Ramen Shop: Finding family history through food

A- Foodie drama
Written by Tan Fong Cheng, Wong Kim Hoh
Directed by Eric Khoo

As a rule, I hate foodie movies. I have a hard time caring that the chef hero can find the perfect ingredients and techniques to get his work of art a Michelin rating.

Which makes Ramen Shop all the more exceptional. But then, it’s not really about food. It’s about family history. Food is only a way to find your past and your culture.

A young Japanese man (Takumi Saitoh) goes to Singapore to discover his family history. He knows little about his parents. His recently-deceased father was never close. His Singaporean mother died when he was young. Clearly, it’s the Singapore part of the family that he wants to discover.

He inherits a notebook – sort of a diary – of his mother’s. From there, he learns about her hard and unhappy life, and starts on his journey of discovery.

And through both the book and the art of cooking ramen brings the young man into the world of his lost family. Ramen is a Japanese dish, but it has become popular in Singapore, and he studies to become a great ramen chef like his father. And through that study, he begins to meet and understand his parents.

Japan and Singapore have bad history together. During World War II, Japan conquered the island city, and treated the inhabitants horribly. Not all Singaporeans have forgiven the Japanese – even those born long after the atrocities. Our young protagonist must come to grips with his country’s crimes before he can totally understand why his mother’s mother broke off with her daughter when she married a Japanese man.

But he finds and wins his family for the most part by food. Like his father, he was born with the talent to be a great ramen chef. Through many of the people he meets and befriends, he learns the skills of his craft.

It’s only in these sequences that Ramen Shop becomes a conventional foodie movie. The film contains montages of people carefully buying produce, experimenting with seasonings, and carefully watching how other people cook.

And it’s here that I run into one of my foodie movie problems: meat. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1970. I understand that most people have positive reactions to the sight of chopping up and cooking pork, beef, or chicken. For me, it’s like watching someone chopping up a corpse.

The fact that I overlooked these distasteful images says a lot about Ramen Shop. Yes, it’s a feel-good movie, but one that truly feels true.

Ramen Shop opens Friday at the Opera Plaza, Shattuck, and the Rafael.