taiwanese fruits for the US market (since there are import restrictions on fresh fruits). Their Kickstarter campaign to help launch these dried fruits was a major success, raising USD $113,050. Yun Hai has also caught the attention of the Taiwanese government, with President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) visiting the shop during a stopover in New York in March 2023.
While boba tea—perhaps Taiwan’s most famous export—has certainly expanded the island’s cultural footprint worldwide, access to Taiwanese ingredients and authentic recipes would help to highlight the diversity of influences present in Taiwanese cuisine, and emphasize its divergences from Chinese cooking. Increasing global familiarity with—and admiration for—Taiwanese cuisine could also help to undermine the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) false argument that shared culture, including cuisine, justifies its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.
Taiwanese cuisine is already a huge draw for tourists to Taiwan, especially those hailing from other Asian nations. However, in order to complement decentralized efforts being made by Taiwanese Americans, the government should consider the following steps:
- Ensure that official tourism and gastrodiplomacy campaigns reflect a changing Taiwanese identity by highlighting what makes Taiwanese food distinct, taking steps to avoid conflating it with Chinese cuisine, and eschewing language that suggests it is inferior to cuisine of Chinese origin.
- Involve Taiwanese American food ambassadors in official public diplomacy campaigns, in addition to those organized by Taiwan Plus.
- Assist Taiwanese food brands—particularly those that are unique to Taiwan—and support local farmers with efforts to achieve a greater presence in global markets.
The main point: Despite initial culinary diplomacy campaigns that conflated Chinese culture with Taiwanese identity, recent government campaigns have begun to highlight the distinctiveness of Taiwanese cuisine. Considering the role that Taiwanese food has played in bringing tourists to Taiwan and the potential it has to illustrate Taiwan’s complex cultural history, future government campaigns should take care to work together with decentralized efforts—especially within Taiwanese American communities
The authors of this piece would like to thank GTI Intern Daniela Martinez for her research assistance.
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