Exploring Culture Through Foods in Film

By Moira Plater


Food is recognised as holding a significant place in our lives, and as a way of preserving culture; speaking the strands of family and identity through flavours and ingredients. The film industry uses the vibrant colours and creation of foods from our ethnic backgrounds and cultural identities to show the art, passion and rich history that our food represents. Here is a look into films that have fed us memorable meals giving insight to the diversity of food.


Spirited Away (2001)

We can’t talk about food in film without mentioning Studio Ghibli, with all the animations having prominent food scenes with beautiful images of Japanese culture. There are countless films with iconic dishes to name from memory, but I’ve chosen to focus on the onigiri eaten in Spirited Away, the plot of which Chihiro is stuck working in a bathhouse for spirits, after her family come across a seemingly abandoned amusement park. Chihiro is given onigiri after finding out the fate of her parents; a rice ball often with a filling and wrapped in nori. Onigiri (おにぎり) has been a picnic food for Japan since the Heian period (794-1185), and became a staple due to its clean functionality with the rice wrapped in seaweed. Considering onigiri is recognised as a comfort food, it isn’t surprising that it’s used to console Chihiro who is awaiting her journey.


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Until this point, Chihiro has been plunged into a world of absurdities, and there hasn’t been a chance to rest until now. While this may be a simple scene of the protagonist eating in silence, it’s a chance for the story to set in and for the characters to come to terms with what is happening. Miyazaki refers to these infamous dining scenes as Ma (間), meaning emptiness, and is described as ‘the time between a clap’. Japanese cuisine places important emphasis on visually harmonised dishes; for both taste and texture. Meals go beyond just eating in Japan, with there being an important stress on etiquette but also eating together to create stronger bonds with the people around you. The culinary scenes in Miyazaki’s films convey this, are perfect representatives of Ma, and are breathtaking to look at.


Goodfellas (1990)

While this film may be about the mafia in an Italian-New York neighbourhood (a Scorsese classic that I highly recommend), food has always been a crucial aspect of Italian culture. This particular venture into a cinematic food sequence may be slightly different however, because I’m going to comment on an extravagant meal created by the wise guys in the confines of prison, who are sentenced after murdering someone who owed a debt.


The two and a half minute scene carries us through the group slicing garlic, cooking steaks and making pasta sauce, as well as setting the table to eat as a family. Italian dining etiquette stresses the importance of taking the time to eat together with loved ones; the dining table being a place where some of the most important moments of life are discussed, and pasta being a symbol for Italians of tradition and union.


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The luxury of the mobster lifestyle that the protagonist so desired is explored in this scene; even in prison they can buy their way up the food chain, feasting on lobsters, steak and red wine as a group, while the rest of the prison lived ‘like pigs’. The meal exudes elegance, with the joint being furnished with designer clothing, jewellery and furniture- you wouldn’t guess they were in prison at all considering how dignified it looked from the outside. This moment however does become a tipping point for the protagonist, Henry, as the lifestyle he attained during his time serving drives him to the point of no return in trying to maintain and go beyond his success.


Dining scenes are littered in the mobster movie genre, food being an especially important part of the Italian mafia. There are countless other eating shots in Goodfellas, another being the group having dinner in the middle of the night at Tommy’s mothers house. Casino and Scarface are other films on the Italian mafia that heavily use food and restaurants, The Godfather being another that uses dining and cooking to express the importance of family in Italian culture.


Marie Antoinette (2006)

The French food scene is one of the most famous and enjoyed today, particularly the pâtisserie landscape, so it’s no surprise that they’re in this list; spotlighted by the ultimate film of decadence, a historical drama centred around the world of Marie Antoinette. While the film pays homage to the culinary art of the time, it’s important to acknowledge that France only evolved into the pastry central that it is today due to the French Revolution, with bread and pastry playing an important role in the country’s political history. It was the 16th century that first recognised pastry chefs as a profession, with Parisian-style café’s popping up in the 17th century with the creation of many pâtisserie staples such as whipped cream and puff pastry. The creative freedom after the revolution due to the abolition of guilds, as well as the need for survival also enabled the birth of other pleasantries like the macaron, brioche and croissants.


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Marie Antoinette displays the life of excess indulgence through bubble-gum-music-video style montages, in pastel pinks and duck-egg blues; repeated scenes of aristocracy indulging in the foods display the habits of the elites in almost a glutinous way. The confectionaries shown (which were made by Ladurée for the film) look incredible, and are perfect in emulating Coppola’s vision of the film aimed to exaggerate the lavish lifestyles of the monarchy. The revolution changed the course of society in France; the bourgeois wanted to try and recreate the niceties of the aristocracy, and it was this imitation and reconciliation with high cuisine and fine art that raised French dining and pastry into what it is today.


Ratatouille (2007)

If there’s a film on culture and food, we’ve got to talk about the childhood classic Ratatouille, the iconic Pixar film that teaches us that anyone can cook. The dish being a motley stew from the south of France, it’s a unique dish that can be made in variant ways; layering cooked vegetables on top of a sauce, or using remaining fresh vegetables and fashioning it as more of a stew. The word ‘rata’ is said to have meant ‘chunky stew’, which comes from its origins of ‘rata’ being military slang for military canteen in the 18th century.


However, the dish's modest origins are actually from the peasant farmers of Provence (Provence became a part of France in the late 1400s). Even described in the movie as a ‘peasant’s dish’, it is the one dish that humbles the cold critique, Anton Ego, and takes him back to his childhood; past his stony exterior, and to the warmth of the untroubled past- it’s just one of those dishes that makes you think of home.


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Just like the pâtisserie landscape, the French restaurant culture is built upon tradition and history, and has become a prominent feature of France. With restaurant culture and Michelin playing an important role in the film, the dish ratatouille, a ‘peasant's dish’, feels symbolic in the game of restaurant critiquing; the flavours and tastes that transport us to where we came from really do have wondrous abilities to move us to raw emotions.


Parasite (2019)

The Oscar-winning Parasite by Bong Joon-ho is commended as a must-watch experience (again, I highly recommend) that looks into class discrimination through the lense of a black-comedy-thriller. Every last detail in the film is perfected in an extraordinary way to reflect this, one of them being the dish of ‘ram-don’ prepared by the housekeeper. The name ‘ram-don’ was cultivated for the film specifically, (due to conflict on how to subtitle the korean name) with the actual meal being one familiar to Korean’s as jjapaguri.


Jjapaguri is a popular fusion of two different ramen products, the Chinese-jajang-style Chapagetti noodles and Korean-style-Japanese-inspired udon Neoguri noodles. The meal is considered a budget comfort food that can easily be created on a run to the convenience store. The black-bean sauce noodles paired with a udon in a spicy beef broth is a warm, uniquely Korean food despite the fusion of noodle styles- although this fusion does get political. Udon noodles are Japanese, but Neoguri ramen is from a Korean brand, and this specification is important in Korea due to the strain on Korean-Japanese relations after Japan’s colonial rule in the early 20th century; which still affects the markets today and is the reason for the lack of Japanese products in Korea. The added Korean-style broth in the ramen is important in maintaining this divide, and is key in the dish jjapaguri.


What makes this meal so incredible in the film is the level of detail added to create the class divide between the families. Remembering that jjapaguri is a budget food, the distinction here is that the wealthy Mrs. Park calls for Hanu beef to be added- which is a premium beef in Korea (similar to Wagyu beef). It’s the fact that such a high end product can be added to the simplest of dishes really elevates jjapaguri to ‘ram-don’, subtly commenting on the dissimilarities of families as the destitute housekeeper Mrs. Kim prepares the meal for Mrs. Park.


While I’ve chosen a small selection of films, there are many others that use food as a way to present culture to the audience, telling anecdotes on the vibrant history and traditions of our multinational society. (If there are any other films that come to mind, leave them in the comments!) Our ethnic backgrounds are conveyed through the clothes we wear, the ways we celebrate, the way we carry ourselves, and the way we eat, and it is so important that we pride ourselves in our differences. The world’s palette is worth exploring; food plays a crucial role not only in the plots of the movies, but the stories of our lives. Next time you watch a film, keep an eye out for what the characters eat, and what the foods in themselves mean- just some food for thought...


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