Home Theatre: Food for thought
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the wide variety of streaming platforms around you, and this week it is the Netflix series, Street Food
On Friday last, Netflix released a documentary series that united two of my interests — food and cinema — and made my choice for this week's column as easy as apple pie. Easy, however, is the last adjective you would use to describe the work of the people featured on Street Food, brought to us by the creators of Chef's Table -- David Gelb and Brian McGinn. The narrative, in fact, stresses how difficult and labour-intensive it is to produce the street food that's showcased in the series.
There are nine episodes in all, each centred on a particular city/region in Asia — Bangkok, Thailand; Osaka, Japan; Delhi, India; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Chiayi, Taiwan; Seoul, South Korea; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore; and Cebu, Philippines. Each episode features one primary street chef (another thing the show stresses is how these aren't just street cooks), whose story we mainly follow, with brief excursions to look at some other notable purveyors of important street food dishes of the region. There are usually one or two narrators also — food writers, historians from the region — who act as our guides and fill us in on the story and the narrative.
I keep using the word 'narrative' for a reason. Gelb and McGinn are credited as the creators on the show, and they also get executive producer credits, but there are no directors listed. Given this, it seems safe to assume that a fair amount of thought was put into the story they wanted to tell. That the creators are going for a particular narrative also becomes clear as the series progresses. Certain ideas are repeated across episodes — the democratic nature of street food; the hurdles street food vendors increasingly face thanks to civic regulations; how food is connected to the history of a place and the role of street food in carrying on traditions; the labour-intensive nature of the job of street chefs; the struggles they face in life before finally making a name for themselves and creating a sustainable business; how most of them are older people, some of whom want their children to carry on the tradition; the cross-generational conflicts that crop up when these children try to pitch in/take over the business; and so on. While these are all valid points and the show is, for the most part, quite engaging, it's sometimes hard to overlook how there seems to have practically been a checklist that was being followed.
Now, I don't mean to imply that any of this is manufactured or even force-fitted into the show. It's brought up very organically in some instances, while in others, if only because we've already seen a very similar story, it stands out. Take, for instance, the parent-child conflict in carrying on the street food business. This is beautifully illustrated in the Chiayi episode, where Grace tells us about how her plans for improvement of their business were resisted by her parents, until she came up with a clever workaround. Her frustrations are only all too real and relatable for anyone who has tried to convince older people to change their outdated ways. But when a similar narrative pops up in the Singapore episode, where Aisha faces the same sort of resistance from her parents, when she wants to make their puttu piring business profitable by introducing modern techniques, it's just not as impactful. Aisha's story and her struggles are, no doubt, just as real as Grace's, but cinematically, it's not as interesting simply because it feels like a rehash. Perhaps this is where a director could have helped, maybe even different directors for each episode, to give these stories the individuality they deserve.
Having said that, there's still a lot to like here. The tantalising food, of course. That is sure to appeal to those of us who like food shows. The uniformly stunning cinematography is another plus. But the USP here is the focus on the people behind the food, and they are the ones who make this series special. The rockstar of a chef that is Bangkok's Jay Fai. The fiercely individual old man Toyo from Osaka. And my personal favourite, the incredible Mbah Satinem, the master of jajan pasar from Yogyakarta. Bent double, age unknown, but so proud of supporting her family even today. So proud of her skill -- when she explains in her sing-song voice that her mother was famous for her jajan pasar, but her own are just as good, adding, "I am more famous than my mom," and laughs her joyful laugh, we can't help but grin along. There's a three-minute segment in this episode where Mbah Satinem and her husband talk about how they met, fell in love and got married, and what they like about each other. It's one of the most heartwarming love stories I've come across in recent times, fiction or real life. "He's not handsome," she laughs, adding, "We're both quite average." I'm smiling again even just thinking about this.
So, go on, indulge yourself in a little Street Food. You won't regret it. Just don't do what I did and watch this on an empty stomach. That, you will regret.