“The Best Ramen I Never Tasted, or My Favourite Food Flick of All Time”
imagine a bunch of chefs sitting around having a yarn late at night after a particularly gruelling service, smoking cigarettes ends off ends, and downing plenty of cold beer. And right up there with the Last Supper, one of their favourite topics of conversation would have to be the best food films they've ever watched. Because, let's face it, food films possess an almost synesthaesic ability to conjure, through images and sound, memories of all the food we've ever savoured and loved. And that's easily why, after the act of eating, the voyeuristic act of feasting with our eyes doesn't just yield immensurable sensorial pleasure, it also invokes a feeling of absolute satisfaction.
Food films possess an almost synesthaesic ability to conjure, through images and sound, memories of all the food we've ever savoured and loved.
Over the years, I've watched much more than my fair share of food porn. And when they've been especially good, I've come away feeling a sense of satiation that has endured long after the taste, say, of a particularly good meal has faded. Of these, Tampopo, the seminal Japanese film by Juzo Itami about one woman's quest to serve the perfect ramen, indubitably tops the list. When I first watched this film, a strange melange of Babette's Feast, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and even Songs From the Second Floor, I had never been to Japan, nor had I yet experienced my first steaming bowl of authentic, let alone good, Japanese ramen. But the sometimes hilarious, always succinct, story in Tampopo so efficaciously and indelibly stamped the notion of this perfect bowl of ramen in my memory, that when I stumbled across its almost-doppelganger decades later in Kyoto, I immediately recognised it the same way twins separated at birth have this innate ability to recognise each other. And sitting there in this tiny hut, soaked from the rainstorm I had just escaped, I recalled each mouthful in a bizarre but somehow logical inversion of memory. Watching Tampopo ad infinitum had permanently established a gustatory snapshot in my head of this perfect bowl of ramen, so that when I finally tasted something so closely resembling it, it was like returning to a taste sensation I knew intimately, even though this was the first time I had actually tasted it, so effective was the power of suggestion in the film.
By the same token though, pigeonholing Tampopo as being merely a food film would be to do it a huge disservice. True, it firmly belongs in the pantheon of the greatest food movies ever made, of that there is absolutely no doubt. But Tampopo isn't just a rapturously good food movie. It's concurrently also social commentary, comedy, and rumination, and not just on the importance of staying focused, and on never giving up, but also on the dangers of obsession.
If you haven't yet watched this 1985 film - and don't be put off by the "first Japanese noodle Western" label that's become the go-to description for the movie - now's the time to rectify this grievous oversight. Criterion Collection has undertaken a fabulous new 4K restoration of Tampopo and a release on Blu-Ray and DVD is imminent. Alternately, jump on a plane to USA, and immerse yourself in the full cinematic experience there, which is utterly what I would do, if I had the time and the money.