Okay, so here's the thing...this is a Japanese comedy that might seem strange and disconnected to some. And it is, but in the most brilliant way. Because when you really look at it and really think about it, that seeming disconnect is actually the thread that binds everything together. It's an exploration of the role that food plays in life and all of its aspects: love, sex, happiness, simplicity, the pecking order, generosity, culture, and death.
The main story:
Confused? Well, the main storyline is about a couple of "cowboys" riding into town on their trusty 18-wheeler to rescue the damsel in distress, Tampopo, a widow and owner of a noodle shop who, while she makes amazing pickles, can't make a good bowl of noodles to save her life. So our hero, Goro, agrees to train her in the art of ramen and they set out on a quest, an exploration, a mission of Rockyesque proportions.
Tampopo and Goro visit all sorts of noodle shops on their investigative mission to find the best broth, the best noodles, the best components of a bowl of ramen...and thus, the hilarity ensues. From sly questioning to peeping through cracks in walls to kitchen training exercises, they work around the clock to meet their goal.
But as this story is being told, so are a handful of side stories that Roger Ebert called a "meditation on human nature in which one humorous situation flows into another offhandedly, as if life were a series of smiles". These are the explorations that I mentioned earlier.
- (Sex) A gangster and his lover get a little (okay a lot) kinky exploring the relationship between sex and food. Of all the scenes, this is probably the one I could do without...because it literally made me say "eeeewwwww", but as an afterthought, it is kind of funny. And gross.
- (Death, Love, and Respect) 1. A dying mother rises from her death bed to prepare her family one final meal before returning to her bed and slipping away. Through tears and screams, her husband insists that the children must continue to eat while it was hot since it was the last meal their mom prepared for them. 2. At the end of the movie, our gangster is gunned down and as he lay dying, he reveals the method for the best sausage he ever consumed to his crying lover. With his final breath, he asks her if it sounds good. Through her tears she replies "yes, they'd be nice with horseradish and soy sauce".
- (The pecking order) A group of business men at lunch place their orders, the highest ranking one going first and the rest ordering the same, boring meal since that's what is expected of them. Until, that is, the lowest man on the totem pole orders what he wants (which happens to be more sophisticated and thought out than everybody else's choice).
- (Generosity) A man with a horrible, festering tooth suffers through an extraction at the dentist's office and is seen enjoying an ice cream cone afterwords...without pain. But then he sees a young child with a string around her neck gazing somewhat longingly in his direction. On that string are 2 things: a carrot and a sign. The sign reads "I only eat natural food, don't give me sweets or snacks". He hands his victory ice cream over to her.
- (Culture) A group of Japanese women are attending some sort of western etiquette class taking place in a restaurant in which they are learning the "proper" way to eat spaghetti [vongole]. Aka, twirling and eating quietly. This was one of the scenes that made me laugh the hardest. Let's just say that slurping won out.
- (Aging) An old man is shuffled into a restaurant by his daughter and as soon as she leaves, he orders all of the things he is "forbidden" to eat. Well, he is enjoying himself until he chokes on his mochi (shiroku)...which is probably why it was forbidden in the first place...but is rescued by our "main cast" with the help of a vacuum cleaner. Yes, it's as ridiculous as it sounds.
- (Not giving a f*@# - for lack of a better theme) This aside features an older lady who likes to squeeze food. In the mirror, a store clerk notices her squeezing (well, actually sinking her thumb into) bread, pastries, cheese, a peach...and tries to catch her in the act.
Before our cowboys even rode into town, the younger one (Gun, played by a very young Ken Watanabe) is telling Goro about an encounter with a wise old man instructing him on the proper way to eat noodles. It's very sensual (in a non-sexual kind of way) and makes you wish you had a bowl of ramen in front of you. It prepares you for the ensuing quest, allowing you to be an active participant in what you hope will result in victory for Tampopo.
Since food is literally the subject of the movie, it's near impossible to recite it all back to you. So, while I did crave ramen for an entire month after watching Tampopo, I actually wound up choosing my inspiration from a scene that I haven't mentioned yet. Part of the main story, there is a moment when Goro takes Tampopo and her son to meet a group of homeless people. From them, she learns about the joy of food and eating...and that you make your own happiness.
One of the homeless men asks Tampopo's son if he's hungry, and when he answers yes, asks him what he wants. When he replies excitedly that he wants "omurice", a vaudeville-esque scene follows. The "dance" plays out when the two sneak into a closed restaurant kitchen and the boy eagerly watches as the man expertly makes an omelet enveloping ketchup-fried rice. I can watch this scene over and over again, for both the food and the entertainment aspects.
The dish is simple and if your rice is cooked (use sticky rice...really, it makes a difference), comes together in a matter of minutes—as witnessed in the scene that inspired the recipe I'm sharing today.
So, if you haven't seen Tampopo yet—what are you waiting for!? If you find yourself not quite "getting" it, I recommend reading this awesome article titled TAMPOPO: ZEN and THE ART OF MAKING RAMEN. While I was able to pick up the underlying meaning of the movie on my own for the most part, the article explains a lot about Japanese culture and how the movie celebrates it. It gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for a movie that has quickly become one of my personal favorite food movies of all time.
Omurice (Japanese Rice Omelet)
Made popular in western-style Japanese restaurants, Omurice is a thin omelet wrapped around ketchup fried rice and topped with more ketchup.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Keywords: entree eggs rice beef Japanese
Ingredients (1 hearty portion)
- 3 teaspoons cooking oil, divided
- 1 tablespoons minced shallot
- 2 ounces ground beef (90/10)
- 1 packed cup cooked sticky rice, I recommend Calrose
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sriracha ketchup (or regular) + more to finish
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large eggs
- pinch of salt
Heat 1 teaspoon of the oil in a small skillet set over medium heat. Add minced shallots and cook until they just turn soft and fragrant, stirring often, about 1 minute. Add ground beef to pan and continue to cook and stir until the beef has browned, another 1-2 minutes. If there is more than a thin layer of fat in the bottom of the pan, pour the excess out.
Stir in the cooked rice, soy sauce, ketchup, and a couple of pinches of black pepper until everything is well-combined and heated through, another 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat. As soon as it's cool enough to handle (you can use a spatula to help, if needed), shape the rice into a fat oval and set aside for now.
Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt. In a medium non-stick skillet, heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat. As soon as it begins to shimmer, pour in the eggs and move around very quickly to make an omelet in a thin sheet. Flip it if you can (if not, that's okay) and turn off the heat.
To serve, you can lift the oval of rice onto the center of the omelet and wrap and roll it onto a plate. If that seems daunting, just transfer the oval of rice to a serving plate and drape the omelet over it, tucking the ends underneath. Top with more ketchup and enjoy immediately.
If you'd like to join us next month, Kimberly from Coffee and Casseroles is hosting with her pick, The Witches of Eastwick!