(This is preceded by Part 1—here—and Part 2—here, describing a challenge I set myself, of watching food movies from around the world and cooking dishes or meals that I associated with the movies. Read on for a list of ten dishes or meals, and the movies they were inspired by. And, as before, feel free to ask more about the movies or about the dishes—or both)!
1. Le Chef (2012), La Grande Bouffe (1973), and Le Grand Restaurant (1966): Three French comedies about food and chefs and restaurants. But three very different comedies. The newest, the Jean Reno-starrer Le Chef, is a light and frothy confection about tradition versus novelty (in this case molecular gastronomy). La Grande Bouffe is about four middle-aged men who decide to spend a decadent weekend eating themselves to death—a resolve which they are able to achieve, along with some rather over the top sex. This was, to me, a disgusting and revolting movie, one I wish I could forget. Le Grand Restaurant, about a restaurateur setting out to find a VIP who is abducted from his restaurant, was a laugh riot (you can read my review of it here).
A French meal, of course, but what? Le Chef had a mention of a leek soup, so the classic leek-and-potato soup, vichysoisse, was a given (especially since I love it anyway). Le Grand Restaurant, other than a fleeting glimpse of a mundane eggs mimosa and something that looked like an ugly croquembouche, didn’t really focus on food. And the food in La Grande Bouffe was too gourmet, too caviar-and-oysters for a homey Sunday lunch.
So , to follow the vichysoisse, I made chicken with Calvados and apple. With a side of sautéed oyster mushrooms and another of roasted garlic potato mash. And for dessert, pots de crème, little steamed custards flavoured with chocolate, espresso, and vanilla.
2. Bushi no Kondate (2013): Aka A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story. I had never heard of this film before, but I fell in love with it. There was lots of food (and a pronounced focus on food, unlike the somewhat tangential relationship with it that most so-called food films seem to have). There was a historical setting (and I learnt something I hadn’t known before: that there were samurai whose job was not to be warriors, but to be chefs to the feudal lords). And there was a believable and satisfying romance based on one of my favourite tropes, the marriage of convenience.
Of course I had to make a Japanese meal. But since we were still recovering from the butter and cream of our French meal two days earlier, I chose to cook something meatless. Four side dishes, to be precise. A pumpkin and cucumber salad; green beans with a sesame seed and soy dressing; potatoes braised in soy; and rolled egg omelette. Since the only soy sauce I had at home was dark, everything with soy in it turned out looking much darker than it should have, and my rolled egg omelette was a disaster, looks-wise. Plus, since I had to use a pale yellow local pumpkin instead of the vibrant orange Japanese kabocha, my pumpkin and cucumber salad looked bleached.
3. Burnt (2015) and Chef (2014): Two films about two highly successful chefs who, thanks to their own egos (and their own inability to be diplomatic?) wreck their careers and end up having to redeem themselves. While Bradley Cooper’s character in Burnt mostly made very fancy food, all micro herbs and edible flowers, he’s shown eating at several food trucks and other street food joints, especially at the beginning of the film. And Jon Favreau’s character in Chef ends up operating a food truck.
I suppose the Cubano—the signature sandwich of Jon Favreau’s character’s truck in Chef—would’ve been the obvious choice for something to cook for this, but what with the weather so hot and humid, the thought of all that cheese and butter and pork made me feel ill. I therefore opted to finally cook something for which I’d noted down a recipe (off a TV food show which focused on food trucks) years ago. Fish tacos. The fish is marinated in crushed garlic, salt, paprika, cinnamon, oil, and red wine vinegar; it’s grilled and served on tortillas with avocado, tomatoes, onions, corn, jalapenos, green coriander, and spicy mayonnaise (my idea of spicy mayo was to mix a generous amount of tabasco into it—it turned out pretty good).
4. Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (2012), Daawat-e-Ishq (2014), and Chef (2017): Three Hindi films, all of them to some extent about food and chefs. Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is hilarious and heartwarming; Daawat-e-Ishq is romantic in a sweetly unexpected way (and makes a point about the dowry issue); and Chef is a dud. In many ways.
Since Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana revolves around a dhaba, and Saif’s character in Chef starts off working in a dhaba in Amritsar, a dhaba-style meal was in order. Dal fry, of course (also as a nod to the dal fry which the Amritsari dhaba in Chef specializes in). Zeera aloo. Lachha pyaaz, onion rings tossed with vinegar and salt. Plain rice. Shahi tukda (as a nod to Daawat-e-Ishq, where it puts in an appearance a couple of times, though in a virulent orange avatar). And, as hat tip to Chicken Khurana, what I suppose is probably best called Chicken Liddle. My mother’s recipe for a very simple chicken curry, made with just eight ingredients (including the chicken, salt and oil) and utterly divine.
5. Udon (2006): In some ways, this film reminded me of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana: a young man, disdainful of his family’s small-town food business (in this case, an udon noodle shop), leaves home. He goes West (here, America) but ends up returning home some years later, failed and in debt. Slowly, as he really gets to know his own people and all that he left behind, he comes to a new understanding of the food he had left behind.
As in the case of Tortilla Soup, it was pretty obvious what I’d cook to commemorate my viewing of this film: the food featured in the film. All through Udon, the noodle is always shown with broth. Sometimes with tempura, sometimes with just an egg and soy sauce, garnished with chopped spring onions. Sometimes with other accompaniments and garnishes. The broth—dashi with bonito flakes and more—is a tricky business, so I decided to do another udon favourite (even though it doesn’t appear in the film): yaki udon, stir-fried udon. This was made with strips of chicken, vegetables (cabbage, three colours of bell pepper, and onions), udon, and a flavourful sauce that included oyster sauce, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and more.
6. Little Forest (2018) and The Recipe (2010): Two Korean films, both with a strong presence of food. In Little Forest, a young woman returns to the countryside home where she grew up with her mother, and reconnects with old friends, with nature—and with food. In The Recipe (titled Doenjang in the original Korean, doenjang being a classic Korean fermented soybean paste), a journalist sets out to track an elusive doenjang so good that it made a doomed convict, about to be executed, wish he could have it once again…
A doenjang stew would have been the most appropriate dish to make here, but I decided to take some liberties, since I was also going to be making something to commemorate my watching of Little Forest (in which the heroine cooks a lot of things, from stews to pancakes, to fritters, to crème brulée). So I made a tofu stew, flavoured primarily with earthy-sweetish-spicy gochujang. For side dishes (or banchan, without which no Korean meal is complete), I made shiitakes cooked in soy sauce; stir-fried zucchini with garlic and sesame seeds; and onions glazed with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and maple syrup. Yes, that last one isn’t ‘authentic’ Korean, but it is one of my absolute favourites.
7. Duplicate (1998) and The Chef of South Polar (2009): I’ll admit I’d forgotten that Shahrukh Khan played a chef (in one of the two roles he played in Duplicate), but the chef-editor who’d commissioned this article reminded me of it, so I ended up rewatching this film, twenty years after it was first released. As a comedy, it’s not bad, if too over the top at times. As a realistic depiction of a professional kitchen, it “sucks”, as my nephew would put it. It includes, though, one idiotic scene where Shahrukh cooks a ‘Japanese meal’ (which looks more Indian Chinese than anything else) for a Japanese delegation.
And I watched an unusual Japanese comedy, The Chef of South Polar, based on the real-life essays of a man who was sent to Antarctica to be the chef for a team stationed on the continent for a year.
What dish could represent both Duplicate as well as The Chef of South Polar? It occurred to me quickly enough: kare raisu, Japanese curry rice, which Nishimura in The Chef of South Polar is shown serving up in one flashback scene—and which, to some extent, mirrors what happens when Farida Jalal (playing Shahrukh’s mum in Duplicate) comes along and spices up the ‘insipid’ Japanese meal he’s cooked. Kare raisu is believed to have been introduced to Japan by the British, and is classic fusion: the very Indian spices, the very European roux, and the saltiness in the curry added by way of soy sauce. The recipe I followed resulted in a curry that was (paradoxically?) both overcrowded with spices, as well as lacking the depth of flavour I invariably find in good Indian curries.
8. Babette’s Feast (1987): One of those truly great food films, Babette’s Feast is about a Frenchwoman, a head chef at an excellent Parisian café, who is forced to flee to Denmark in 1871. She becomes cook for two religious elderly spinsters, and years later, spends all her money in cooking a grand meal for them and their guests: a meal that melts the rigidly orthodox hearts and minds of the diners.
Babette’s feast was like nothing I could ever have attempted: what with the quails, the caviar, the foie gras and the truffles (just to mention a handful of ingredients), it would’ve bankrupted me. But I did make the dessert: baba au rhum with dried figs is what is listed on many sites which talk of the menu at Babette’s Feast. While I got the baba recipe easily (I’ve even baked it, years ago), the figs I had to improvise: I stewed them gently in syrup and cinnamon.
9. Macher Jhol (2017): This Bengali film follows a trope frequently found in food films from countries where cooking as a profession is looked down upon. The protagonist, once an engineer (he was complying with his father’s wishes when it came to a profession), chucked up job and wife and family and homeland to come to Paris, where he is now a two-star Michelin chef. When his mother’s possibly terminal illness brings him hurrying back to Kolkata, the chef—to please his mother, who wants to taste the macher jhol (fish curry) he made for her years ago—sets out to recreate that dish.
While Debdotto’s final macher jhol recipe—with orange juice and segments of orange as garnish—might look pretty and be very inventive, I prefer the traditional jhols. With vegetables, of the type that he first tries out. My version has potatoes, pointed gourd (potol in Bangla, parwal in Hindi) and cauliflower. Simple, wholesome comfort food.
10. This is Not What I Expected (2017): A billionaire hotelier checks into a Shanghai hotel with the purpose of finding out if it’s worth his buying it out. He is on the verge of leaving—the food is predictable and dreary—when he is served a splendid dish cooked by a woman chef. Little does he know that she is the same irritating and ragged female who’s been causing him no end of trouble these past few days…
As a rom-com, This is Not What I Expected is predictable but fun (and Takeshi Kaneshiro, long one of my favourite actors from East Asia, is swoon-worthy) but the food: oh, superb. And, despite the fact that it’s a Chinese film, this has almost no Chinese food in it. Some fusion, but mostly all European. Near the beginning, especially, there’s an array of egg dishes, each created by the chef to please the exacting hero.
So eggs, cooked in a European style, was what I decided upon. Eggs en cocotte or baked eggs. This recipe calls for ramekins to be half-filled with sliced mushrooms sautéed with garlic and thyme; wilted spinach is added, and over that is broken an egg, with lashings of cream and a generous grating of Parmesan. Baked and served hot. Delicious.