Recipes for Change: Nation branding, Gastrodiplomacy and Changing Perceptions of Refugees


(Source : Olivier Brandily, Le Cœur Au Ventre)
By: Arushi, Siddharth and Gayatri

This photo essay looks at how perceptions of refugees change through the medium of food. Theories of nation branding and gastrodiplomacy are creatively applied to understand how this change takes place.


Nabil Attar was one of the refugees in a boat travelling from the Mediterranean Sea to the coast of France. When he arrived in the country he had nothing, now he owns a little restaurant called La Residence. His restaurant, along with many other restaurants across Europe, organize Refugee Food Festival and provides a platform to refugees from across the world to express their individuality through food. Each year, restaurant owners open up their kitchen to refugee chefs. It acts as an effective platform for refugees to showcase their stories through the medium of food. ‘The festival is organised to accomplish three goals : changing perceptions around refugees, accelerating the integration of refugees through training, and creating a space for peace and equality’ (Carraro).

This essay attempts to understand how gastrodiplomacy, as a subset of nation branding, influences one’s perceptions of refugee identities. It argues that food exhibits cultural differences that can alter one’s pre-existing presumptions of refugees. Therefore, refugees deploy nation branding through the medium of food to reshape the differences between them and citizens of the host country as non-threatening. 

The essay is divided into three sections: the first section looks at the concept of nation branding and how it’s applied in the case of food and refugees. This section of the essay works on explaining how a concept like nation branding can be applied to include non-state, unorganized actors like refugees. The second section of the essay looks at gastrodiplomacy as a subset of nation branding and how food acts as a medium of depicting a difference that is non-threatening. The third section of the essay looks at the identity of the refugees and how the perception of this identity changes in a way that no longer considers them (refugees) as a threat to the country. 

Refugees and nation branding

Nation branding has been defined as the planned attempts of a country to produce “reputational capital through economic, political and social interest promotion at home and abroad”. Branding has been thought of as the association of a story with  an attempt to make distinctive a product so that it stands out to the consumer. Branding practices seek to build a “positive image” to generate a “desire” for consumption. The agents of nation branding have been understood to include both state and non-state actors, an idea that is now widely accepted in international relations theory. 

How can nation branding be applied in our context of refugees and food? Nation branding is based on policy; its practices are carefully calibrated for its target audience. The refugees this essay refers to do not function in “planned” ways, looking to change the image of all refugees – they are working to improve their economic status. Clearly then, this violates a principle of nation branding. That being said, let us take an example of a corporation. A scandal regarding its executives or favourable working conditions for its labourers are both unplanned, non-branding practices that affect its public image, albeit in different ways. Similarly, though these refugees are not developing branding techniques, their actions do result in changes to their public image. Refugees are not an organised non-state actor, and are not necessarily a unified grouping either. However, De Cock, Sundin and Mistiaen have demonstrated that refugees are regularly homogenised: regardless of differences between refugees in Western Europe, media coverage on refugees in multiple European countries depicted them in the same negative terms. Since they are viewed as one, nation branding as a theory is applicable to refugees in Western Europe, even if they are not an organised grouping.

Looking at ‘difference’ through gastrodiplomacy 

This essay looks at gastrodiplomacy as a subset of nation branding. “In gastrodiplomacy, nations use food as a part of their efforts to promote their cultures, build their images, globalize their food industries, attract foreign tourists, and build relations with foreign publics.” The concept of gastrodiplomacy is far more expansive and includes non-state actors, individuals and organizations. Food is an effective way of fostering relationships between individuals and nations, as it has a mystic and exotic character to it. “A nation’s native cuisine is imbued with a certain mystery and is thus exotic”. The exoticness of food through its aroma, spices and texture lures an audience that intimately interacts with the food. It is the difference between the food and the audience, that makes it even more desirable. Therefore, an exotic cuisine belonging to a particular group of people becomes extremely desirable. This makes food an extremely influential tool in forming relationships between diverse groups. 

The desirability of food due to its distinctiveness from that of the ‘host audience’ leads to conditions where the difference between the audience and the chef is recognized. This recognition of difference in this case is non-threatening. This is due to the fact that difference is desired. Therefore, refugees interact with the audience through food to make their polar identities desirable for the majoritarian audience. Food acts as a medium of portraying one’s individuality by showcasing one’s cultures and traditions. This individuality is essential in influencing the perceptions between different groups of people. It is especially evident in the case of refugees. 

Identity and perceptions 

Identity is one of the most prominent concepts in International Relations and as Burke stated “there is no world politics without identity”. Identity is formed through the process of association and differentiation which constructs an identity narrative. For the host state residents, the identity of the refugee is formed through their dissimilarities in terms of nationality, culture, historical background and more. This construction of identities leads to the process of ‘othering’ where the host state citizens are the ‘Self’ and the refugee is seen as the ‘Other’. However, with gastrodiplomacy bringing together cultures and changing the image of the refugee, this perception of the identity of the refugee also shifts. The initial image of the refugee is as an outsider and an additional ‘burden’ on the state. However, the narrative begins to shift with the introduction of this food festival, wherein refugees are seen for more than just being liabilities to the host country. They are identified as ‘productive’ (in this context, being able to contribute to the economy) and as providers of cultural varieties, in terms of food. The concept of the ‘other’ may subsequently subside to bring together a changing perception of refugees adopting the host nation’s national identity. Therefore, participating in the food festival can assist them in integrating and changing the narrative that is presupposed upon them. 


In conclusion, food as a tool to build the refugee’s image can be explained through nation branding. Gastrodiplomacy is a subset of nation branding that promotes cultures, fostering relationships and creating a new perception of the refugee. This aids in the start of a changing perception of refugee identities from the ‘other’ to slowly integrating them with the host country. This essay does not make the assumption that refugees become a part of the ‘self’(or the nation) and are completely accepted and integrated into the nation-state. It merely suggests that the food festival is able to aid in this process of greater acceptance and changing perceptions of the refugee identity. 


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