Whenever I see a word with the prefix “gastro", I get the jitters. My count of these in my dictionary comes to 170. Of these, nine-tenths are names of ailments of the stomach and the organs surrounding it. Like the American writer James Thurber, I get up in the middle of the night, and ask myself: “Am I suffering from gastrocolitis? Or from gastro-enteritis? Or the dreaded gastric ulcer?"

It was some consolation to find that there are words with soothing meanings too. A gastronome is a lover of food. Then there is gastrotourism, with the participants being called gastronauts.

One of the words in the news recently is gastrodiplomacy. During colonial times, the influence of Eastern cuisines began to spread. This has now given rise to a refinement in the appreciation of gustatory sensations. Western cuisines traditionally recognized only four distinct tastes—sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In the eastern hemisphere, two or three additional flavours were recognized. Ayurveda added piquant or spicy as the fifth taste, and astringent as the sixth.

It was from Japan that the officially recognized fifth taste emerged. In 1908, Tokyo chemist Kikunae Ikeda, while having the traditional Japanese soup dashi, realized that he was tasting something that did not fall into the four known categories. He identified this constituent as glutamic acid, and named it umami, which means delicious in Japanese.

It took 100 years for monosodium glutamate to move from Ikeda’s laboratory to the marketplace. Today, it is the signature product of Ajinomoto Co. of Japan. Some British supermarkets have agreed to sell tubes of Taste No. 5.

Gastrodiplomacy is more than the promotion of a new taste or dish abroad. It stands for a concerted effort to use cuisine as part of cultural diplomacy. For example, the Thai government in 2002 launched an ambitious programme to put Thailand among the top five exporters of food. A survey by Kellogg School of Business in 2003 placed Thai cuisine among the five most popular cuisines. The government’s aim was to increase the number of Thai restaurants worldwide to 20,000, a threefold increase.

In Taiwan, the ministry of economic affairs will invest $34.2 million to give a significant global presence to the national cuisine. One generation of Taiwanese chefs came from China when the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949. A second wave emigrated during the Cultural Revolution, when the government closed restaurants as bourgeois symbols. Among the measures contemplated are hosting international gourmet festivals, and supporting the opening of Taiwanese restaurants in other countries.

Not to be left behind, the Republic of Korea has launched its own culinary diplomacy using the slogan “Korean cuisine to the world". First lady Kim Yoon-ok and President Lee Myung-bak are both committed to this programme. On a visit to New York last year, Kim broke protocol and cooked pajeons (pancakes) for a group of US veterans of the Korean War, and hand-served the dish to them. In an interview to CNN, she also demonstrated Korean cooking and explained her mission to find a global presence for her cuisine. Many Westerners see Korean cuisine as conducive to good health.

Inevitably, there can be diplomatic tiffs. Kimchi is Korea’s national dish and constitutes a major share of its exports. When the Japanese began to produce and market kimchi, it cut into Korea’s profit share.

Korea asked the World Health Organization for an official definition of kimchi, saying if the product does not match the definition, the name should not be used. Japan argued that when products reach global status, they are certain to be modified to meet local tastes. Besides, South Korea has no monopolistic right to the term kimchi, any more than India has a right to claim proprietary ownership of the term curry.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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