Bay Area Food Stories Shorts Program [CAAMFest Online]

Roots and Wings

A specific strand of the San Francisco-based Center for Asian American Media’s 2020 online film festival is devoted to cuisines from Asia. The curation of three food-oriented shorts explores how, for certain immigrants, food is a means to partake in culturally diverse communal experiences of not simply eating sumptuous Asian culinary dishes but doing so with an appreciative knowledge about the food, its roots, and its people. 

What is unusual is all three shorts – Manjula Verghese’s The Food Historian (2018, 11 minutes), Irene Yadao, Michelle Sampoir and Lisa Yadao’s Roots and Wings (2020, 6 minutes) and Roy Akifumi Wilmot’s Takahashi Market: Since 1906 (2019, 5 minutes) – have a very similar narrative style. A hand-held camera captures Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik (in The Food Historian), Yana Gilbuena (in Rotes and Wings) and Bobby Takahashi (in Takahashi Market: Since 1906) in the present close-up narrations interspersed with scenes of work in their communal kitchens and their past comes alive via voiceovers and photos. These are films made across three years, in different places and by different filmmakers yet they come together seamlessly in their visual designs and themes. 

The Food Historian

With nary an introduction, we are coolly thrust into kitchens where Sita, Yana and Bobby are cooking or giving pointers to their colleagues. What at first seems random, Sita talking about chilis as the first plants of globalisation, The Food Historian soon becomes a map of memories of her Japanese mother’s family in Columbia who retained their cuisine by farming, in a vastly different cultural geography and her Bengali Indian father’s side that introduced her to another rich and vibrant cuisine. What is striking is how Sita’s personal experiences have become the driving force of her present initiative in Oklahoma, People’s Kitchen Collective. Cooking elaborate meals from her own families’ repertoire, Sita and team describe how these foods, drinks originated, travelled and helped retain hardworking immigrants’ identities even as they endured great political struggles. Their food made them feel ‘at home’. Using politically significant public places in Oklahoma as communal dining areas, Sita similarly invites her participants to bond over an awareness of the place, of the activists who ought not to be forgotten and foods that have found their way to them, travelling many countries and across generations to provide a sense of belonging. 

Roots and Wings

A food map of The Philippines is also what Yana offers us with Roots and Wings as she talks of her childhood punishments of kitchen chores for being mischievous. Moving to the US, it was much later, she got introduced to the concept of pop up dining in New York, taking her back to her culinary roots, of her intense and slowly loved sessions of cooking Filipino food in a charcoal-hearthed kitchen. Inspired, she opened her pop up dining taking Filipino cuisine to each US state, travelling for a year. For Yana this isn’t about her love for her own food and living her memories, it is about bringing different people together in a comfortable setting, introducing them to new tastes, new cultural experiences. People bond not only over delicious, freshly made food, Yana ensures they know what they are eating, describing ingredients and histories of dishes, telling how to eat with hands because it was colonisers who introduced cutlery. Groups are seated at tables covered with long, fresh banana leaves as plates. For Yana it is this sharing, this willingness of Americans to be part of a diverse cultural community that motivates her enterprise and the film does quite capture this coming together, as guests amiably chat and eat, slightly consciously, with their hands.

Takahashi Market: Since 1906

For Bobby Takahashi, the grandson who has taken over the century old Takahashi Oriental Groceries in San Mateo, California, the map has already been clearly drawn. In Takahashi Market: Since 1906, we see how he has faithfully followed in the footsteps of his US settled Japanese family. Bobby seems conscious of this as he talks of his grandparents’ humble beginnings of opening an Asian grocery store. Unlike Sita and Yana, Bobby struggles to explicitly ponder over the significance of his familial legacy. Perhaps because the store has always been a part of his life. Long standing customers across generations are regulars and Bobby simply brushes it off saying it is their business to give the customers – Asian and non –  what they want. Serving freshly made Japanese and Hawaiian dishes at the eatery within the store, Bobby knows how important and necessary his store is not only to his community but for Americans as well who pop in with regular demands of specific spices and sauces. He may not be as hyper alert as Sita and Yana, who as first generation immigrants are very aware of their purpose for their communal food dining, but Bobby though casual, rightly knows he has to ensure that Takahashi Market smoothly continues to serve its customers as it has, for over a century.

The “Bay Area Food Stories” shorts program is showing at CAAMFest Online on May 21.