BloggerBarbara Putman Cramer is industrial ecologist, and member of the YFM Academy. She reveled in the cinematographic culinary classic Tampopo which is screening at the Food Film Festival this year. Where love for film and food come together.
"We all watch films. And often, we see people eating food, shopping for food, or otherwise, they are at least looking at it. Whilst we, as spectators, are trying to follow the film’s storyline, we are clearly underestimating the symbolic meaning of that shared bangers and mash, pasta aio oio or Tokyo ramen.
Just as in art, food carries a symbolic meaning. Film directors can choose what is eaten, how and with whom to tell their story. Sometimes, food is not used as a means to support a story, because it carries its own story. Like ramen. Or, as you probably know it: noodles!
This Food Film Festival, I would invite you to go and watch Tampopo (which literally translates as ‘dandelion’), a stunning and sometimes incomprehensible film about noodles, and the art of eating them. Although this might not immediately raise your curiosity, to me it served as an introduction to a totally different take on food. I’ll tell you why.
A true noodle western
When you see this movie for the first time, there is a chance you don’t understand why the main plot is constantly overtaken by distracting, but amusing, sub-stories. That’s because you probably don’t recognize it as a postmodern noodle western. And, apparently, noodle westerns love that mingling of main and sub-stories. Just to comfort you, during my first Tampopo I thought this to be confusing, and amusing at the same time. You might also wonder why some of the characters directly speak into the camera, as if talking to you. Yes, you. That’s due to Tampopo being inspired by a form of Japanese theatre (kabuki theatre), where actors directly address the audience.
But what story is left to understand, when form sometimes trumps content? Well, there are actually two opposing stories running through the film. The first tells the story of Tampopo, a young, Japanese widow, who is taught how to cook the perfect noodles by Goro, a passing-by truck driver. The how of this cooking spree illustrates her Apollinian quest for perfection. Parallel runs the continuous interruption of her voyage by scenes of a gangster and his mistress (the sub-stories!), who live a hedonistic life where food mostly serves as an aphrodisiac – hence expressing their Dionysian love for decadence.
A genuine taste for food
These opposing takes on food articulate Juzo Itami’s (director) opinion of what makes a ‘gourmet’ (pronounced in English almost the same as in Japanese, click and listen to グルメ - copy this text and click the little loudspeaker to hear it in Japanese - if you don’t believe me). For Itami, gourmet does not refer to the widely accepted notion of an elitist food-snob, such as the gangster indulging on Western delicacies. Instead, the little boy who loves his perfect rice omelette, or the vagabonds dumpster diving bins of five-star hotels, exhibit a genuine taste for good food, and hence, are true ‘gourmets’. And that is exactly what Tampopo taught me. A love for food does not come with exquisite, or overly complicated food. Genuine taste comes with savouring your daily meal, day in, day out. Even if noodles are what you eat every day.
Ramen is more than noodles
Noodles are utterly varied, really. The first edition of food magazine Lucky Peach was dedicated to ramen and revealed its hidden diversity to me. In essence, a good bowl of ramen consists of four basic elements: the broth, the tare (flavour essence on bottom of bowl), the noodles and the toppings. The broth is usually a mix of pork, chicken, seafood and vegetables. The tare characterises the type of ramen, and is categorized into shoyu (soy basis), miso (fermented bean paste), shio (salty ingredients) and tonkutsu (pork bones). That makes you understand why they drink their noodles this way in Tampopo, don’t you?"