Food in cinema... and we don't mean popcorn

Food in cinema... and we don't mean popcorn
PHOTO: The Star/ANN

You remember the feeling: sitting in a darkened theatre and watching a close-up of your favourite actress slicing into that juicy red tomato or searing steak in a skillet, your stomach growling and your saliva glands working overtime.

Films have flirted with food ever since the dawn of the cinema. Who can forget Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, with its exhilarating display of culinary skill by a semi-retired masterchef played by Sihung Lung? Or Ratatouille, with its riveting finale, when the town's harshest critic takes a bite of Remy the rat's dish?

Food films strike a major chord in most people because they are based on a universal language of love and of life. In these films, food - with its ability to dazzle and disgust - is used as symbolism, imagery and allegory. The phrase "food for thought" has never resonated more loudly. Once the end credits have rolled, the audience is presented with an immediate dilemma: What to eat? And where?

To solve that problem, we've arranged our own retrospective culinary cinema with the help of cooking professional Jean Michel Fraisse. The choices are bountiful but we ordered up three dishes from three films - the spice-infused omelette from The Hundred Foot Journey, Il Timpano from Big Night and Cailles en Sarcophage from Babette's Feast - that we think best highlight the breadth of culinary experience one should experience before they die.

A recent sleeper hit, Lasse Hallstrom's The Hundred Foot Journey offers a charming look at what happens when two very different cultures collide. In the film, Hassan Kadam, a self-taught culinary novice whose family has moved to France to start an Indian restaurant to the dismay of their neighbour and snooty Michelin-starred restaurateur, Madame Mallory.

One of the film's key moments is when Hassan, an aspiring chef, hears that Mallory gets potential employees to make her an omelette as the litmus test of their abilities. When he sets out to prepare what looked like the world's best omelette for the Madame, even newbies feel compelled to venture into the kitchen for the very first time to try their hand at this very simple but fundamental dish. Even more so, however, was what the omelette itself represented. It was a bridging of a divide, a celebration of diversity.

The second film, Big Night - which tells the story of Italian brothers Primo and Secondo who have migrated to America in hopes of running a successful, authentic Italian restaurant in 1950s-era New Jersey - mesmerised audiences when it was released in the mid-Nineties because it featured a dish many had never seen nor heard of: timpano.

In the film and in real life, the timpano is not easy to make. A sort of "pasta pie", which brims with everything from meatballs and sausage to hard-boiled eggs and cheeses, the timpano was the brothers' siren song to great Italian cuisine. While it is a big gamble to serve such an obscure dish, especially when their restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy, the brothers do it anyway because Primo believes that "to eat good food is to be close to God."

In this case, food is viewed as high art that cannot be compromised for success or money. In one scene, Primo tells Secondo, "If I sacrifice my work, it dies."

Finally, there's no better way to achieve a culinary climax than with Babette's Feast - hailed by many as one of the greatest food-films ever released. Brought to the silver screen in 1987 by the Danish director Gabriel Axel, the movie takes place in a small Christian community whose denizens strictly adhere to pious living and consign themselves to tasteless gruel.

The arrival of French refugee and culinary-maestro-in-disguise Babette changes nothing, until the day she wins a lottery. Instead of escaping to her native country, she uses the money to prepare an elaborate French meal fit for a king.

What follows - a parade of stunning dishes like Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat pancake with sour cream and caviar), Potage a la Tortue (turtle soup) and, the film's piece de resistance, Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigour-dine (quail in puff pastry shell with truffle sauce) - is a feast for both the eye and senses, leading The Times' David Robinson to rhapsodise: "There never was such a meal on the screen."

The scene paid homage to transcendental powers of good food - the meal managed to work its magic on the stern old puritans, who experience profound inner change with each new dish - as well as the sensual pleasures derived from eating.

Hungry yet? Before you proceed, consider this line from Bryan Lowder in his article "Cooking with Babette" for Slate: "Anyone can learn to stuff a quail with fancy things; perfecting the recipe for fleeting, full-bellied happiness is a far more impressive feat."

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