The mornings are now staying dark for a little longer, the skies are overcast more often, and the wind is stirring those golden, rust, ochre leaves. In the spirit of tuning into the rhythms of nature around me, I’m starting to hear the whispers of hibernation calling. Nature is warning that it is time to be cozy and inspired by stories told by the TV while I eat popcorn on the couch. I’m hard pressed to think of anything more soothing than beautifully crafted food scenes: they’re usually luxurious in their sensory details, slowed down—the scene, itself simmering. Or even if it’s a frenetic, stressed out restaurant scene, the stakes are inhumanly high to create something extraordinary. Cooking and eating on film is a natural point of entry into a character’s emotions and relationship dynamics because off camera the greatest of our dramas often center around the stove/table/kitchen sink.
It has become commonly known that we can decipher between five basic tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami (savoury). This is based on the receptors found on our taste buds which appear “mostly on the tongue, the roof of the mouth and in the back of the throat.” Researchers have since discovered that the taste of fat exists as a sixth basic taste, and not just in the way that fattiness feels in the mouth but according to Richard Mattes, a professor of nutrition science and the lead author on a 2015 study, “‘We already knew that people have a taste receptor of fatty acids; now we know that it’s a distinguishable taste’”. Researchers have identified a whole range of sensations vying for a spot among the basic tastes: calcium, kokumi (heartiness), piquance, coolness, metallicity, carbon dioxide, and astringency. To this end here is a list of thirteen examples of food on screen that represents—either literally or thematically—each of these distinguishable tastes we can decipher. However, we also know that each one of our sense organs has an impact on how we perceive the food we put in our mouths; the colours, the smells, the textures, the temperature, the memories all help our brains decode what something tastes like. My only criteria in selecting from the endless examples of food on film was that I had to feel nourished by the watching.
Bitter: Monsoon Wedding (2001, dir. Mira Nair)
A lavish wedding set to take place during the rainy season in New Delhi is usually fodder for light-hearted comedy, but here issues of class in a modern Indian household strip away the veneer to reveal an incredibly humane story about authenticity and those things bound by love between a couple and among a family. While putting together the wedding for the daughter of a middle-class family, wedding planner P.K Dubey falls in love with the family’s maid, Alice, in one of the narrative’s many threads. This movie is pegged as bitter for the scene where Dubey eats a marigold that has fallen as workers prepare for the wedding; marigolds themselves a symbol of marriage, tasting peppery, citrus-y, and bitter. Dubey is painted in buffoonish broad strokes to begin with, but his character is revealed as so much more nuanced in a way that shifts the whole nature of this film. The taste of just that marigold, and the longing it signifies, can make you cry.
Sweet: Chocolat (2000, dir. Lasse Hallström)
Chocolate works magic in this film as Vianne and her young daughter are blown into a fictional French town on the north wind. Vianne opens a chocolaterie at the beginning of Lent, and her delicate creations imbued with intention act to open up the repressed townsfolk who dare consume them. The film has the quality of a fairy-tale and the scene of a birthday feast—all chocolate sauce and a roasted turkey—leaves each guest around the table enchanted. It is a story about determining the boundaries for your own life while opening the doors to those around you. It is compassionate and charming in its storytelling, and all of the scenes featuring chocolate-making are so luxurious and decadent and rich that it is undeniable that the taste alone could change everything for you.
Sour: Chef (2014, dir. Jon Favreau)
This movie comes under sour to describe the relationship at the beginning of the story between restaurant owner, Riva, and star chef, Carl Casper, who are terminally are at odds over taking creative risks with the menu. That sour feeling of knowing you’re not living up to what you know you could achieve and of making safe but bland compromises is the feeling of tamping down your own creative spark. But hope can only emerge from that which initially feel hopeless: enter one food truck, a road trip, and Casper’s autonomy and creative expression reignite his passion in cooking and in his relationships.
Salty:The Bear (2022, series: season 1 Christopher Storer)
Fine-dining chef, Carmy, inherits a Chicago sandwich shop in the wake of his brother’s death. Carmy is dealing with a lot of very high-intensity trauma, secrets, and grief in his attempts to put order to the restaurant’s chaos. As a result his overall vibe is very salty. But also funny and inspired. The whole cast is amazing, and the camera-work and tension-building gives the viewer a real fly-on-the-wall perspective of working in a commercial kitchen. All of the unbridled stress is balanced by way of the tenderness with which bread baker Marcus elevates his pastry game, to near heart-breaking end.
Umami: Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, Ang Lee)
A father, Chu, makes a burdensome feast for his three grown daughters every Sunday, the table over laden and no one truly satisfied. Chu, a master chef of traditional Chinese cooking, has long lost his sense of taste. Over the course of many Sunday dinners each family member declares that they have an announcement to make; each daughter struggles to share their real experiences feeling caught in the roles each embodies. This film is classified as umami (savoury) not for the extensive cooking scenes—which play out as almost devotional under the camera’s attention—but rather for the way Chu and his middle daughter, Jia-Chien, are able to claim what they desire and really see each other again.
Calcium: Uncorked (2020, dir. Prentice Penny)
Calcium when isolated from fat is described as tasting chalky. According to research it seems as though the ability to detect calcium is a safeguard against overconsumption; so while calcium is absolutely necessary for our survival, too much can cause life-threatening disease. Which is where I’m categorizing this movie about a young man, Elijah, who longs to train as a Master Sommelier rather than take over his father’s barbeque stand. Father and son alike, struggle to find where that line is between doing what’s just good-for-you, and doing what will-be-good-for-you. I’d also go so far as to say there is something ‘chalky’ to Courtney B. Vance’s portrayal of the father, Louis, in the way his voice never raises over a soft, powdery gravel while almost always bracing himself against what he perceives as his son’s nails-on-chalkboard lack of commitment.
Kokumi: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011, dir. David Gelb)
Kokumi translates to something like a background “richness” or “heartiness” and is found naturally in Japanese fermented foods: “Although associated with taste, in many ways, kokumi is more of a texture. It can boost the mouth-coating sensation from fat-containing food […] It can increase the roundness of a flavor, much like salt does traditionally, and amplify sweetness in reduced-sugar products.” It is a flavour that is deep and rich and aged. Here what comes to mind is a documentary of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old master sushi chef, who has a singular devotion to making the perfect sushi. Jiro’s philosophy in life is to commit to loving your life’s work without complaint and dedicating yourself exclusively in service of mastering your craft without ego. Everyday he is committed to executing the same routines without variation, and this repetition is the kokumi–the background richness–which makes his food near perfect. His 10-seat restaurant in the Tokyo subway was given three Michelin stars and he has no plans of retiring at the time of filming. With such exacting standards sushi is the sole priority and everything else is sacrificed, but witnessing his extreme commitment is the recipe for kokumi for anyone who strives to create something with their life.
Piquance: Woman on Top (2000, dir. Fina Torres)
The magic realism of another fairy-tale inspired story is grounded in the passion Brazilian chef, Isabella, feels for malagueta peppers. Isabella suffers from motion sickness so extreme that she can’t bear any movement unless she is at the helm. To compensate for these debilitating effects, Yemanja, goddess of the sea, grants Isabella remarkable culinary talents. The result is that the dishes Isabella creates ignite passion in all who even just catch the smell of it. Teaching a cooking class, she tells her students that “they must put all of their feelings and experiences into their creations,” and so Isabella comes to represent inspiration, and the kind of magic that springs from attention even to the smallest sensory details of life all around us. That tiny malagueta pepper in its aroma, flavour, and heat encapsulates everything she feels about her unfaithful husband, and man she loves but now hardens her heart to, but true passion ultimately reveals itself in romance that is mature and self-aware.
Coolness: Marie Antoinette (2006, dir. Sofia Coppola)
In this sense, coolness refers to a minty or fresh sensation, the opposite of spiciness, which immediately brings this film to mind, with the candied pastel palette of Marie Antoinette’s fashion within the extravagance of the Palace of Versailles, along with the modern soundtrack and sensibility of this period piece. It is a youthful take on a historical story, fitting because Marie Antoinette was only 14-years-old when she was sent from Vienna to France to marry the 16-year-old Dauphin. It’s widely known now that the infamous response of ‘let them eat cake,’ to the starving people of France was never something Marie Antoinette actually said, and yet the extravagance of the cakes and desserts and parties and gambling were a type of insulation that kept the monarchy separate from their subjects. The frosted decadence on film belies the tragedy of Marie Antoinette’s end in a very smart and subtle way: the beheading to come is never alluded to in the film but the audience knows it’s there looming darkly at the edge of the candy-coloured frame.
Metallicity: The Farewell (2019, dir. Lulu Wang)
In this film a family keeps secret the news of her terminal cancer from their matriarch, instead organizing a quick wedding of her grandson as the reason they have all reunited in her home in China. There are three scenes of the extended family eating together and Billi, the American-raised granddaughter, can barely stomach the lie that she feels forced to uphold. It’s a sophisticated juxtaposition; the beauty of the family meal, a feast to celebrate, and yet the only taste in the mouth is duty, complicity, and the anticipation of grief. Intertwined is also the angst Billi feels growing up in the diaspora—New York City, itself concrete and metal—at a loss as to her place in the world, and how exactly to breathe vitality into her life.
Fat:The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014, dir. Lasse Hallström)
This is a movie about a family forced to flee their Mumbai restaurant and find themselves opening another in a small French town directly across the road from a Michelin-starred establishment. Son Hasan has a natural talent in the kitchen and eventually crosses enemy lines to cook in the French restaurant across the way. I’m categorizing this film under fat because of the way that Hasan marbles elements of his Indian cooking into every dish he makes, elevating his creations into something unexpected. Just like those healthy fats that our bodies need to absorb nutrients and help our body function optimally, so too do Hasan’s creations work to bring harmony to the two houses. Eventually when Hasan’s star begins to rise beyond the village, he also comes to realize what needs to be shed in order to truly shine.
Carbon Dioxide: Stranger than Fiction (2006, dir. Mark Forster)
Carbon dioxide gas when added to liquid gives it a bubbly fizz, and “researchers presented a strong case for dedicated, taste bud-based carbon dioxide sensors […] which appears on sour taste-sensing cells […] in mice.” In the spirit of the zing that lifts what was once flat is the movie Stranger than Fiction. Harold Crick, IRS agent, is a character that famed author Karen Eiffel is in the midst of writing about, though Crick is revealed to be quite alive and hearing the voice of the author narrating his upcoming demise. Crick falls in love with Ana, a baker he is auditing, and he is determined to understand what it means to live before his death can be set down on paper. Ana serves Crick a chocolate chip cookie with milk, a balm to soothe jagged nerves and mend fences. She is an effervescent presence in his life; Crick’s very existence is an utter revelation to his author; and that single, warm, fresh-baked cookie is answer enough to all of life’s questions.
Astringency: In the Mood for Love (2000 Wong Kar-Wei)
This movie set in 1962 Hong Kong follows the story of two neighbours, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, who discover their spouses are having an affair. The two begin spending time together platonically in a pantomime of their spouses’ infidelity, trying to understand how and why it began. In one of the first instances that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are out together eating, it seems at first as a date but it is revealed that they are playing the roles of what they imagine their spouses would’ve done: she asks him to order for her because she doesn’t know what his wife likes. As she eats the steak that comes, Mr. Chow later spoons a dollop of mustard on to her plate. The food is visually bland; they don’t speak much under the weight of all their emotions. This movie came to mind under astringency to describe the betrayal they both suffer, but then later as their feelings for one another deepen they come to an early agreement that to act on their love would make them no better than their cheating spouses. In taste, the feeling of astringency “is a distinct sensation in the mouth that causes your tongue to feel like it’s tightening up and puckering.” A series of chances not taken and missed opportunities forces their love to remain unspoken, and we are left with only the tightness of yearning.
by Nadia Ragbar