During my first semester of undergrad, I began my truly independent cooking journey—a path many have taken before me, but few survive. After weeks of failing to replicate one of my mother’s simplest dishes, scrambled eggs with jasmine rice, I was devastated. Arriving home for winter break, I told her about my struggles—how I looked up many recipes online and tried making them all, adding milk, sprinkling in cheese, whisking the eggs with a particular technique. Nothing seemed to replicate the correct taste or texture. The familiar experience of the eggs was absent. She laughed at me and explained she made them “Khmer style,” to which I promptly replied, “What’s ‘Khmer Style?'” Half smirking and rolling her eyes, Ma explained that the scrambled eggs have fish sauce, green onions, and black pepper in them. “Make sure you use the good fish sauce okay? Either Three Crabs Brand or the Squid Brand. How did you not know this?”
Reflecting on the scrambled eggs incident across the years, I felt a bit estranged from and confused about my identity. As both Khmer and Vietnamese, and having grown up the United States, I had a lot of questions about who I was and what I was eating. What was “Khmer” and “Cambodian” food anyways? Why were there so many crossovers with things I ate with my Vietnamese family? Is that just geographical proximity or something else? How do people “just know” something is Khmer? Inevitably, these thoughts trickled into conversations with my family, as well as into my online searches.
Digital Food Spaces
What people are eating, how they are eating it, and why they are eating it have been debated throughout time and space. With increased engagements with food with different types and layers of technologies, online food discourse has expanded rapidly (Ilde 1990, Lewis 2018). Yet people have been forming and joining online communities to share their ideas, experiences, and perspectives around food in multi-modal ways for decades (Rhiengold 1993). I refer to these communities as digital food spaces (DFS), defining them as online communities and platforms dedicated to the sharing of food-centered ideas and media. I prefer DFS over other commonly used terms like “digital food platforms” because of its broader framing. Many of these online communities have entire infrastructures, which imbue particular authorities and responsibilities to users, including founders, moderators, and anonymous members. I have had my fair share of anonymous lurking and inactivity within DFS I am a part of, and as a result I prefer the flexibility. After all, being present in a digital community differs from being present in a non-digital one.
DFS are spaces of culture exchange and learning. It seems like for every niche food interest, there is a DFS looming somewhere on the internet. Scholars of digital food have examined these digitally captured “worlds of food,” noting their capacity to facilitate communities of users with shared interests into collective action (Schneider et al.2018). DFS allow for the demonstration of shared values among members which can take many forms: for example, digital food activism, where users engage with and critique different parts of the food system online (Schneider et al. 2018), or digital gastrodiplomacy, where ideas of food and nationalism perpetually collide.
Throughout history, food and cuisine has been crucial within diplomatic relations. Unlike “culinary diplomacy,” which involves the “expansion of relations through cuisine and the eating habits of visiting ambassadors or public figures” (White et al. 2019, 129), gastrodiplomacy is centered on generated ideas around the foods of a country. Gastrodiplomacy is often paired with nation-branding, where governments allow themselves to build distinguishable personas to bring awareness and express their democratic ideals in the global arena (Zhang 2015, White et al. 2019). As one scholar kindly explained to me, “Culinary diplomacy is governments towards other governments, gastrodiplomacy is governments towards their people.”
Gastrodiplomacy is important because “national foods” expand a country’s opportunities for increased cultural acceptance with other nations and its own citizens (Nahar et al. 2018, Ichijo, Johannes, and Ranta eds. 2019, White et al. 2019.) Although it can be difficult and reductionist to decide which foods can be considered “national” across populations, the benefits of sharing how many people of a country experience and relate to food are manifold. Breaking bread, sharing tea, and exchanging fruits and other sweets are just some of the ways that people have historically bonded with one another, even in the absence of nation-states.
But how does one translate this into the digital? How can governments, or other culinary authorities, communicate to their people what kinds of foods are recognized as significant within a shared national identity? This is where the DFS come into play. As relatively accessible arenas of discussion and learning, they are integral points of intervention for gastrodiplomatic initiatives. Therefore, we can understand digital gastrodiplomacy to be the collective tinkering of perceptions relating to unified ideas around a country’s “national foods” within DFS.
Unlike in its non-digital form, in digital gastrodiplomacy, flows of power tend to shift and deviate. Authority on what foods are authentic or what dishes make up a part of a country’s “national foods” expands to include more kinds of people. However, this does not dissolve the issues of over-emphasising the significance of certain foods over others within collective, nationalist food narratives, and visions.
Through digital gastrodiplomacy, citizens and members of a diaspora are able to explore, share, and negotiate ideas about food from anywhere. As informal, yet impactful shapers, DFS members have the potential to shift narratives and perspectives about different national cuisines one social media post at a time. They have become very important non-governmental actors within food discourse. Subsequently, concentrations of knowledge and authority around “national foods” become dispersed, pixelated, and multidirectional. In comparison to non-digital gastrodiplomacy, digital gastrodiplomacy can be considered a grassroots approach. DFS members have a relatively equal say and role in contributing to what makes up “national foods” because of the fluidity of DFS in both structure and governance. From Boston-based aunties on Facebook with pictures of their pets as their avatar, to hyper-stylized Instagram foodie influencers from Long Beach, the profile for gastronomic critics and commentators continues to grow.
Khmer-Style: Capturing Khmerness
In my explorations to connect with my Khmerness and its foods, I took to the Internet. I joined several Facebook groups, perused Reddit, and lurked on relevant hashtags on Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, and Twitter. I began by scanning “Subtle Asian Traits” (SAT), a Facebook group started in 2018 that calls itself “one of the largest Asian communities with members from all around the world.” Within SAT, I found many other subgroups I would classify as DFS, including “Subtle Asian Cooking.” However, after a few scrolls, I noticed that the posts were dominated by certain ethnicities and nationalities. At times, it felt as if “Asianness” exclusively centered East Asian culture. This did not help me in my search for either Khmer or Cambodian food and cuisine, but it stirred up some negative feelings about gatekeeping authorities of Asianness. Eventually I stumbled upon Subtle Cambodian Traits (SCT), an off-shoot group of SAT, which claims to “connect the greater Khmer community from all walks of life.” Observing that posts in this group were exclusively in English or Khmer, I sensed a decolonial edge permeating the space. No French posts… how interesting. Herein, I found a wide range of people from across the globe who self-identified as Cambodian and/or Khmer. They posted on a myriad of topics, interlinking these topics to both Cambodianness and Khmerness within their realms of understanding and experience—food was just one component. Through groups like SCT, there are ample opportunities to gain unfiltered insights on Cambodian and Khmer food between nationals and members of the diaspora.
Khmerican and Cambo-Cuisines
Curious about what constitutes Khmer and Cambodian cuisine among the diaspora, I asked members of SCT for recommendations for Cambodian/Khmer restaurants within the United States and analysed the recommended places’ menus. After posting my question, I received 31 recommendations from 25 SCT members. Twenty-seven recommendations were for restaurants in the United States, three of them for pop-ups/mail order food businesses, and one for a restaurant in Cambodia. Two out of 31 recommendations were recommended more than once by SCT members. Eight out of ten cities on the Pew Research Center’s list of cities heavily populated by the Cambodian diaspora were represented (Pew Research Center 2019).
After collecting and analysing the menus of each recommendation, I noted the overlaps in how each understood and marketed their cuisine. To these restaurants, “real” Khmer and Cambodian cuisine could be defined by:
- Heavy use of fresh herbs, either atop of dishes or available on the side
- Presence of fermented seafood products (e.g., fish sauce, prahok, and shrimp paste)
- Inclusion of a variety of soups, salads, and dipping sauces within the meal set-up
Restaurants interlinked ideas of “traditional,” “authentic,” and “special” Khmer/Cambodian dishes with the use of expensive/rare ingredients, high preparational labour demands, or both. Restaurants also used Khmer (script or romanisation) to label and re-orient commonly found pan-Asian dishes, like fried rice, as specifically Khmer and Cambodian on their menus. Comparatively, for highlighted “traditional,” “authentic,” and or “special” dishes, culinary points of reference were used: descriptions would relate them to other nations’ popular dishes. This practice allows for restaurant patrons who are not familiar with Khmer or Cambodian cuisines to easily explore, within their own comfort levels, the unique features of these cuisines. Through this, Khmericans are constantly forming points for culinary knowledge-sharing among informal gastrodiplomats, who may be community members or curious others. Such activities are further facilitated on DFS and other online communities, thus expanding knowledge, interest, and engagement with Khmer and Cambodian cuisines through digital gastrodiplomacy.
Such efforts directly support the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the National Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations’ 2020 initiative to incorporate food into their cultural diplomacy strategies through specifically gastrodiplomacy. They reflected that presently, “Cambodia has yet to fully exploit this extraordinary opportunity for nation branding.” Given that Cambodia’s rates of general tourism are considerably lower than other (southeast) Asian countries, it is crucial for both cultural and economic reasons to garner interest among travelers. Governments such as Cambodia’s have much to gain from the development of gastodiplomatic initiatives; also, they should consult DFS throughout each step. Doing so would increase the success of such endeavours by forming dynamic nation branding which is representative and considerate for as many people as possible.
 Khmer is the predominant ethnic group of Cambodia. I differentiate because you can be a Cambodian national and not Khmer. However, these two are often used interchangeably despite their differences.
 If you are the scholar who said this to me at the SOAS Food Forum seminar talk I gave in January 2023, please reach out!
Pew Research Center. (2019). “Top 10 U.S. metropolitan areas by Cambodian population, 2019”. Pew Research Center analysis of 2017-2019 American Community Survey (IPUMS). https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/chart/top-10-u-s-metropolitan-areas-by-cambodian-population-2019/
Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading, MA: MIT Press.
Schneider, T., Eli, K., Dolan, C., & Ulijaszek, S. (Eds.). (2018). Digital Food Activism (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315109930
Suntikul, W. (2019). “Gastrodiplomacy in tourism.” Current Issues in Tourism 22(9), 1076–1094.
White, Wajeana, Albert A. Barreda, and Stephanie Hein. (2019) “Gastrodiplomacy: Captivating a Global Audience Through Cultural Cuisine-A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Journal of Tourismology 5(2), 127-144.
Zhang, J. (2015). “The foods of the worlds: Mapping and comparing contemporary gastrodiplomacy campaigns.” International Journal of Communication 9, 568–591.