Understanding Foreign Cultures by Eating Their Food

Few things are simple about international relations. The world's most studied state-to-state interactions are the result of decades, if not centuries, of political decision-making that labels some states allies and others enemies. But international policy analyst Chris Fair sees a simpler way to understand why some countries are the way they are: the food they eat. Her new book, "Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Approach to International Relations," Fair argues that a nation's cuisine is the perfect lens to view what its people think is important and, as a result, how its leaders will act. As such, she says, one can better understand particularly indefensible states, like the flagship Axis of Evil membersIran, Iraq and until recently North Koreaand a handful of others, including India, Israel and the U.S. all of which can be the source of political (and gastronomic) tension.

With food necessary for survival and also the source of pride, Fair looks at what people consider edible around the world to how they form collective opinions. A former United Nations political affairs officer, she dished on foreign policy to Newsweek's Daniel Stone. Excerpts:

How can a nation's food describe its place in the world?
There are some countries for which the project of becoming more established in nationhood can be read through food. In Israel, for example, you see shirts, postcards, dedicated to promoting the falafel as the national food. The Arabs, of course, say that's utter nonsense. The food that is designated the national food says a lot about how that nation interacts internally and how it wants to be seen from the outside.

What does that mean for the U.S. with no real national food?
On one hand, it says we're a culture of diasporas. But we do have national foods.

Like what?
Things like fried chicken or pork, anything with a pig. I grew up on sausage, biscuits and gravy. Don't forget Spam. Those are particular examples that mark our history, going back to what we were like during the Depression.

Can food explain how countries interact?
An interesting indicator of historical relationships is what countries consider to be cheap food. Usually that reflects some imperial history with the country that produces cheap food. When you go to the Netherlands, you eat Indonesian food. When you go to France, you're eating the stuff from northern Africa. In England, it's curry. In Japan, it's Korean. And in the U.S., it's Mexican. So when you go to these countries and see what the fast food of popular choice is, it usually represents a deeper political history.

But with globalization, you see cheap American brands transplanted all over the world.
That's our culinary hegemony, which is undeniable. And it goes both ways. If you notice, there's really no foreign food chain here in the U.S. We even go to great efforts to make our food seem foreign, like the Olive Garden to seem Italian or Outback Steakhouse, straight from Australia [laughs].

Can America's strained relationships with the Axis of Evil—Iran, Iraq and, until recently, North Korea—be explained by what we eat?
Some of the tensions we have with those countries, I'm thinking of North Korea or Burma, can be linked back to food. The people in those countries are starving. The governments basically appropriate all the resources to feed the inner circle of political elites that rule the co­untry. In some sense, their internal food politics is symptomatic of their larger discomfiture with the international community. Look at Burma and the Junta's efforts after the cyclone [that struck in May]. The Iraqi food for oil problem was also illustrative of how a population can be held hostage by the regimes. In some sense, their domestic food issues indicate how a country will interact with the international community.

Let's talk about Iran—can you explain its strained relationship with the U.S. on a culinary level?
It sounds funny, but Iran is our natural ally. When you're talking about food, they love their meat and they love their carbs, just like us. [Laughs] If it weren't for the crazy leadership, Iranians actually share, oddly enough, many of our values. They're very democratically inclined.

The French seem to be the biggest foodies. What does that say about them?
France is a country that invests so much of its capital into food definitions: what is a French baguette? They have all these protocols that brand it. Same thing with appellation of specific grapes. If you call just a regular sparkling wine 'Champagne,' they go nuts. It's a very difficult country to work with because of the way it views itself and in its role in Europe and elsewhere. But the fact that it protests something as silly as the definition of French bread gives an indication of other things they'll defend with equal silliness.

At our root, we're all people. Is there something edible we all have in common? Like, say, vanilla ice cream?
It's a big lie that food brings us together. It divides us. It's funny you mention ice cream. I dated a guy once who would eat soy only ice cream. I decided right then I wasn't going to go out with him again. Almost every culture has defined what is edible, whether an animal can be eaten and how it can be prepared. Judaism and Islam are the obvious examples. Americans are particularly bad about this. We are just so resistant to eating critters that we aren't socialized to.

Can food attitudes in different countries be an indicator of future conflicts or resolution of current ones?
Saying food is predictive might be a bit contrived, but food is one of the symbols that nations employ. When we look at countries and how they think about their food, it tells us what they think is important. It tells us a bit about their history and in some sense, about their future.