Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
The screen is an imperfect medium when it comes to fully capturing the essence of food. Without Smell-O-Vision or the kind of Willy Wonka invention where one can pluck something right off the screen, it’s up to our imaginations to fill in the sensory gaps that food-driven scenes simply cannot provide. (Though camera operators, in particular, have gotten more clever over time with their extreme close-ups of bubbling oil or plumes of smoke fogging up the lens.)
Still, there are movies and TV shows that make a point of communicating the near-impossible in other ways—through character work, reaction shots, or pulling back the shot to provide a bigger landscape of where a meal is being enjoyed. We’re looking back on a handful of our favorite fictional scenes (including documentaries here would have made this task far more daunting) about street food, its sights and smells conveyed as if we were right there.
The rain-slicked streets of LA’s Chinatown are crowded with umbrella-toting pedestrians and cars. The steam and smog are so thick you’d think it was a ’90s sitcom dream sequence. But, no, it’s Ridley Scott’s then-flop, now cyberpunk sci-fi classic Blade Runner, which predicted one thing about 2019 exactly right: There will be noodles in the future. In the neon-lit scene, Rick Deckard, a retired blade runner portrayed by the effortlessly irascible Harrison Ford, claims a seat at a packed street-side noodle bar called White Dragon. He orders four of something and is promptly denied. The food stall vendor offers him two instead to go alongside his bowl of thin noodles that resemble Japanese somen made from wheat flour. The dish appears simple and lacks condiments—hey, funds are tight in the dystopian future—and, yet, the satisfaction of slurping up hot noodles on a cold, rainy night is universal. —Rosin Saez
This entire 2018 rom-com Crazy Rich Asians is a literal feast for the eyes—from lavish spreads and wedding events to the iconic montage where Nick (Henry Golding) introduces his fiancée Rachel (Constance Wu) to the street food of Singapore. The scene is filmed at the Newton Food Centre, which is one of many hawker marketplaces throughout the country. As the young couple walks around, we see flashes of piled-high noodle dishes, steaming broth, and coconut milk being poured over ice kachang (or Malaysia “iced beans”). Plus, we get great moments like Nick embracing his uncle and Rachel giving Nick adoring looks as he orders “10 ayam, 10 dading.” (“The best satay on the island!” he proclaims) The entire thing culminates in a massive meal with friends Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) and Colin (Chris Pang), all washed down with pints of ice cold beer. No scene has made us want to teleport more immediately. —Jess Mayhugh
You can smell the brine in Joan Micklin Silver’s underrated and wonderful romantic comedy Crossing Delancey. Though there are still a few hints of the Jewish community that once reigned on the Lower East Side, this film captures the twilight of the community, when the modernity was encroaching but there were still vats of pickles on the sidewalk. In the film, Amy Irving’s Isabelle Grossman is set up with pickle man Sam Posner (Peter Riegert) by a local yenta on the urging of her Bubbe. For Isabelle, who occupies an uptown literary scene, Sam is too old world. When Sam buys her a hat she’s flattered, but her instincts kick in when she sees his hand elbow deep in a vat of half sours. Of course, they are meant to be together, but for us the pickles aren’t a turnoff. Instead, we’re craving those sweet and sour juices. —Esther Zuckerman
Typically set in a cutthroat cooking school, Food Wars! (or Shokugeki no Soma) is an anime series all about the communal power of food, especially with the chefy twists on simple dishes crafted by its shonen protagonist, Soma Yukihira. But in a two-episode arc during the school’s summer break, Soma returns to his hometown, where his dad ran a locally beloved diner, to find a shady new to-go karaage shop is sucking the lifeblood from the Sumiredōri, the central shopping district . So he sets out to revive the neighborhood’s streets with the help of his friends and community, who all rally together to bring to life his vision for portable fried chicken: soy and ichimi pepper-marinated, twice-fried chicken thighs wrapped in crisp lettuce and a rice crepe inspired by the Vietnamese bánh xèo. Of course, it’s a hit, tanking the mercenary shop’s sales and infusing new life into the area where everyone is out and about with Soma’s new signature stamped karaage roll in hand. The moment epitomizes what makes street food stalls so great: following the trail of wafting aromas to a reasonably priced meal or snack served piping hot, and enjoying it on a bustling street where the whole community gathers. —Leanne Butkovic
You can’t talk about In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-wai’s swooning, romantic masterpiece, without talking about the food. Meals—sharing them, not sharing them, extending invitations for them and declining them—are as integral to the characters as their costumes and dialogue, and provide the impetus (the excuse) for our two leads to finally meet and subsequently fall in love with each other. Even in those innocuous scenes, the movie builds a unique sense of tension, felt most acutely in a slow-motion walk to a street corner noodle shop. Wong once said in an interview that the movie was, ultimately, about “two people, neighbors, who are buying noodles all the time,” passing each other in the corridor as they head to and from their respective apartments. Maggie Cheung’s Mrs. Chan, clad in curve-hugging cheongsams and swinging her blue thermos, slowly edges by Tony Leung’s gray-suited Mr. Chow as she returns from the very noodle shop he’s heading towards, the two exchanging a wordless glance that, in reality, would take up a second or two, but feels like it ought to last forever. —Emma Stefansky
So much of the world in Apple TV+’s adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s opus pachinko involves food: the pearls of white rice Sunja tearfully eats on her wedding night; her first time being seated at a restaurant, slurping noodles; the preparation of barrels of kimchi. This includes street food, too. In Episode 5, set partly in 1989, Sunja finally arrives back in Busan with her son Mozasu, and although the buildings and neighborhood have changed since she initially departed Korea for Japan in 1931, the energy of the fish market of her hometown remains the same . She eyes slithery eels, grins at a bucket of abalone (reminiscing on the fact that she could dive and catch larger ones at the age of 7), and happily purchases a pair of dried squid, thin as crepes. When Mozasu interrupts the sale, saying he doesn’t want one, Sunja rolls her eyes and responds with, “Who said I was giving you one?” She goes on to tell Mozasu that she’s too full from breakfast to really eat the squid now, and yet she can’t resist the call of this nostalgic street food. It’s a moment that reveals how the flavor of food can transport Sunja to a different time and place. Although she’s been away from Korea for over 50 years, the call of the dried squid and the memories associated with it are irresistible. The taste of it is home. —Kat Thompson
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