I love soup. To my friends and family, this obsession can seem a little unusual. After all, much of western cuisine tends to place soup in a supporting role. In full-course dinners, it’s subjugated to an early pitstop between hors-d’oeuvres and the main course. In more casual or frugal circles, soup is often paired with another food to stretch its fillingness: soup and sandwich, soup and crackers, or soup and salad. Yet, soup is also a core of the food industry: it’s everywhere. So ubiquitous it is, it’s found pre-made in grocery stores in tin cans, dried in plastic pouches for ‘instant’ satisfaction. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans testifies to its impact on American culture–the secondary dish, now a symbol of consumerism and consumption, devoid of taste and experience.
Too rarely has soup been the star of the show, unencumbered by the weight of another food or its arrangement in a meal. Soup has long stood as a symbol for warmth, comfort, and ease. Its presence can evoke childhood memories or ease a sick belly. It has also demarcated class lines, from the worker’s borsch made of hearty root vegetables to consommé Olga, a clear soup made from veal and garnished with scallops. However, make no mistake: soup is an art-form in its own right. Should we give it the attention it deserves (and appreciate it for what it is–a deceptively simple dish, laden with complex social relations, labour, and symbolic meaning), soup can become more than a bowl on the dinner table. In its many variations, soup is an allegory for care, solidarity, and craftsmanship.
Enter Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s 1985 Japanese comedy film, which follows the titular character in her ramen shop. One dark and rainy evening, a pair of truckers named Goro and Gun pull up to her restaurant. They each have a bowl of ramen, but Gun, who is eyeing the kitchen, says, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” As Tampopo drops the noodles into a pot of water, he adds with a touch of skepticism, “The water isn’t boiling”.
Later, when Tampopo introduces herself, she earnestly asks how her soup was. She confides that she’s a widow but has no idea what she’s doing. Again, she asks how it was and Goro slowly answers, “Well… it has some solid, honest flavour… but it lacks pizzazz.”
Luckily, Tampopo is quick and eager to learn how to do better. After a bit of coaching, Goro and Gun make it their mission to transform her otherwise mediocre ramen into a knockout dish. Of course, they don’t do it alone; over the course of the movie, they have help from friends as well as unwitting competition, who are cleverly duped or outdone by the protagonists. By the end of the movie, Tampopo proudly works at the helm of her own successful restaurant, now bearing her name.
Overall, Tampopo is a heartwarming film that lavishes attention on ramen, from its simple ingredients to its etiquette and enjoyment. It’s truly a love letter to food that anyone can appreciate. Every moment dedicated to ramen is about crafting the perfect soup. For example, in order to learn how one shop makes the best noodles, Tampopo tricks the chef into revealing his secret by criticizing his skills. She cleverly tells him they weren’t as good as usual and suggests that he’s done a different step of the process wrong.
Tampopo: “That’s strange. Maybe you skipped a rolling.”
Chef: “No! Three times, like always!”
Tampopo: “I’ve got it! Different lye water!”
Chef: “No! I use the very best, from back home in Guangxi. 100% lye water.”
Tampopo: “Really? Maybe it’s just me.”
Through cunning interventions, Tampopo develops a different kind of care for each of the elements that go into her soup, beyond its ingredients. She’s able to reverse-engineer a conversation by showcasing her knowledge of noodles in order to further improve her culinary skills. She’s also reflexive and critical as she’s shown making and tasting her own soup in order to ensure its quality. Just as the quality of the ingredients is important, so too are her own abilities. The time and effort she puts into her craft explode into a tangible reality at the film’s climax, when her five friends and helpers finish an entire bowl of ramen each, without saying a word. Her soup was so good; there wasn’t a moment to waste when eating it.
However, ramen is not only about ingredients, but the experience. While Tampopo is a journey through the art of making a good soup, there are still moments when the act of eating matters. In a narrative flashback, a young student sits with an old man who’s studied noodles and how to eat them for forty years. After pausing before his first bite, the student asks, “Sensei… soup first or noodles first?”
“First, observe the whole bowl.” The old man replies, “Appreciate its gestalt. Savour the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.”
The teacher stresses not to start with the pork first. “Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying “see you soon.” Finally, start eating the noodles first. Oh, at this time, while slurping the noodles, look at the pork.”
Although this scene shows Itami poking fun at the reverence given to ramen, it also highlights something deeper. The sensei embodies an expansive knowledge of ramen, built upon forty years of experience. Conversely, the student sees his sensei as the authority on how to proceed with the meal. He doesn’t question why caressing the pork belly is necessary before you can start slurping the noodles. To the student, these actions are part of an authentic performance: this is what it means to eat ramen. This is a necessary act that needs to be imitated in order to truly enjoy this meal.
Almost ironically, thirty years after the release of Tampopo, the Smithsonian magazine put out an article called, ‘You’ve Been Slurping Ramen All Wrong’. In this piece, Todd Pitock provides a formalized description of the bodily position one must take in order to eat ramen: “[W]ith your face and hands at a certain angle and proximity to the bowl—close enough, and far enough away, to transfer noodles from bowl to mouth with chopsticks, and to let the aroma-infused steam deepen the sensory connection to the dish.” This technique is meant to cool down the hot broth, Pitock argues, and aerate the noodles, enhancing their flavours.
Unsurprisingly, this heavy-handed, pretentious article speaks more to how present-day Westerners perceive and desire to experience the exotic through ‘authentic’ Japanese cuisine: instead of focusing on one’s own experience and journey –and the many (un)productive detours it implies–one has to imitate to perfection the spiritual and bodily predisposition of ramen in order to enjoy it. Tampopo isn’t interested in creating an ‘authentic’ or ‘culturally-accurate’ experience. Neither should we as an audience or eaters be comfortable with these assumptions, which seek to invalidate creativity, resourcefulness, and craftsmanship.
Michael Herzfeld utilizes the term ‘gastro-essentialism’ to describe the phenomenon that “den[ies] the changes that time brings in its train – to claim an eternal authenticity for what, historically speaking, is but a single rendition of a variable set of practices.” (31). Simply put, gastro-essentialism attempts to distill food into monolithic stereotypes. It blinds us from seeing that variations in recipes, ingredients, and experiences are equally authentic and valid. Ramen with spinach and corn is just as authentic as ramen with American cheese. Even the kind of genre Tampopo occupies–‘ramen western’–alludes to (and is inspired by) the subgenre of European cinema that reimagined the American wild west. All of this shows the fluidity of culture: ideas bounce upon one another while inspiration and necessity take hold. There is no original “authentic” starting point that one could claim as her own.
Beyond the film, the origins of ramen are also inextricably tied to European imperialism and industrialization. As George Solt notes, Chinese migrants introduced precursory noodle soups to Japan in the late 19th century. These dishes share a somewhat distant relationship with their contemporary counterparts as they didn’t use many of the ingredients now commonly associated with ramen today and instead, relied on soba noodles (which are made with buckwheat rather than wheat). However, the American occupation of Japan following World War II indelibly impacted ramen (Sol, 29-30). With severe food shortages across Japan including staple grains such as rice and buckwheat, wheat flour was imported from the US (Solt, 30). Although the primary goal in flooding the market with wheat was to quell potential violence and uprisings against authorities, this ingredient ultimately shifted consumer preferences and solidified wheat noodles as one of the core elements of ramen.
Beyond the ingredients, the history of ramen’s craftsmanship is not made of one, uniform thread. While, in the 80s, consumerism and technology invented ways of preserving ramen for individual convenience, the 2000s urged ramen to the forefront of American culinary delight. Some of us may have even encountered ramen-watching animes such as Spirited Away (2001) with its loving attention to noodles and chashu simmering underneath hot, silky broth. In short, innovation in food preservation catapulted ramen from a staple street food to a global phenomenon. Instant ramen became popular as a cheap substitute. Who could say no to an easy meal that costs under a dollar? On the other end of the spectrum, hand-crafted ramen was elevated to a position of superiority in the culinary world. Gourmands hunted down the finest (and most expensive) ingredients like wagyu steak and gold flakes to add them to their soups to signal not only their fine tastes, but their wealth and privilege.
We often take for granted the complexity of the food we eat. Its socio-political and ecological histories are enmeshed in the very necessity for our survival. However, films like Tampopo allow us to take a step back and appreciate the details. It demonstrates that the act of creating good food (and specifically, good soup) is a spiritual endeavour. We build our best selves when we care about the food we make. Every ingredient links us back to the complex and interwoven culinary histories we share with others, past and present and it can help reaffirm as well as forge solidarity amongst those who share this meal. Finally, making food is the process of craftsmanship. It’s about dedication, perfecting your skills, and offering the very best you can. If done right, a soup can open new doors previously unknown and teach us how to appreciate the ordinary in the extraordinary. At the end of the day, we’re all amateurs when it comes to ramen. Pull up a chair, and let’s share some soup together.
Hertzfeld, Michael. ‘Culinary Stereotypes: The Gustatory Politics of Gastro-Essentialism’ in The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. Jacob A. Klein and James L. Watson, ed. Bloomsbury Academic Publishing Plc, London. 31-47. 2016.
Itami, Juzo. Tampopo. 1985.
Miyazaki, Hayao. Spirited Away. 2001.
Pitock, Todd. ‘You’ve Been Slurping Ramen All Wrong’. Smithsonian Magazine. 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/ramen-atlas-of-eating-cultural-travel-food-history-180961651/ Accessed 20 June. 2022.
Solt, George. The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned A Global Food Craze. University of California Press. 2014.