(This is a sequel to Part 1, where I introduced this challenge I set myself. It’s about five months, May-September 2018, during which I watched sixty-odd films and cooked 30-odd dishes or meals to go with those films. In Part 1, I discussed the first ten dishes or meals I cooked, and the films that triggered those meals. Here are some more).
1. Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) and Big Night (1996): Italy and Italian food. In Under the Tuscan Sun, an American, shattered by her divorce, buys a villa in Tuscany and has it renovated—making friends and finding a new life for herself as she does so. In Big Night, two Italian immigrant brothers in 1950s (?) America try to make their small restaurant succeed, against all odds—a major one being a clientele that cannot see why you can’t order spaghetti on the side with a risotto. Or which Italian chef worth his salt won’t make spaghetti with meatballs.
Under the Tuscan Sun, as it happened, had very little to do with food. It appeared as a prop in a couple of scenes, but that was about it—but yes, there was one character addicted to gelato (I approve of such addictions—I adore gelati too). Big Night had more of an emphasis on food. Great big platters of antipasti, a whacking drum of pasta, boiled eggs, meatballs and tomato sauce baked together, and even a very simple omelette in the last scene.
I couldn’t possibly attempt something along the lines of the feast that is the eponymous ‘big night’, but here was what I made: as antipasti, bruschetta, devilled eggs (the yolks mashed with pesto, mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice), and a roasted bell pepper salad. Followed by a simple but delicious spaghetti with roasted garlic, and, finally, a coffee gelato with Kahlua.
2. Stanley ka Dabba (2011) and The Lunchbox (2013): Two recent, touching, heart-warming Hindi-English movies which had several things in common. A male protagonist named Fernandes (Stanley is Stanley Fernandes). The bonds forged over lunchboxes filled with food, with memories, with care, with understanding. How food brings friends closer, and makes friends of strangers. Food and family.
Of course, I had to make a tiffin box here, and it ended up being a nod to not just these two films, but also my ties to people around me: the family I grew up in, the family that became mine through marriage. Extended family.
Here it is. Aloo paratha, since that is the first thing a friend is shown offering Stanley—and it happens also to be a favourite dabba constituent for my daughter. Paneer bhurji, the way my mother made it—with chopped onion and ginger and green coriander, with just salt and chilli for seasoning: light and very fragrant (and yes, paneer bhurji is also a nod to one of the first things Ila cooks for Mr Fernandes when she realizes the dabbas are getting switched: she cooks malai kofta because her husband is so fond of paneer).
Kaala chana the way my mother-in-law taught me. And an instant mango pickle, the recipe for which was given to me by the Tam-Brahm mother-in-law of one of my cousins.
3. Chocolat (2000), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and Like Water for Chocolate (1992): Three films, all of which are, to some extent, about ‘the food of the gods’, chocolate. The Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate is the one I am most ambivalent about, because while it has lots to do with food (quails in rose petal sauce! Cream puffs! Stuffed peppers with walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds!), its premise is idiotic. Chocolat, with its maverick chocolatier, who jerks a staid French village out of its prudish (and biased) calm, is my favourite of these three films—and it has lots of chocolate. Lots. Especially the chilli-spiked hot chocolate which its protagonist (Juliette Binoche) keeps doling out to people in need of solace (or plain old calories). Hot chocolate is also something that appears several times in Like Water for Chocolate, and a river of molten chocolate is at the heart of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
So hot chocolate was what I made, following a recipe I found online. The chilli heat comes from a chilli boiled in water, the water reduced and added to the cream (I used homogenized milk) cooked with vanilla bean and cinnamon, before dark chocolate’s melted into it. Lovely, and the chilli is just enough to remind you that it lurks there: it’s too subtle to be intrusive.
4. No Reservations (2007) and Dinner Rush (2000): Two Hollywood movies, both of which feature a highly trained graduate of a culinary school, the sort who does fancy things with quail (preferably with truffles) or whips up a quick dish with lobsters, caviar and a champagne cream sauce. The first film is about a highly skilled but somewhat dysfunctional chef who finds herself having to take care of her newly orphaned little niece; the second, set around one very busy night at an Italian restaurant, has shades of everything in it, from the battle between an old-school restaurateur father and his avant garde chef son, to sex, gambling, and the mafia.
This called for an Italian meal. And since it was summer (and a gruelling one), a light meal. Spaghetti in a light tomato sauce seemed appropriate, since that is what Nick, feeling sorry for a lonely and distressed Zoe in No Reservations, makes for her (and, of course, there’s plenty of spaghetti to be glimpsed in Dinner Rush). Marinated mushrooms, because they’re light and delicious. And, to end: a nod both to the Mafiosi in Dinner Rush, as well as to one fruit that makes summer bearable here in north India: a Sicilian dessert made of watermelon. Gelo di melone.
5. Today’s Special (2009) and The Hundred Foot Journey (2014): Two movies about the Indian diaspora. A restaurateur father has a son who’s a talented chef. The son and the father struggle with each other, with themselves, with society around them—and in the course of the story, find their true place. And there’s a firang love interest for the son.
Both Today’s Special and The Hundred Foot Journey had glaring errors regarding Indian food, but there was one dish that both mentioned: samosas. In Today’s Special, Aasif Mandvi’s character says that the first dish he remembers watching being made (and also the first dish he ever made) was samosas. In The Hundred Foot Journey, Manish Dayal’s character tells an immigration officer that he doesn’t have formal qualifications as a chef (his mother taught him), but as proof of his skill, he’s brought along samosas wrapped in greaseproof paper.
So, samosas. And that too from a recipe by Madhur Jaffrey, who plays the part of Mandvi’s mother in Today’s Special (and, unpardonably, doesn’t get to cook anything—even though her husband owns the restaurant).
6. Tortilla Soup (2001), Spanglish (2004) and East Side Sushi (2014): Three films about Mexican immigrants in America (yes, what with the Trump administration’s recent actions against immigrants, this was probably very untimely—or timely, see it as you will, since all three films involved parents and their offspring).
Spanglish, which I found on a list of food movies, didn’t have much food in it (despite the fact that the male protagonist was actually a chef with a very successful restaurant). East Side Sushi, about a Mexican-American immigrant single mother who falls in love with sushi when she takes up a job at a sushi bar, focussed on sushi and would probably have been best represented by actually making sushi, but I chickened out. Tortilla Soup, a remake of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (which it does not manage to replicate—the Taiwanese film has more nuances, and more subtlety) however did have lots of food in it.
So tortilla soup it was. Fairly easy and packed full of flavour, this one, with its tomatoes and grated cheese, avocado and strips of fried corn tortillas, was a big hit at home. I made a chicken version, but one could easily omit the chicken and use vegetable stock to get a great veggie version.
7. Estomago: A Gastronomic Story (2007): This Brazilian movie came as a surprise for me: I didn’t have the slightest idea where it was headed. A young man, a country bumpkin, arrives in a big city and thanks to his skill as a cook, soon ends up working in a successful restaurant. While one plot line of the movie follows his journey as he falls in love with a prostitute, another (simultaneous) plot line follows him as he, now in prison, endears himself to his cell mates by revealing his gastronomic skills. Both stories come together in a macabre way at the end.
There was lots of food in Estomago, but the one dish that stood out was coxinhas, Brazilian chicken croquettes, which are supposedly very popular street food in Brazil. These turned out really nice: crisp on the outside, filled with a stuffing of chicken, onion, garlic and paprika—with the rich yet softening addition of cream cheese and parsley. This dish, like the tortilla soup, was a discovery for me, and one I’m glad to have run into.
8. Waitress (2007), Just Desserts (2004), and The Baker (2007): Just Desserts, a Hallmark movie about two pastry chefs who team up for a competition, was pretty unfortunate and really didn’t have anything very interesting in the way of actual recipes. The Baker, a hilarious British film about a hitman who is forced to go undercover as a baker, was fun (it also had one of the messiest love scenes I’ve ever seen, with the couple sprawling amidst cream, chocolate sauce, caramel, eggs, jam and whatnot as they made out in the kitchen).
Waitress is about a waitress (who is also a whiz at making pies), stuck in a disastrous marriage with an abusive husband. While I didn’t like the film—having an affair is hardly a way to solve a problem, not for any of the many characters here having adulterous affairs—it did showcase pies in a big way.
Pie, therefore, it was. And because I lack the confidence to make a full-sized pie, I made tartlets instead (which also allows me to offer a variety of fillings). Lemon curd for one, which is one of my favourite memories of childhood: whenever my mother made tarts, they were usually lemon curd. Maple and walnut for another (this has a connection to my first job, at a hospitality company—their star dessert was a honey and walnut tart which was heavenly). And lastly, because I adore mangoes so, a cream cheese and mango tart.
9. Cheeni Kum (2007) and Ustad Hotel (2012): Two films about Indian chefs.
In Cheeni Kum, after a 64 year old chef falls for a woman 30 years younger than him, the focus shifts pretty much from food, though it’s always there in the background—even though our chef is never really shown doing much cooking himself (despite being the owner-chef of ‘London’s best Indian restaurant’). In Ustad Hotel, though, Dulquer Salmaan’s character, while highly trained, ends up cooking in three distinct food places: the small but hugely popular Ustad Hotel run by his grandfather; the swish five-star hotel next door; and (no spoilers here), another place.
The one major dish mentioned again and again at the beginning of Cheeni Kum is a Hyderabadi zaafraani pulao. Ustad Hotel had, at its core, a Malabari biriyani—the hottest-selling dish at Ustad Hotel, a big seller at the Beach Bay Hotel, and the dish hero Faizi finally cooks in a great big pot. So Malabari biriyani, with chicken and an array of spices (more fragrant than hot), it was. Served up with an onion raita. Not, perhaps, the gentle, saffron-scented mutton pulao of Cheeni Kum (though if it’s Hyderabadi, chances are it won’t be too gentle), but a combination of rice and spice and a meat, nevertheless. And from peninsular India.
10. Woman on Top (2000): This Penélope Cruz starrer, about a talented Brazilian chef who leaves her unfaithful restaurateur husband and runs off to San Francisco, started off promisingly, as something that might have lots of Brazilian food and a strong female character. Alas, no. While there was a little bit about Brazilian food, it was mainly ‘tropical ingredients’—coconuts, watermelons, lots of chillies—that tended to be the focus. And the end was one of the most irritatingly regressive I have come across.
Anyway. There was a mention of one recipe which Cruz’s character, Isabella Oliviera, cooks: a moqueca. A fish stew, this was possibly the simplest (barring the hot chocolate) of all the recipes I cooked in this project. Fish, marinated in garlic, lime and spices, cooked with onions, green peppers, tomatoes and coconut milk. Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly, considering a large part of Brazil’s population is of African origin), this dish was almost a copy of a Tanzanian fish curry – down to the bell peppers, the spices, and the coconut milk – which I’d discovered last year.
Part 3 will be posted in a week’s time or so. In the meantime, if you want to know more about any of these films (or any of these dishes)—please feel free to ask!