Considering it’s universal appeal, it’s a wonder there aren’t more movies about food. The ongoing trend toward conscious consumption has made gourmet cuisine ubiquitous in major cities, social media spreads artisanal dishes and streaming services are awash in cooking shows – yet aside from perennial classics like the 1985 Japanese “ramen western” Tampopo, Ang Lee’s 1994 Eat Drink Man Woman or Pixar’s more recent Ratatouille, not many films come to mind.
Fortunately for foodies everywhere, prolific Singaporean director Eric Khoo has added one more to that list with Ramen Shop, a love letter to his hometown’s cuisine disguised as a family drama. Sadly, while Khoo certainly nailed the food part, the drama could have used a bit more work.
After the death of his emotionally distant father, Masato, a young ramen chef from Takasaki, Japan, finds the diaries of his Singaporean mother, who passed away when he was a child. Discovering recipes she saved for him and her innermost thoughts, he’s filled with long-forgotten memories of his childhood in Singapore and embarks on a trip to find his roots.
With the help of a Japanese expat food blogger, he tracks down his maternal family and pieces together the courtship of his parents, who bonded over their mutual appreciation of food – particularly the Singaporean dish bak kut teh, a pork rib stew served with oolong tea. But he is unable to connect with his grandmother, the family matriarch, who opposed his parent’s union: A survivor of the brutal Japanese occupation during WWII, she forbade the marriage and disowned his defiant mother; now, she refuses to even speak to Masato. Determined to heal the old wound, Masato creates a fusion of ramen and bak kut teh in the hope that food will succeed where words have failed.
The Great Communicator
At times oversentimental, Ramen Shop nonetheless tells its tale of familial reconciliation with a straightforward sincerity that is hard to fault. But the food steals the show: Presenting Singaporean cuisine, a heady mix of Indian, Chinese and southeast Asian traditions, in a delicious light, the real stars are on the plate. In fact, the dishes often have more personality and depth than the protagonists: each character is taciturn bordering on curt – unless they’re discussing food. Then, they transform into gushing waterfalls, going on at length about making your own chili sauce (use fresh kalamansi juice instead of vinegar) or the finer points of making noodles in a high humidity environment.
Gradually, you realize how this family became estranged – everyone is terrible at expressing themselves outside the kitchen. But that is precisely the point: One character remarks that Masato himself is like ramen, the Chinese noodle soup adapted to Japanese tastes – a hybrid combining the very best traits of two cultures. When he fuses Japanese and Singaporean cuisine, he demonstrates that food can bring people together.
Indeed, Ramen Shop’s metaphor for multiculturalism is a powerful one, but unless you’re an unabashed foodie yourself, its one-dimensional characters may go right over your head instead of straight to your gut.
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