— Art by Shawn D'Souza for Firstpost
To ensure smooth sailing through this lockdown period, I enrolled in online cooking classes, but — much to my mother’s wrath — failed to put any of my newfound lessons into practice. Others, as evinced by their social media feeds at least, seemed to be having better luck. People developed an overnight obsession with baking bread, and making fancy coffee.
Whether or not these culinary endeavours will last after the lockdown lifts remains to be seen, but for now at least, the harmonised response seems to be to get good at cooking.
In that spirit, I decided to do a pairing: simple, hearty dishes that can be made with easily available ingredients — with food-centric films that serve as great backdrops for them (or binge-watch accompaniments alongside a meal).
There are dozens of movie meals that make my mouth water — from the welcome feast at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the Scotch and lobsters the gangsters of Goodfellas enjoy in prison. While chow-focused classics like Big Night and Babette's Feast have been included in this pairing exercise, I have widened the pool to include films across genres: each of them is an aesthetic delight, with an assuredly high appetite-whetting quotient, be it vis their depictions of sumptuous feasts or more modest repasts.
Let the screenings — and snacking — begin.
Big Night — Omelet
Big Night is the rarest of all food movies — a tight, smart comedy with a big heart that captures so much of what we love about the experience of dining out. Two Italian immigrants — chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub), and his maitre d’ brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci) — run a struggling restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. Americans aren’t used to the authentic Italian recipes they serve, and Primo, the older brother, refuses to compromise on what he sees as his art.
Their main competitor Pascal (Ian Holm) has found success by pandering to local preferences. He promises to help by calling in a favour from an old friend, the famous bandleader Louis Prima. If he visits the brothers’ failing restaurant, the accompanying publicity will revive their dream. That sets in motion Big Night’s primary dramatic premise, with elaborate preparations of Italian delicacy timpano. The final scene — heartbreaking, uplifting, and played in complete silence — features Secondo preparing a simple omelet and serving it wordlessly, a gesture that speaks of brotherly devotion.
Dish to pair it with: Big Night reminds us that less is more, of how life sometimes may not roll out the way we want, but one can always settle for simple and fulfilling pleasures like Secondo’s omelet. Stop fussing over that three-course menu and indulge in a universal staple, made well.
Babette’s Feast — French spinach soufflé
The film, which swept the 1987 Oscars, is based on a short story by Danish author Karen Blixen (whose other famous adapted work was Out of Africa). In 19th-century Denmark, the pious spinster sisters Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) are honouring the memory of their late father by hosting prayer groups. They soon welcome Frenchwoman Babette (Stéphane Audran), a Parisian chef and a refugee from the French civil war, into their home. Babette agrees to work as their cook and housekeeper; and, on coming into a huge amount of money, offers to cook a sumptuous French banquet for them and the other cantankerous old villagers.
A leisurely prologue traces the sisters’ doomed girlhood romances, their lovers’ fates and the strange circumstances that brought the Frenchwoman into their service. When the feast is presented, it almost feels like a lost love affair, all rolled up in most sensual and intoxicating last dinner.
Dish to pair it with: There’s no possibility of procuring a bowl of this film’s signature dish — turtle soup — but really, any elegant, slightly decadent dish will do. This light and surprisingly easy French spinach soufflé is an indulgence you’ll be glad to sample. Once you’ve mastered the art of making it, this soufflé is likely to emerge a delicious winner.
Eat Drink Man Woman — Chicken dumplings
Take one widowed Taipei master chef, add three romantically-troubled daughters, stir in a flirtatious widow, mix vigorously, and you have a recipe for Ang Lee's 1994 Oscar-nominated film Eat Drink Man Woman. This effervescent romantic comedy centers on the Chu family dinner table, where Chef Chu serves up a five-star banquet for his three daughters every Sunday afternoon. It provides the perfect setting for family 'announcements', during which his daughters reluctantly yet boldly divulge the most recent developments in their personal lives.
Mr Chu’s methods of preparation invoke intimacy, and the depiction of dishes is traditionally detailed, proving that food is indeed the connective tissue which binds this and many families together.
Dish to pair it with: Ang Lee’s film is a reminder of lost conversations, banter and shared meals among families. The characters in Eat Drink Man Woman are all lost in their own heads, but what brings them together over and over is food, piled onto a dinner table. A warm bowl of chicken dumplings is a great conversation starter to share stories — wrapped in nostalgia, devoured wholeheartedly when shared with loved ones.
Marie Antoinette — Banana pancakes
Sofia Coppola’s sumptuous biography of the doomed French queen, Marie Antoinette isn’t a food film as such, but contains some of the most tantalising culinary scenes. Banquet sequences feature carefully arranged asparagus, lush cakes and jellies placed alongside candied orange peels, mini bites of cream topped with berries and pistachios — all served on gilded and hand painted china. Sweet decadence!
Dish to pair it with: Oh, to be in Paris amid a variety of confectioneries. But, one can dream with these gloriously fluffy banana pancakes and brighten up dull days. In a dreamy saccharine scene, we see the princesses partying with a stack of pastel macaroons and petits fours, while champagne flows freely across the room. Keep these pancakes close, as they will be a perfect substitute for the stacked macaroons while you plan a post-lockdown meet-up with your friends.
Aruna & Her Palate — Egg noodles
Based on Laksmi Pamuntjak’s book, this film is a gourmet tour of Indonesian cuisine and a voyage of romantic discovery — set against (sorry!) the backdrop of an avian flu outbreak.
Aruna (Dian Sastrowardoyo) is an epidemiologist investigating a series of isolated outbreaks of a new virus strain of what appears to be bird flu in humans. She decides to combine work with a food-centric road trip, sampling the local delicacies in each place she visits. The HazMat suit by day, clam noodles by night juxtaposition is odd, but works smoothly enough as Aruna struggles to balance her foodie fun with the reality of a looming health crisis. And then her crush (Oka Antara) shows up!
Dish to pair it with: Why all the eating establishments depicted in this movie are open during an epidemic remains a total mystery to me, however, this plot point does nudge me towards… egg noddles! Especially when topped with chilli, honey and sugar snaps.
Gulabjaam — Shrikhand
In Sachin Kundalkar’s 2019 feature Gulabjaam, Aditya (Siddharth Chandekar) leaves his high paying bank job to open a restaurant and recreate the food of his childhood. When he tracks down Radha (Sonali Kulkarni), who is famed for her culinary touch, he encounters a living example of the notorious Puneri brand of hospitality. She is eccentric and completely disinterested in mentoring at first, but soon her facade dissolves. She tests Aditya by making him knead dough, roll out 100 chapatis, dry pulses, grind flour, wash utensils, clean up, and cut vegetables.
While it features in many arresting visuals, food is also used as a metaphor in Gulabjaam.
Dish to pair it with: Shrikhand is an integral part of traditional Maharashtrian and Gujarati thali. The process by which a humble bowl of curd can turn into a mouthwatering dessert is amazing. Have it plain, or combined with fruit pulp, nuts, saffron and cardamom to enhance the shrikhand’s creamy richness.
Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana — Butter chicken
Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana is the story of a man in search of a forgotten recipe for the signature dish that made his family’s dhaba popular in Punjab. Omi (Kunal Kapoor) runs away from home and migrates to the UK. He returns home after a decade, unemployed and debt-ridden, hoping his family can help him out. Except that his once-wealthy grandfather has not only lost his fortune but also the recipe of the dish that made his restaurant’s fortune: the “Chicken Khurana”.
Directed by Sameer Sharma and sharply written by Sumit Batheja, the film has a close understanding of the flourishing genre of idiosyncratic slice-of-life narratives, and is a comedy about food, love and family ties.
Dish to pair it with: The classic butter chicken delicacy is unknown to none. Juicy chicken bathed in a creamy gravy bursting with authentic flavours — what could better encapsulate the spirit of this Bollywood film?