Everyone already knows about Chef’s Table, Great British Bake Off, My Million Pound Menu, Ugly Delicious, Salt Fat Acid Heat, the movie Julie & Julia and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Street Food: Asia. Additionally, there are a large number of cooking shows, documentaries about chefs, and countless Japanese and Korean dramas that combine romance with food; but the list below flags up lesser-known gems you might have missed … and Big Night. Already a cult classic, this much-loved movie arrived, inexplicably on April Fool’s Day, like an unexpected gift; despite being well-known it’s been included because no food viewing list can be complete without it.
A second post with the best food shows on Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer, and other streaming platforms completes this guide to the best food TV and films to watch online.
Big Night (1996)
New on Netflix, this 1996 classic is simply one of the best food movies ever made: if you haven’t seen it, add it straight to the top of your list. The story of two Italian brothers struggling with a failing restaurant and a wily rival restaurateur made Stanley Tucci cool at the time; and the film was garlanded with awards and accolades. The scenes involving elaborate preparations of timpano and the making of a simple omelette are some of the most iconic ever filmed. Keep some pasta or eggs on hand for a post-movie treat.
Aruna & Her Palate (2018)
Based on Laksmi Pamuntjak’s book The Birdwoman’s Palate, this idiosyncratic Indonesian romcom is the perfect place to start an exploration of Netflix’s food content. It’s the story of a couple of good-looking epidemiologists and their friends who go on a road trip to investigate avian flu, while somehow eating in a lot of restaurants and street food stalls along the way. Why all the eating establishments have been kept open during an epidemic remains a total mystery.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
This quirky Japanese drama series has been a huge hit in Japan, leading to movies and copycat versions in China and Korea, but only seems to have been discovered by a handful of hardcore foodies in the UK. It’s set in a late night izakaya run by an enigmatic, therapist-like owner known as the Master, and explores the inner lives of diners who come and go through its doors. Each episode focuses on one of the characters’ favourite dishes, over which the story gradually unfolds. For instance, the tale of a cross-dressing fading action star unravels over a young radio presenter’s unrequited love for an older female taxi driver who orders tan-men noodle soup without the noodles. Only two out of five seasons are available; they’ll definitely have you craving for more.
Filled with taco trivia and luscious photography, each of the six episodes of this Mexican documentary series focuses on different varieties of tacos and their cooking techniques – al pastor, carnitas, canasta, asada, barbacoa, and guisado. Their history and eating culture is explored with Mexican food writers, street food vendors and other experts. The only slightly odd thing is when a taco itself takes over parts of the narration, with lines like “look how beautifully I’m being massaged!” [This trailer is for the original, in Spanish]
Raja Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan
The title may be as long as a Shah Rukh Khan movie from the early 2000s, but it’s simply Hindi for “kings, kitchens and their various stories.” The acclaimed documentary series looks at royal influences on regional Indian food, whether in terms of dish origins, or recipes that are under the lock and key of fading aristocratic families. It’s far from perfect, and some episodes are better than others, but very little exists on Indian food history that’s been researched and created by Indians so the programme has been warmly received internationally as well as in India, where it has spawned several offshoots. Only season 1 is available; but it covers a lot of ground, and will have you pondering the origins of chaat, and the taste of Mysore coffee flower honey.
Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman
Overly qualified and seemingly too good for the job, a dessert-obsessed Japanese salesman takes up position in the marketing department of a publishing company so that he can visit Tokyo’s sweet shops in between sales visits — as a career move, this is a brilliant idea. The bright and cheerful comedy series, based on a manga of the same name, is an unusual but entertaining introduction to Japanese sweets filled with tempting close-ups, utilising the madness and mayhem of live action and graphics to impart information about ingredients. The dessert shops of Tokyo are real, each famous for a specific sweet such as anmitsu, mitsumame, caramel pudding, ohagi and parfait. Keep some cake or chocolate handy.
Acclaimed by many, derided by a few, this political documentary series is an eye-opening look at the problems involved in producing and supplying food products such as honey, peanuts, cod, and chocolate. The episode on avocados, for instance, looks at how increased demand has led to avocado cartels in Mexico, and water shortages in an already drought-afflicted Chile. There are heartbreaking interviews with farmers, producers and suppliers; and the cinematography is achingly beautiful. Deeply uncomfortable but essential viewing; both seasons are available.
Two seasons of this Mandarin language documentary series focus on the ingredients, dishes and cooking techniques of Chaoshan and Yunnan regions. Short bursts of 10 to 12 minute episodes are so effective in explaining the use of items like olives, Chaozhou oranges, hardy bananas, lacquer seed oil, and salted flour in traditional dishes that you wonder why no other country has made such a highly accessible, visually arresting series like this before.
In this gentle Japanese comedy series, a newly retired samurai, no longer shackled by work, visits a different restaurant in each episode to eat and drink to his heart’s content. The loving close-ups of food and the look of pure delight on his face will have you scrolling through your phone for photos of your last restaurant meal, filling you with nostalgia and longing. It’s the perfect retirement strategy to plan in future though.
If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s highly acclaimed book Cooked, this is the filmed version in four parts. Each episode looks at the history and techniques of cooking with fire (barbecue in Australia), water (pot cooking in India), air (bread making in Morocco), and earth (fermentation). Pollan’s knowledge, passion and care for his subject come across loud and bright.
Zumbo’s Just Desserts
Colour-saturated, cheesy, joyous and fast-paced, this Australian baking competition is like Great British Bake Off on acid. It’s hosted by patissier Adriano Zumbo and food writer Rachel Khoo — and comparison of the former with Willy Wonka has not been lost on the producers, who keep referring to the studio as a factory even though it looks like a posh country house. The likeable contestants cook caramel passion mousse with coffee soil or redskins crème with fruit loop ice cream, and say things like “I would describe my dessert style as complex” and “I hope I make my father proud.” The word “magical” is used a lot; things going wrong or lights going up add to the tension; and the contestants’ trolley dashes for ingredients are reminiscent of supermarket panic buying.
Combining romance, comedy and suspense with food, this Korean drama series is about four good-looking single people who go out to eat in restaurants and build up a relationship by eating together and having many heated discussions about food. The best scenes are close-up food shots; and endearingly enthusiastic debates about Korean and western dishes, their flavours, and how they’re meant to be eaten. There are many similar Asian dramas on Netflix that combine food with comedy or romance, but this one has a dark twist in its tale. There’s also an unrelated Let’s Eat 2, but the story and setting are different, and only one of the characters reprises his role
Rainbow Jelly (2018)
This eccentric Bengali children’s movie has had a surprisingly muted response on social media, but it’s been critically acclaimed in India. It’s a fantasy tale of how a fairy teaches an autistic child to stand up to his nasty uncle through the medium of magical recipes — and along the way, learn a little bit about flavour. Not a food movie as such, but a movie in which food plays a pivotal part.
Hyper Hardboiled Gourmet Report
The combination of odd format and eye-popping content makes this Japanese documentary series deeply disturbing viewing. There’s gonzo-style reporting of what drug addicts and feuding street gangs in LA eat, for instance, with a Japanese comedian watching a recording of the show on a large TV screen and making inane and sometimes inappropriate comments to engage the audience (a common Japanese TV device — but here it’s baffling). This is in stark contrast to the content that will push you out of your comfort zone and raise ethical questions about the nature of making programmes like these. In an episode set in Liberia, there’s a cookery demonstration based on aid supplies illegally sold on the black market; lunch eaten by an orphan ebola survivor; former cannibal child soldiers smoking crack in a cemetery; a prostitute whose story the camera tracks minute by minute, from getting a customer to buying a meal with the money earned; and a Taiwanese mafia boss eating a fancy meal while offering his business card to the cameraman. There’s nothing else quite like it.
Food On The Go
Exploring origins, traditions and diaspora cooking, this Argentinian documentary looks at how Italian immigrants to America and Argentina influenced the local food culture by opening restaurants and fruit and veg stalls, introducing ingredients like octopus, and adapting dishes to create the likes of spaghetti with meatballs — “bastardised” or “assimilated” cuisine, depending on your point of view. Experts discuss how food is linked to identity but changes when the territory itself changes; while various Italian associations attempt to standardise pizza and carbonara recipes. Early footage of New York’s Eataly, street food vendors, and religious feasts is fascinating.
Somebody Feed Phil
Best known as the creator of American sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, Phil Rosenthal eating his way around the world will divide opinion. Some will find him annoying and patronising; others will love his pure, joyous enthusiasm, wide-eyed innocence, and infectious smile. The documentary series is aimed squarely at non-expert, non-foodie, well-heeled American tourist who’s up for a laugh and adventure. When presented with sticky rice with a choice of toppings in Bangkok, he’s like a kid in a candy shop, enthusing “this should be at every birthday party — it should be at my birthday party!” Later he holds up various Thai fruits to his parents on Skype; when they’re baffled by mangosteen he says: “mango-steen – a Jewish mango!” Love it or hate it, it will no doubt raise a smile.
A Tale Of Two Kitchens
Paying tribute to under-appreciated Latino workers in the American restaurant industry, this short documentary is about chef Gabriela Camara’s two restaurants: Contramar in Mexico City, and Cala in San Francisco. The role, importance, and identity of Mexican and Mexican-American workers is explored through the similar values and missions of both venues, which offer employment to ex-convicts and recovering addicts. The film is something of a curiosity though: why was this particular story chosen, when thousands of restaurants around the world also have compelling ones to tell? Perhaps one for those who’ve been to, or are planning to go to, either of the acclaimed places.
Chef & My Fridge
This bonkers South Korean cooking competition is fast-paced and chaotic, with a lot of wise-cracking banter between the presenters, celebrity contestants and chefs. The chefs cook with random contents of the Korean celebrities’ fridges – but the actual format is more complicated than that. It’s like a mix of Ready Steady Cook, Through The Keyhole, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Just roll with it and try to keep up.
Flavors Of Youth (2018)
Despite its name, the international version of this donghua — broadly, Chinese anime — is not entirely a food film: there are three separate stories, of which only the first, The Rice Noodles, is food-related. It’s the tale of a man who reminisces about san xian noodles cooked by his grandmother that he enjoyed very much as a child; less so at a troubled noodle shop while growing up; and even less as an adult, in a restaurant where the process has been mechanised. The other two segments — about relationships between two sisters, and childhood sweethearts — are also worth watching due to impressively detailed graphics and emotional story-telling. The uplifting overall message is: you may look back to your past with fondness, but there’s still hope and opportunity in future.