Here at Topic, we celebrate stories in all languages, especially when it’s the universal language: food. Food is not only often the favorite part of our day, but it’s also the fastest gateway into another culture and the most powerful method for finding common ground — because everybody eats. We have six documentaries that focus on different facets of food, from growing produce, to perfecting noodles, to expanding societies with new cuisines. One small warning: these stories will make your mouth water, so best not to watch on an empty stomach.
In this short documentary, we go to Lanzhou, China, a city that’s famous for its beef noodle soup and hand-pulled noodles, or “lamian.” On the surface the dish may seem simple, but there is a very specific method that goes into these perfectly slurpable noodles. The documentary follows a group of students and teachers at Gansu Dingle Noodle School, which teaches cooks, food vendors, and aspiring chefs from all around the world the fine art of hand-pulled noodles. From how much flour and water go into the dough, to the actual pulling technique, to how wide each noodle is cut, every detail matters, and every step is beautifully captured by filmmaker Jia Li. If you’ve ever tucked into a big, steaming bowl of beef noodle soup, then you know that the final result is well worth the work.
Eating may be a universal human necessity, but it’s also a deceptively simple entry-point into understanding humanity. Everybody eats, but that’s where the similarities end. This series of documentary shorts takes a look at 10 very different individuals who each have a very specific way of eating, from a chef who cooks with cannabis to a truck driver who eats almost every meal solo, to a woman with an extreme food phobia. By examining the way they eat, we learn much bigger stories about their lives, cultural backgrounds, and ambitions. Next time you sit down to enjoy a meal, think about what it says about you — you’d be surprised by what you can learn about yourself through how you eat a burger.
To really understand the things you eat, you have to start with how they’re grown. “Portrait of a Garden” follows an 85-year-old pruning master as he tends to his friend’s massive kitchen garden and patiently teaches him the dying art of pruning. The two work almost obsessively to cultivate the various crops, from plums to rhubarb to a pear arbour that they’ve been working on for 15 years. The documentary is a gentle reminder that growing the right ingredients takes time, work, and perhaps good company. You will never take your fruit salad for granted ever again.
We have not one, but three Jamie Oliver documentaries, and they all feature the British chef traveling to different parts of the world and learning about new cultures through local cuisine (AKA the best job in the world). In “Jamie’s American Road Trip,” Oliver makes all-American recipes like Cowboy Chili Con Carne in Wyoming, which might be the most American dish ever invented. In “Jamie’s Food Escapes,” he travels to Europe and along the Mediterranean to taste signature dishes like lamb tagine in Marrakech, Venetian tiramisu, and reindeer heart in Sweden. And in “Jamie’s Super Foods,” Oliver heads to Costa Rica, Greece, and Japan to learn why scientists consider these regions to be some of the healthiest on earth. Hint: lots of seafood.
There’s Chinese food, and then there’s authentic Chinese food. True fans know that the latter is usually tastier and far more diverse. Well, you have Cecilia Chiang to thank for helping to popularize authentic Chinese food in America. When she opened her landmark restaurant, The Mandarin, in 1961, she introduced Northern Chinese dishes that Americans had never tasted before, like tea-smoked duck and beggar’s chicken. Unfortunately, The Mandarin closed in 2006, but “Soul of a Banquet,” directed by “Joy Luck Club” director Wayne Wang, immortalizes its cuisine by giving us a literal feast for our eyes. The doc pays proper homage to the woman that food writer Ruth Reichl calls “the history of China in the last 100 years.”