Do you like watching food movies?
I do. And, back in May this year, having been approached by a food magazine to contribute an article on food movies (in particular movies about chefs and professional cookery), I went on a food movie binge. I’d watched loads of food movies before—everything from relatively ‘arty’ movies like Eat Drink Man Woman to popular hits like Chocolat, Julie & Julia and even the animated Ratatouille. But since this time round I wanted to look at the details of every film, at the nuances, I had to sit and watch them more closely, more at leisure.
While only three of these films were from the pre-70s (the period which this blog focuses on) I decided a post was merited. After all, my blog does feature food (I review restaurants every now and then), and after all, too, this blog is about cinema, no matter if from a different era. Food was the focus here.
And (inspired in part by Julie & Julia, where Julie Powell set herself a challenge of cooking, in one year, every dish in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking) I decided it would be appropriate to cook some food that tied in to the films I watched over these many weeks of research.
As it happened, this self-assigned project went on a long time—till September. In the course of those five months, I watched sixty-four movies and cooked thirty-eight meals (or dishes) to go with them. Too many to write about in just one post, so I decided to split this into four posts. This is the first of those posts. Read on, for a list of movies I watched and the food I cooked after being inspired by those movies.
1. Le Grand Chef (2007) and Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle (2010): The 2007 Korean film and its sequel (though with a completely different cast) is about a young chef-cum-food producer/vendor who ends up competing in a major food competition. In the first movie, it’s to redeem himself: he lost his previous job because a blowfish he’d prepared poisoned a group of food tasters. In the second film, he goes up against his ambitious foster sister to see which of them will get to create a kimchi worthy of the world.
Though I’ve made kimchi on previous occasions (and I make Korean food quite often), this time round, I decided to cook something I’ve heard about but never tasted: gaeran tostu, or Korean style eggs on toast. The toast is basically bread fried in loads of butter, and the egg is an omelette that includes shredded cabbage, carrot and sliced onions. It’s all topped off with ketchup and mayonnaise (plus ham and cheese, which are optional—and which I skipped). Unusually enough, an important part of the dish is a sprinkle of sugar. That sounded weird, but the end product was delicious.
2. Ratatouille (2007), Julie & Julia (2009): Two films again, and these related only in that they both centre round French cuisine. In the animated Ratatouille, a rat who’s a gastronomic genius ends up as chef at a fancy Paris restaurant; in Julie & Julia, based on a true story, a frustrated and directionless young woman working in a government office decides to take up a challenge: to cook all of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s classic work on French cooking. The film alternates between the stories of both Julie and Julia.
Ratatouille, naturally, would be best matched with its eponymous dish: a casserole of eggplant, zucchini, green bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic and parsley, cooked in olive oil—Julia Child’s recipe. This took me all of two hours to make, but it was worth it. Very good.
3. Toast (2010): Toast, based on the book of the same name, is the memoir of British food writer Nigel Slater. It begins with a nine-year old Nigel admitting that at that age, he’d only ever had vegetables out of a can: his mother’s idea of cooking was toast. The film follows Nigel’s childhood and adolescence, and how he entered the world of professional cooking.
Food that ties in with Toast? Well, that would have been pretty obvious—and (while I adore buttered toast) far too easy. I therefore took the easy way out and chose to cook something I’d been anyway going to cook—but using Nigel Slater’s recipe for it. Cherry clafoutis, a classic dessert I used to make till a few years back, every May, when cherries were in season. It’s fruity and somewhere between a cake and a custard, and, as far as I’m concerned, the best way to consume cherries. My usual recipe has the cherries lightly sautéed in butter before the batter is poured onto them; Slater skips this step, but the end result was still great.
4. Tampopo (1985): A Japanese film, Tampopo is a noodle Western. A widow, trying desperately but ineptly to keep her husband’s noodle bar running, is saved from a bunch of goons by a hat-wearing stranger who takes it upon himself to teach her the dos and don’ts of noodle soup. There’s a good bit of other food-related stuff (some of it completely unconnected with the core story and either funny or erotic or violent—occasionally all three), but, besides the foodie joy here, there’s also a central story that’s a great tongue-in-cheek tribute to classic Westerns.
Obviously, with noodle soup (ramen) being the star in Tampopo, it made sense to make ramen. No, my version isn’t the real deal; it’s a quick-fix one which doesn’t involve hours of simmering stock and other fancy things. It doesn’t even have any exotic Japanese ingredients that I might need to go to Delhi to buy. What it does have is a good balance of noodles, soup, veggies (bok choy, shiitakes, spring onions), egg and pork, all coming together in a really hearty bowl of soup.
5. The Mistress of Spices (2005): I’d heard of this Aishwarya Rai starrer before, but was never tempted to watch it (leading lady not being a huge favourite of mine). This time, I did watch it because I wanted to run through as many food-related movies as I could. The Mistress of Spices tries to replicate the magical realism tied with food of Like Water for Chocolate, what with the central character running a spice shop from which she dispenses spices to help people: warding off danger, helping them forgive, building bridges, etc. Very stereotypical, and some glaring gaffes (what is obviously South India—palm trees and all—is passed off as Kashmir).
Oddly enough for a movie that centred round spices, this one had only one recipe in it: of the very mundane baingan ka bharta, which I didn’t feel like cooking. I mean, where would the challenge be? So I made a thali, in the dishes of which I included about 17 or 18 spices (more, if you count fresh ginger, curry leaves, green chillies and tamarind). Besides the plain rice, my meal included fried potatoes (with salt and cracked black pepper); tchaaman kaliya (Kashmiri-style paneer, cooked with asafoetida, powdered fennel, powdered dry ginger and milk); bhindi masala (okra fried in a masala including asafoetida, dried fenugreek leaves, and the ‘usual’ North Indian spices: turmeric, powdered coriander, red chilli powder); and daanedaar daal (moong dal flavoured with sugar, salt and tamarind and tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves, along with a garnish of crushed roasted peanuts). Finally, there was kheer, which included powdered green cardamom and strands of saffron.
6. The Trip (2010) and Love’s Kitchen (2011): Both British movies, and of two very different kinds. In The Trip, actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play—on the surface—themselves, as they go together on a trip to the north, eating at some iconic restaurants along the way while exchanging some witty repartee. Love’s Kitchen, on the other hand, is rather more predictable: very successful chef goes downhill after his wife’s death, and finds redemption through buying a derelict country pub and redoing it.
Despite a (painful) cameo by Gordon Ramsay, Love’s Kitchen had precious little emphasis on food: the only dish it focussed on was a trifle, over which everybody ooh-ed and aah-ed, but which wasn’t ever explained. And The Trip, what with the fancy foam-and-gel form of gastronomy most of its restaurants seemed to espouse, would be beyond my budget (in terms of money, time, effort, and equipment). It did, however, have Coogan and Brydon eating a traditional English fry-up along the way, and since a fry-up is very much a part of good sturdy pub fare, that’s what I decided to make. Sausages, bacon, egg, mushrooms, tomatoes, and bread, all fried. Delicious, and enough of a breakfast to make you not need lunch.
7. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993): This Franco-Vietnamese production, while it did have some fleeting glimpses of food, was really more about the life of a young maidservant growing up in the service of a once-wealthy family with its many problems. A lyrical, mostly subdued film about human relationships and emotions, this was easy watching, but eventually not much about food.
A green papaya salad seemed, of course, the most appropriate dish to accompany The Scent of Green Papaya. The problem is, I am not a huge fan of green papaya. But what gives green papaya salad its punch? Its dressing, nuoc cham, made of garlic, sugar, fish sauce, chilli and lime. So I chose another recipe which uses nuoc cham beautifully: grilled eggplants. The lusciousness of the eggplant (I love eggplants), the fire and tang and sweetness of nuoc cham—perfect.
8. The Baker’s Wife (1938): And one film I could actually review, since it fitted my time period. This one’s about a rural baker who stops baking after his pretty young wife runs off with a handsome shepherd.
The Baker’s Wife focuses mainly on bread, and yeast isn’t a friend of mine; never has been. I could have made soda bread to commemorate this film, but decided to make something else. Something which, while it is called ‘bread’, isn’t really: banana bread. This particular recipe is for a salted caramel banana bread, which includes a generous dose of salted caramel in the bread itself, and with the leftover salted caramel being drizzled over the bread. It’s rich, very banana-ey and moist, and I suppose the fact that it’s salted caramel—a French invention—ties it in rather more closely with The Baker’s Wife.
9. Ramji Londonwaaley (2005) and Bawarchi (1972): Yes, after all those firang films, a couple of Hindi ones. In the terrible Ramji Londonwaaley, Madhavan’s character—a semi-literate but genius cook from Bihar—goes to London and ends up in a marriage of convenience with an NRI. Bawarchi, also about a very skilled rasoiya, is of course a classic, about a man who works magic not just with his food, but with his way of smoothening out relationships between the irate members of a large family…
Ramji Londonwaaley harped on about a sugar-free gajar ka halwa (which Ramji is never really shown making, so we’ve no idea what goes into it), and I’ll be damned if I make gajar ka halwa at the peak of summer. But there’s a scene where Ramji, discovering that his new wife loves fish, cooks that for her. Bawarchi has a little more scope for food ideas, since there are several mentions of different dishes.
So, what I made was a thali. With Bengali-style mustard steamed fish (as a nod to Ramji’s wife’s favourite food); shukto (which Rajesh Khanna’s character promises to cook in Bawarchi); Bengali style tomato chutney (again inspired from Bawarchi, since the bawarchi Raghu boasts that he can make 300-400 types of chutneys); and, with that, a moong dal flavoured with fresh ginger and coriander powder and tempered with panchphoran; and baigun bhaja, Bengali style fried eggplant.
10. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Final Recipe (2013), and Cook Up A Storm (2017): A trio of Chinese-oriented films (though Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman is, strictly speaking, Taiwanese—but the food is, after all, a variation of Chinese). All three films focus on the connection—not always happy, not always comfortable—between food and family.
In Eat Drink Man Woman, a semi-retired chef (who’s lost his sense of taste) spends his time cooking lavish Sunday night feasts for his three daughters, who still live with him, and who each has her own problems in life. In Final Recipe, a teenager who loves to cook but whose grandfather is intent on getting him to study engineering, runs off to compete in a culinary competition—and comes up against his own father, a renowned chef, in the final. In Cook Up A Storm (which seems to borrow themes from the aforementioned movies), a Korean-Chinese chef with three Michelin stars loses his sense of taste and ends up befriending a very talented Chinese chef—they compete as a team on a competition, and the Chinese chef, in the final, goes head-to-head against the ‘God of Cooking’—his own father.
Three movies that made much of Chinese food, and made much of the intricacy, the detail, and the hard work that goes into the making of food. I haven’t the time for a banquet, so what I made was just a lunch: fried rice, Cantonese steamed fish (with ginger, green coriander, and spring onions); ‘three earthly bounties’ (stir-fried potatoes, bell peppers and eggplant); pickled cucumber; and a Hong Kong dimsum staple dessert, mango with coconut milk.
Like what you read? Watch out for the second installment of this project, which will follow soon. And yes, feel free to ask more about the movies or the dishes; I’ll be happy to supply more information!