Every memorable film character arrives on screen with a compelling backstory. This can be revealed through cinematography, a character’s clothes, or even how they prepare and enjoy food. A region’s culinary culture informs the characteristics and private histories of people who have lived there. The sweeping shots of Sacré-Cœur in ‘Amélie’ tell us that the film is set in Paris, whereas the title character’s enjoyment of a crème brûlée tells us that she’s a romantic soul with a sweet tooth. The successive banquets in ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ reveal the ritualism involved in Taiwanese family dinners and also the dynamic between father and daughters. Essentially, every dish in a film, whether it’s a bowl of cereal or quail stuffed with foie gras, reveals another aspect of a place and creates a sense of depth in a film’s characters.
Here, are some moments in films where the food takes a leading role to help tell the story. And thrown in for good measure, are some additional notes on where one might find some of these dishes made famous by both their culture and film cameos.
Audrey Tautou in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, (2001).
“… she cultivates a taste for the small pleasures: dipping her hand into sacks of grain, cracking crème brulée with a teaspoon, and skipping stones at St. Martin’s Canal.”
Amélie’s Crème Brûlée
2001 / Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet / France
“This film is filled with airy whimsical charm the way that a chocolate soufflé is filled with air.” — Nell Minow, Common Sense Media
In the opening minutes of 2001’s beloved Amélie, the audience is treated to a version of Paris that is perennially soaked in autumnal lighting. In this city, neighbourhoods operate as if supermarkets have never existed and everyone buys flowers on the weekend. The narrator tells us about the eponymous character as we glide through the streets and into her life. The moment you see Amélie savour her first spoonful of a freshly torched crème brûlée, you enter Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s impossibly romantic Paris. “… she cultivates a taste for the small pleasures: dipping her hand into sacks of grain, cracking crème brulée with a teaspoon, and skipping stones at St. Martin’s Canal,” explains the Narrator.
Crème brûlée (translated literally into the drastically less-whimsical “burnt cream”) first appeared as a recipe in the 1691 French cookbook Le Cuisinier Roïal et Bourgeois and a variety of the dessert appeared again in 19th century Cambridge, England. It largely disappeared from cookbooks until the 1980s, when it became a symbol of decadence in Western restaurants. The traditional recipe consists of a vanilla custard base, topped with a layer of torched caramel.
Tucked just off the bustling main streets in Amélie’s home neighbourhood of Montmarte is the cosy Le Potager du Père Thierry—a small gem of an eatery with a sublime crème brûlée.
Le Potager du Père Thierry, 16 Rue des Trois Frères , 75018 Paris, France
Dinner scene from Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, (1994).
Eat Drink Man Woman’s Stir-Fried Taiwanese Clams
1994 / Dir. Ang Lee / Taiwan
“Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman is tender without being mushy, sweet without being syrupy—and surprising in ways that can only make you smile.” — Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
Set in Taipei, this Taiwanese comedy directed by Ang Lee looks at food from a ritualistic perspective. Every Sunday, former master chef Mr. Chu prepares an extravagant dinner to eat with his three unmarried daughters. Over the course of each meal, the dynamic between the widower father and his adult children changes, symbolic of the broader societal changes in Taiwan. During the production of Eat Drink Man Woman, one hundred dishes were prepared by consultant chefs, ranging from white radish omelettes to cuttlefish coups and pork belly buns. A particularly mouth-watering dish featured in the film is the stir-fried Taiwanese clams, where they are tossed in garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce, before being sautéed in peanut oil until the clams open.
Fresh clam dishes are widely available throughout Taipei, however the haute cuisine seafood institution at the top of everyone’s list is Host Shabu. Crab, oyster, cuttlefish and blue fin tuna are also available in fresh and abundant supply.
Host Shabu, 28 Songren Rd, Xinyi District , Bellavita 4F , Taipei 110 , Taiwan
Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, (1994).
“Pulp Fiction is arguably his [Tarantino’s] biggest, and most obvious, love letter to America, as told through the fetishisation of kitsch culture. This is a world in which roadside diners are great culinary temples and criminals are the congregation.”
Pulp Fiction’s Martin and Lewis Vanilla Milkshake
Dir. Quentin Tarantino / 1994 / USA
“I’ve gotta know what a $5 shake tastes like.” — Vincent Vega (John Travolta)
Quentin Tarantino is renowned for the recurring cinematic in-jokes and stylistic flourishes that dominate his films. Everything from the retro opening title sequences, to the homage-heavy sound design, reminds us that this is another version of Tarantino’s American culture. Pulp Fiction is arguably his biggest, and most obvious, love letter to America, as told through the fetishisation of kitsch culture. This is a world in which roadside diners are great culinary temples and criminals are the congregation.
Just before their iconic “twist” dance scene in the 50s-themed Jack Rabbit Slims, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) drink two classic American beverages—a vanilla Coke and a milkshake. Mia seductively plays with the straw of the milkshake as Vincent (and the audience) looks on, intrigued—his Coke completely cropped from the frame. The milkshake in this scene is more than a nod to 50s diners, it’s representative of a mythical idea of America—as wholesome, sweet and safe. The fact the shake is called “Martin and Lewis” (vanilla-flavoured and named after white entertainers Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), is a sly joke about race-relations in 1950s America (the chocolate shake is named after African-American entertainers Amos Jones and Andy Brown).
Back at the time of Pulp Fiction’s release, five dollars was a lot for a milkshake—nowadays it’s a pretty good deal. Try a classic vanilla shake at the nostalgia-drenched Café 50s in West LA. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try the key lime pie or strawberry cheesecake flavours. Tastes like America!
Café 50s, 11623 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles , CA 90025 , USA
Cailles en sarcophage served in Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast, (1987).
Babette’s Feast’s Cailles en Sarcophage
1987 / Dir. Gabriel Axel / Denmark
“The film began something of a vogue for food as an emblem of love in the cinema, but nothing has equalled it. Resist it if you can.” — Robyn Karney, Radio Times
Set against the remote landscape of coastal Jutland (Denmark) in the 19th century, Babette’s Feast is about two sisters who are the daughters of a protestant pastor whose pious and austere lifestyle is interrupted when their loyal cook, Babette, wins the lottery. With the substantial winnings, Babette decides to cook an elaborate French feast for the sisters and their congregation. At the heart of this Oscar-winning film, is a celebration of the way the preparation and sharing of food can connect people from different religions, classes and nations. The menu here is the embodiment of luxurious French cuisine, including a lot of rich pastries, rare meats and champagne. The pinnacle of Babette’s Feast is the cailles en sarcophage. Translated literally as “quail sarcophagus,” a quail is baked with foie gras and truffle slices, before being placed into a puff-pastry case and topped with a drizzle of fig and truffle sauce.
You might have a hard time finding a restaurant in Denmark that with serve you cailles en sarcophage, mostly because they’d struggle to live up to Babette’s standards. But if your curiosity (and taste buds) are getting the better of you, The New York Times have kindly published a recipe so you can try your hand at it yourself.
Nobuko Miyamoto (left) as Tampopo and Kinzo Sakura (right) as Shôhei in Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, (1985).
1985 / Dir. Juzo Itami / Japan
“Food isn’t just consumed in Tampopo—every bite is an ode to life.” — Serena Donadoni, The Village Voice
“Director Juzo Itami positions the staple Japanese noodle broth as a central character in the madcap Western-cum-satire, which lampoons 1980s food-obsessed culture and the continued Westernisation of Japan.”
Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) is a widowed ramen vendor who appears to have lost her lust for life. Then, in true cowboy style, a stranger, Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki), comes to town with a taste for justice… And ramen. He gives the disillusioned woman some sage advice about the “art of noodle soup making” and together they strive to make Tampopo’s the best ramen stall possible. Director Juzo Itami positions the staple Japanese noodle broth as a central character in the madcap Western-cum-satire, which lampoons 1980s food-obsessed culture and the continued Westernisation of Japan.
Ramen is famously hard to perfect, despite its purported simplicity. Traditionally prepared ramen consists of wheat noodles, chicken or pork broth, a sauce to flavour (with soy being the oldest choice) and topped with a variety of garnishes, including chāshū (sliced barbecued or braised pork), bean sprouts or nori (dried seaweed). The exact geographic origin of ramen is unclear, however, it became more prevalent in Japan after World War II when cheap wheat flour became more readily available. Ramen, unsurprisingly, is an extremely popular post-alcohol meal in Tokyo. In recognition of this, Furumen was conceived as a ‘ramen bar’ in 2016—an all-inclusive package to enjoy booze and eat ramen .
Furumen , 3—4—31 Roppongi , Minato-ku , Tokyo , Japan
Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, (2009).
Julie and Julia’s Bœuf Bourguignon
2009 / Dir. Nora Ephron / USA
“Deliciously funny and warming fare…” — Angie Errigo, Empire
Charting the origins of Julia Child before she became one of America’s first “celebrity chefs,” Julie and Julia captures the playful yet determined spirit of Child (played here by Meryl Streep) as she overcomes the ingrained sexism of the 1950s culinary world and writes the landmark cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). This journey is paralleled by a passionate food blogger (Amy Adams) living in twenty-first century New York, who aims to recreate each of the recipes in Child’s book, with varying rates of success.
Originally a “peasant dish,” bœuf bourguignon became popular with the French middle class before becoming more widely cooked throughout North America from 1961 onwards. This stew is a rich and nourishing mix of chopped beef braised with red wine, garlic, mushroom and onions, left to cook for several hours. It is perhaps the perfect winter meal. Arguably the food capital of France, Lyon is famous for its intimate restaurants that offer fresh and locally-grown produce. Le Blind Pig, in the Les Brotteaux neighbourhood, offers French fare with a modern twist, including tapas-sized boeuf bourguignon.
Le Blind Pig, 64 Rue Ney , 69006 Lyon , France