Today at RICE, I will be teaching you how to make Eric Khoo’s Ramen Teh.
3kg of pork short ribs
2 tbsp of light comedy
18 lingering shots of food porn
1 cheesy plot
A dash of cliches
As many romantic, sun-kissed flashback sequences as you can possibly stomach in a 1.5 hour film about bak kut teh.
Method of Preparation:
Throw everything in a large pot and mix vigorously.
The premise goes like this.
Masato (Takumi Saito) is a young Japanese ramen chef working under his cold, emotionally distant father. His mother Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw) is a Singaporean woman who passed away in his youth. Masato misses her badly, but has little memory of mom beyond her cooking. So, after his father’s sudden death, Masato finds himself drawn to Singapore in search of lost family and half-forgotten flavours.
Like many food movies, Ramen Teh is not actually about food. Rather, it is about food as a expression for something else: love, kinship, redemption, going back to one’s roots, etc. In the film, cooking and eating is never an end in itself, but a medium used by our reticent characters to express those thoughts and feelings they cannot put into words.
The things we cannot say, we say with food.
A father’s concern is expressed in an elaborate breakfast, while motherly love is remembered in mouthfuls of bee hoon, spoon-fed via a patient hand. In one hilariously memorable scene, Mark Lee’s character displays his hospitality by piling mountains of food onto Masato’s rice bowl.
‘Eat this! try this!’, the host family cries, in a display of warmth that should be familiar to any Singaporean household.
This is the heart of Ramen Teh. It is a movie that explores the meanings manifest in a bowl of pork rib soup or chicken curry. Food, it shows us in painstakingly detail, is not just sustenance. It can wake memory, stir desire, and if done right, bring people together and erase what divides us.
Unfortunately, this idea is not original. In an era when everyone is ‘woke’ to the cultural meanings behind food, Ramen Teh doesn’t bring anything remotely new to the table.
As anyone who has been force-fed by their grandma knows, food is a metaphor for love. However, it is also a nuanced language that can express a variety of sentiments beyond the soft-focus sentimentality that dominates Ramen Teh.
In Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, Master Chu’s god-like culinary skill fails to bridge the ever-widening generation gap between himself and his daughters who are illiterate in cooking. In David Chang’s Netflix documentary Ugly Delicious, we explore fried chicken as a fraught symbol for racism, as well as how ‘black’ chicken is being appropriated by ‘white’ business owners.
None of these struggles and conflicts and complexities are present in Ramen Teh.
The movie suffers because of this very Singaporean refusal to raise even the simplest questions about sacrosanct national dishes.
Can a Cantonese woman make better bak kut teh than her Teochew husband? Is double-boiled soup a better way of saying you care than actually saying the words, ‘I care’?
The movie’s answer is always a resounding yes. Of course it can, Ramen Teh exclaims, do you even need to ask?
As a result, we have this messianic view of food as the answer to all of life’s problems. Whether you’re seducing a woman, connecting with your long-lost family or trying to make amends for Japanese atrocities in World War 2, food is THE solution. There is nothing that cannot be fixed with a good noodle soup.
If you cook well and cook with love, all of your troubles will melt away like ice kacang on the tongue.
Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The movie is glib, simplistic and, to be frank, very bland. Its premise promises an interesting exploration of food and culture, but Eric Khoo never takes Singaporean cuisine down from its pedestal for a closer look.
Instead, he cooks up an rose-tinted ideal; a culinary fantasy that has nothing interesting or original to say about its own subject matter.
If you’re lucky enough to have seen My Magic, you’ll know what this man is truly capable of.
This film, however, disappoints. With too little meat on its bones and too much sugar, Ramen Teh is more insta-ready hipster snack than nourishing broth for the soul.