The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented disruption of people’s lives. In the midst of the gloomy health crisis and increasing lockdowns, however, food has emerged as a great unifier for those quarantined at home.
If New York has run out of flour and yeast because people are baking more and more bread, coffee aficionados have popularised the Dalgona coffee —inspired by a spongy toffee in South Korea—on social media. The three-ingredient frothy coffee on everyone’s feed should remind India of its own gastro-diplomacy potential in these tough times.
The Dalgona coffee trend
One of the leading coffee-consuming nations in Asia, the coffee culture in South Korea can range from basic premixed coffee to more artistic culinary experiences. Moreover, coffee shops in the country are one of the most preferred places for socialising. With these places being shut because of the coronavirus pandemic, some South Koreans turned to a simple home-made version of the beverage. Dalgona coffee, which is also being dubbed ‘quarantine coffee’, has become a raging trend on social media—with the recipes and photos of the beverage flooding platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
It requires three simple ingredients — instant coffee, milk and sugar — and some time to whip. Which is why it’s a quarantine favourite.
The Dalgona coffee is only the latest among a number of other South Korean delicacies which have become increasingly popular in recent years. While Dalgona coffee got catapulted into worldwide fame through a spontaneous social media trend, other South Korean dishes like Kimchi and Bibimbap partly owe their global popularity to concerted efforts by governmental agencies and food industry bodies of South Korea. All these are excellent examples of South Korea’s soft power in the culinary sphere, or in other words, its gastro-diplomacy.
Gastro-diplomacy is a kind of cultural diplomacy that is centred around a nation’s culinary heritage. In these times of social distancing and stay-at-home mandates, there has been an upsurge of DIY techniques at homes, and cooking has gained renewed attention. Consequently, it becomes pertinent to reflect on the potential of gastro-diplomacy, even if economic activity is facing a slowdown and traditional diplomatic engagements are being redefined.
Interestingly, the Dalgona coffee’s creamy and frothy upper layer that rests over iced cold milk bears a close resemblance with the beaten or phenti hui coffee that has been a household favourite in India for decades. While India’s ‘filter Kapi’—a coffee variant traditionally brewed in Southern Indian households—enjoys a global reputation, the beaten coffee variant did not get popularised or branded globally. The spectacular rise of the Dalgona coffee, therefore, serves as a timely reminder for India that our culinary traditions have immense potential globally, if only we pay attention.
There is another beverage that shot to fame a few years back that fittingly exemplifies India’s potential. That is the turmeric latte, which today is being served across the world in boutique cafes as well as global chains like Starbucks. While Google food trends projected turmeric to be a “breakout star” of 2016, The Guardian referred to this “Golden Milk” as a drink fit for Midas. At the core of this milk-based beverage lies the centuries-old Indian recipe of Haldi Doodh, which is consumed in millions of Indian households even today. Ancient texts on Indian gastronomy and Ayurveda have mentioned turmeric for its antioxidant and healing properties. It is also known to build resilience against respiratory diseases and viral infections. It is perhaps this realisation that has led Indonesian President Joko Widodo to include a local version of turmeric drink in his everyday diet since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. And while health experts continue with their efforts to find a cure for the deadly virus, there has been a considerable increase in India’s export of turmeric to Europe and West Asia.
A rich culinary tradition
Turmeric is only one example of the wisdom of our civilisation’s culinary traditions, which deserve renewed global focus. In fact, some of the most easily accessible and essential ingredients of Indian cuisine such as ginger, black pepper and holy basil are all known to strengthen the human respiratory system as well as cure other ailments of the stomach and the heart. Furthermore, with the origins of the novel coronavirus being traced to the wet markets of Wuhan, there is growing apprehension as well as a rethinking of meat consumption globally, which has led to countries like New Zealand curbing their meat exports. This serves as an opportune time for the world to consider India’s vegetarian recipes and culinary methods.
Underlying the rich flavours that Indian cuisine brings to the palate, is the intelligent and careful blend of spices. condiments and nutrients in order to yield maximum health benefits. India’s culinary heritage for long has been rooted in the idea of holistic wellbeing. It can help build stronger immunity among communities as well as better equip individuals to face various ailments that are presently known or those that may emerge in future. In times when the ideals of wellness and sustainability are receiving increasing global currency, even becoming enshrined in UN Sustainable Development Goals, India’s food wisdom can pave the way for the country to become a world leader of gastro-diplomacy.
The author is Principal at Network of Indian Cultural Enterprises (NICE). She holds a Master’s in International Relations from Leiden University, the Netherlands. She tweets @ArunimaGupta03. Views are personal.
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