Look at all the meat dumplings, shrimp dumplings, shrimp itself; pig’s liver, vegetarian dishes with yams, spinach, ginger, and other ingredients that together become culinary art. All this in Taiwan, making it tempting to hum Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Red roses are here too, its petals used to accompany sushi, to become rose petal jam.
But the joy and fascination of watching the involved process of making dumplings, of watching how persimmons are cultivated, of the cuisine of a Buddhist monastery, is tempered by Taipei itself, and filmmaker Monika Treut’s narrated declaration that Taiwan is the second-most densely populated place on Earth, Bangladesh being first.
Taipei has nearly nothing green on the ground. Just gray, gray, gray. Gray buildings, gray streets, gray human movement, which is given color by political protests in an election year, Avatar having made its way to Taiwan, evidenced by the blue makeup on some protestors’ faces. There is nothing to grow here, no vegetables, no flowers, no life that lets you breathe for a few minutes, away from the fevered rush of society. There is the slight hope of a rooftop garden overseen by law-educated Robin Winkler, an American with Taiwanese citizenship. He points out the cycle of eating, of excreting, of putting that waste back into the earth and creating viable soil to grow more vegetables, the cycle so obvious that it makes us wonder why we don’t do this. But who would want to eat vegetables grown from one’s own waste? Winkler reminds us that the oxygen we breathe is the waste from trees and plants.
At times, Treut goes about her subject too leisurely. How much more time do we have to spend in Taipei? It’s certainly a problem, what with fields being concreted over in favor of more malls and other profit centers, but what about the rest of Taiwan? Treut gets there, eventually, and pulls a neat trick just by the powers of observation, although it likely wasn’t a trick, merely seeming so by cinematographer Bernd Meiners gentle, beautiful work. He follows every chef, every cook closely, the camera watching the ingredients go in, the pans swirling around and around to mix these ingredients well. But that’s not the only thing that makes me wish Treut would make more films set in the different culinary worlds of Taiwan. It’s the cultures too, the Hakka Chinese, an indigenous tribe up on the west coast of Taiwan, the chef that collects black seaweed for his dishes, and especially the aforementioned Buddhist monastery. They live a vegetarian lifestyle, and our guide is a female monk from Canada. Treut could make another documentary from this monastery alone, as a reminder to humanity to attempt to live slower, more easygoing lives, that technology should not be the be-all, end-all of our existence. I wanted to spend more time there, to learn about the culture of the monastery, the traditions, and what they do each day. In fact, many of Treut’s stops on her journey throughout Taiwan inspire that desire to know more than we are given, to hope that Treut does just that.
Meiners’ greatest photographic triumph amidst many is the persimmons, stacked high on circular wire mesh trays, a process you have to see. There is so much involved, so much equipment, and it feels so germane to this land, like it’s always been there even before the people started harvesting persimmons. Treut shows that food takes time. Good food takes more time, and it’s worth the wait.
First Run Features does a great service by giving to viewers what usually isn’t easily accessible. Not all of us can so readily travel to Taiwan to explore different cuisines, from city food, to farmers’ markets, to night markets, and so here it all is for 82 minutes. With this one documentary, added on to the other food-related documentaries they’ve released over time, it can be safely assumed that they are the leader in food documentaries. These are the kinds of documentaries that should be sold at Williams-Sonoma, to show foodies there, if they don’t know it already, that there is a wider world of food. It’s not just pans and dishes and kitchen gadgets; it’s what goes into those pans and on those dishes. The kitchen gadgets differ in Taiwan.
On this DVD is a collection of text screens collectively called “The Cuisine and Culture of Taiwan” which gives a few extra details about the journey we’ve just taken, as well as a statement from Treut about the making of The Raw and the Cooked. There’s also information about who Treut is, what other documentaries she has made, and a “Culinary Film Gallery” with trailers for Kings of Pastry, A Matter of Taste, The Restaurateur, Pressure Cooker, Dive!, and Guy Martin: Portrait of a Grand Chef.
So come see what Taiwan serves up, how every chef, every cook does it differently, what cultures and traditions dictate, what Taiwanese life is through the wonders of food. It’s worth the time, and surely you’ll rewind certain scenes a few times just to watch those moments of creation. And it’s also a fine reminder that if you want to deeply explore bits of the world at a time, pick out any title from First Run Features and you’ll see the world.