Naika Reviews “Tampopo”

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There is no greater film about food than Tampopo.  Period.  I’ve never seen Ramen Girl or Spanglish, nor have I raided my Barnes & Noble for Babette’s Feast.  Noodles, whether it’s ramen, liangpi, pho, char kuay teow, boat noodles, pancit and so on and so forth, have now found a place in the American food landscape, and there’s no better way to celebrate that than to savor the flavors of this movie.  In my youth, Tampopo was this mysterious film that would just sit in my video store, waiting to be discovered.  My brother and I finally rented the DVD in the 2000s and we were literally BLOWN AWAY.  You have to understand that for Asian-Americans like us, there was literally no respectful representation of Asian food in American TV or film.  Tampopo, however, was different.  Tampopo wasn’t just an indie darling, or some East Asian village flick that stoked white audiences’ “allure for the Orient.”  It was a daring, modern-day comedy that asked you to not only take food seriously, but to realize that serious people make it their life’s work to make good food for you.

But let’s take a step back and shoot the shit about the details.  Tampopo, for all the adjectives I’ve provided on the last paragraph, is, to its core, a movie about a struggling business.  Our title character is a working class Mom who’s struggling to keep her late husband’s ramen-ya afloat, and it’s only through a combo of factors that she runs into the gruff, cowboy trucker named Goro.  After sharing his thoughts about how bad her ramen is, Tampopo becomes driven to make her business shine and enlists the man’s help to fire it all up.  After giving her a few tips, Goro soon goes to work in getting our lovable Mom into fighting shape.  Literally.  Either through jogging, pot lifting relays or ramen assembly speedruns, Tampopo’s journey to become a true noodle artisan is just packed with so much fun that even the pickiest of viewers will watch.

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This leads us to the next big reason why Tampopo is such a fun flick: she ISN’T the only focus here!  Throughout the course of the movie, we’re treated to a wealth of vignettes from foreground characters who all have their own food journeys to share.  Some of these include a dim sum consumer with a toothache, a con man with a knack for Peking Duck and a stuffy Europhile whose course on pasta etiquette goes south for all the right reasons.  And, without giving away too much, let’s not forget the amazing Koji Yakusho with his portrayal as a scene-stealing gangster whose eye for food is second to none.  Thanks to these stories, Tampopo transcends its former status as a ‘Ramen Western’ into a full-blown celebration of Japan’s urban food scene in the 1980s.

However, Japan’s pre-bubble food scene wouldn’t have been what it was without the allure of Ramen and its status as blue collar cuisine.  When the film does shift back to Tampopo , we see how much consideration goes into every single element of a bowl of ramen.  From the texture of the noodles to the details of making the right broth, Tampopo’s desire to become a top chef reveals that making ramen isn’t just some process that comes out of a pot or a microwave; it’s the ultimate reflection of working class Asia, where humble, hard-working customers demand genuine food from genuine people.

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The times, however, have changed.  This is 2018, and, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, ramen is in the big leagues now.  That being said, Tampopo functions as a window into a not-so-distant past devoid of Yelp, overseas ramen-ya and our predisposition for Michelin stars.

All in all, Tampopo is a paean to the epicure in all of us, showing us firsthand that ‘slinging hash’ isn’t just a way to get by, but a chance to express ourselves through senses beyond sight and hearing.  Even though we’re unable to smell or taste what’s on screen, Tampopo is a visual feast that stokes both our hunger and curiosity without the need for explanations.  This is especially the case when it comes to the preparation of dishes that aren’t ramen, including omelette rice and Korean barbecue.  However, despite these gorgeous gourmet scenes, this film has more to offer than meets the eye.  When we get to the meat of it, Tampopo is, at its core, a heart-warming study on the values of passion and cultivation.  This is best exemplified through our title character’s own journey, where she transforms herself from a sullen cook and widow into a passionate, knowledgeable and vibrant chef whose determination and resilience blossoms beyond the evolution of her ramen.  From here, we can safely say that Juzo Itami’s film isn’t just an ode to the gourmet in all of us.  It’s a potent and vibrant reminder about our capacity to savor the tangible, to love furiously, to share joy with others and to realize just how timeless exuberance can be in the pursuit of mastery.

R.I.P. Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

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There are no words to describe how big of a loss this is to people all over the world.  To think that Anthony Bourdain, of all people, would contemplate suicide is a reminder to us all just how prevalent mental health issues are, regardless of age, race and status.  Like Kate Spade earlier this week, hearing about Anthony’s death was a total shock given that both were just so influential in their respective fields.  In Tony’s case, he was, for me, the face of culinary exploration.  He saw good in the world, and allowed food to be that bridge for all of us.  From No Reservations to Parts Unknown, Tony Bourdain’s shows gave us the chance to savor the world while shedding light on cultures that seldom get the respect they deserve.  He gave culinary credit where credit was due.  He showed us the power of International Street Food.  He “overhauled the Celebrity-Chef-Industrial Complex.”  He actually gave a damn about the marginalized.  He gave a damn about women.  And lastly, he never, EVER made excuses for his past.  Thank you Anthony, and Rest in Peace.

Naika Reviews “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” from Netflix

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Despite my huge love for manga and anime, I believe you learn more about Japanese culture through television and film.  So what better way for you to soak it all in than to binge watch the newest season of a long running Japanese TV show adapted from a food manga?  Originally known as Shinya Shokudo, Netflix was able to get the rights to a brand new 4th season for 2016 called Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories.  It’s great television with lots of heart as we see the comings and goings of various patrons as they shack up a late night snack with our titular owner chef.  Portrayed by Kaoru Kobayashi, the “Master” is a quiet but warm character who acts as the silent cauldron that warms the broth of each new character’s story.  Whether it simmers, goes flat or boils over is something you’ll cherish as each episode slowly unfolds.

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Gennaro Contaldo Rocks!

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Labor Day weekend was awesome.  I ate like a pig, almost got stung by a bee and got to stroll thru more of my surroundings here in the D.C. / VA area.  The GF’s idea of making dumplings was rad indeed on Sunday and we’ll  have food for quite a bit now.  One of the other culinary highlights for me was that we teamed up to make a dish that I’ve longed to make: Ragu.  Not your store bought brand of Ragu pasta sauce but the Ragu where you slow cook meat in a tomato-ish wine sauce.  Now who in the world told me it was a good idea to make something that would’ve been fixed by a jar?  I’ll tell you who.  Gennaro Contaldo.

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Holy Half Smoke Batman, I LOVE Ben’s Chili Bowl!

Well folks, I am actually in the Arlington / D.C. area for a bit to visit the GF and so far, it’s been lovely.  I get to see Colonial architecture, the downtown sights of VA, a heck of a lot more diversity compared to Florida and food food food.  And let’s be honest folks, nothing says D.C. like Ben’s Chili Bowl (well, that and the rest of our capital’s amazing monuments).  After first hearing about Ben Ali’s D.C. landmark in the TV show Man vs. Food, me and GF told ourselves that we HAD to go.  With an Arlington branch just a few blocks away from her apartment, we strolled on over to feast on the legendary Chili Half Smoke, and it did NOT disappoint.

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Full of snap and smoky goodness, the Chili Half Smoke has got it all: diced onions, mustard, and Ben’s signature chili featuring a nice, spicy kick.  As a Chicagoan that loves his hot dogs, Ben’s Chili Half Smoke can give the Polish or Chicago Hot Dog a run for its money.  I loved it so much that I had to get ANOTHER one.  Shit, I might just get ANOTHER ONE before I check outta here next week.  In short, the area is great, but the Half Smoke around here is KING.  If you’re ever here in the D.C. / Arlington area, shed off that Organic fad for one day, and feast at Ben’s Chili Bowl.  Trust me, it’s the democratic thing to do.  ^_^

Iron Chef Chen Kenichi is AWESOME!!!

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Iron Chef is friggin’ awesome.  There.  I said it.  It’s engaging, eye-opening, entertaining and full of grandeur.  A multitude of culinary traditions come crashing together in front of a wild-eyed Chairman whose sole job is to maniacally set the tone for what’s at stake in Kitchen Stadium (via the Secret Theme Ingredient).  What ensues is furious cooking, artistic cuisine and some spurious dubbing, but all in all, Fuji TV’s Iron Chef is a marvel to behold and I recommend you dive into it if you haven’t already.

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Naika Reviews “The Search for General Tso”

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What started out as a query about the origins of General Tso’s Chicken evolved into a full-fledged exploration on both the dish’s namesake and the struggles of the Chinese-American immigrant community in Ian Cheney’s excellent documentary “The Search for General Tso.”

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