The Noodle Master

Curator's Note

For years I've meant to watch Tampopo. The 1986 Japanese movie Tampopo depicts the efforts of the titular noodle shop owner to develop from mediocre to master. She’s helped by Goro, the guy driving the truck in this clip, a sort of Clint Eastwood of starch, who rolls into town and can’t resist the thrall of a lonely widow or a serious noodle. Tampopo is also a collection of several semi-random food scenes: gastronome hoboes; one lone gourmet dining with his lickspittle business cronies; a disturbingly sexy scene involving a freshly shucked oyster, a young girl, a gangster, and a bloody lip. But the movie begins with this scene of the noodle master, and just as one is debating whether this is a joke or not—around the time the master is caressing the soup and making a date with the pork for a few loving minutes hence—the movie shows that yes, this is comedic.

And thank god for that. The moment the film cut to the men in the truck, I warmed to Tampopo. When I fell in love with ramen, I dove into the Internet’s dizzying wealth of theories on its proper care and consumption and the endless conflagrations over who does it best and who should rot in a grave of his own digging. I always feel inferior to and impatient with the people who have such soup-caressing passion, because I am that happy callow dude slurping next to the master. This is one of the things I took away from Tampopo: a winking acknowledgment about 20 years ahead of its time (in America, anyway) of the ridiculousness of foodies. And I say this being one of them. In Japan there is likely a whole other context to this scene, but here it struck me as the perfect balance between aspirational gastronomic mindfulness and over-romantic silliness. The rest of the movie does not so much strike a balance as veer exuberantly between the two. In all the years I kept meaning to see Tampopo, this first scene, minus the humor, was what I feared it would be. What it actually is, however, is a stew of appetite, silliness, occasional sexiness, sentimentality, and deep and abiding weirdness.


Thanks for this excellent post, Michelle.  I didn’t know about Tampopo and I confess it triggers in me a giddy, half-embarrassed recognition: I find myself of late sounding like a would-be noodle master (“Observe the tangerine sheen in those farm-fresh yolks.  Appreciate their Rothko-esque hues.”) and not just to myself.  I’m teaching a course on food writing, so my students are often forced to endure my noodling.  And yet: I also think this sort of silliness occurs on the far side of an aesthetic pleasure that’s not obvious and benefits from a little cultivation, if not forty years of devotion.  We’ve been looking at food art, such as the mutant vegetables of Uli Westphal or McForest by Sarah Illenberger, which appears on the latest cover of Gastronomica, and I suspect it takes an instructive nudge to see these —or the slurping ratio of noodle to shinachiku root—as art.  Appreciation looks goofy from the outside, but I'm sure the Master enjoys his noodles more than I do.   

Eric, I think you're right about how such reverence seems from the outside. The master puts me to shame with his appreciation of each nuance of the first bite while I am busy ordering my second bowl. Yet I think I do far better, in terms of mindful appreciation, when I am reliving a food while writing about it. Maybe that is the only way I get the necessary distance from my own greed?

 Michelle and Eric, thanks for your interesting commentary.

I have just this week been teaching Tampopo in a class on food and film, so your postings arrive at a good time for me and my students.  I will have them look at them in class tomorrow.  We've been discussing connoisseurship, not only of food but of film.  Meanwhile, I would say that one of the insights we're recognizing, or at least that I've been promoting, is that the best writing as well as the best food appreciation begins from the gut, as it were, but then can be reinforced and "egged on" (to re-confect an expression suggested by Tampopo) by the head--by foodie knowledge, by education and study, by reading, by the superaddition of philosophical exploration of issues associated with the production, advertising (promulgation and promotion), and consumption of food.  So in that sense I agree with Eric too, when he says that "Appreciation looks goofy from the outside" but the noodle master may enhance his pleasure in mastication via his mastery. 

As for its weirdness: We said in class that we love Tampopo not despite its "random" episodes loosely juxtaposed but because of its sometimes "random" quality, combining haphazard hommages, parody and pastiche (Rocky, Breathless)--not to mention self-mockery alongside genuine foodie appreciation of ramen.

I saw Tampopo some years ago, somewhat hectored into renting a video because I was writing on taste at the time and everyone I spoke to extolled the film. I very much like the emphasis you put on the comic elements, Michelle, because comedy has both serious and light elements. I too suspect that the noodle master enjoys his noodles more than I do, partly because his methodical approach slows down his eating. Yet one must sympathize to the impatience of the acolyte that such fuss is made over a meal.

Noodles are one of those foods that one wants to gulp, or at least I do. (I believe Inspector Morse remarks somewhere that certain beers require gulping too.) I guess it takes a real expert to gulp your noodles while at the same time observing the pork pieces -- at least without getting a splash or two in the eye.

I love Tampopo and haven't seen it in years, so thank you for sharing this, Michelle! Thanks, too, for pointing out the absurdities -- to paraphrase Pogo, we have seen the butt of the joke and it is us. As with all great parody, we're uncertain at first whether to attribute the oddly extended facial expressions and vacant solemnities to mockery or something getting lost in translation. But thanks to a sluggish Internet connection tonight, I was forced to linger on many individual frames, and I noticed something I hadn't before: the deep sense of aesthetics reflected in the bowl. No wonder the master can't destroy the ramen outright; he must first engage in foreplay with affectionate words and caresses. Only then can he proceed to the ultimate act of ingestion.

Maybe because today is the first day of Maslenitsa, the Russian Butter Week celebration that precedes the long Lenten fast, this scene from Tampopo put me in mind of another reverential eater, Semyon Podtykin in Chekhov's short story "On Mortality: A Carnival Tale." Like the master, Podtykin puts off his moment of satiation in order to savor it all the more. He focuses his entire being on constructing the perfect bliny, drizzling the pancakes with butter, smearing them with caviar, adding a dollop of sour cream, and topping them with the fattiest pieces of fish he can find. He surveys his masterpiece, opens his mouth to take the long-awaited bite...and has a stroke.

Tampopo would have failed had an outsider made it; so would have Chekhov's story. It's the insider knowledge of the culture that makes these works so hilarious, and the creative genius of director and author that carries them across the cultural divide for us to enjoy, too.


Tampopo is one of my favorite films of all time. I watched it and Babette's Feast way back in high school, and despite the "quirkiness" Michelle accurately points out, both films changed the way I thought about food and eating. Both films demonstrate how other cultures revere their food. Food is can be art, not just something to be "super-sized" and thrown down one's gullet--maximum quantity, minimum time & minimum cost.

I look at how the the U.S. obesity crisis is being exported to other countries, and I wonder whether the American fast food binge diet is ruining some of the traditions like the ones depicted in Tampopo.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.