Why Hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Castastrophe’s Catastrophic Reviews, where we tear apart a cookbook or food-show, wallow in its innards, and return with omens for Caesar on the future. I’m your haruspex of the Cineplex, Jon O’Guin. Today’s show: the new Netflix Documentary Street Food. Do we like it? Does it have problems? Will it tell me how to get my dick hard? These questions and more will, troublingly, be answered.
I’m Certain I COULD make a pun out of “summary” and “Sumatra”, but I’m also fairly certain I SHOULD NOT.
Title Jon’s doing that thing where he makes references without context, because he has seen the future, but you haven’t. Which means the future is his past. Look, Doctor Strange told me it made sense, alright?
Is that an Endgame spoiler?
Or a reference to the popular anti-spoiler meme?
Or some other kind of Time Stone-based bullshit?
Even I don’t know any more.
Street Food is a 9 episode series documenting, somewhat obviously, ‘street food’ vendors in 9 different cities, almost all of which are in Southeast Asia. By which I mean “Of the 9 episodes, 6 are in Southeast Asia, and the remaining 3 are in Japan, South Korea, and India.” Now, on the one hand, this seems like a somewhat narrow focus, since , I can assure you, street food is served WORLDWIDE. I am currently considering if I want to present some Dutch or Danish Street-foods, or South American ones in some upcoming posts. On the other hand, it makes sense looking at the long-term: if the series continues, you can conceivably work out another 8-9 seasons just by localizing each one. You’d think 7, one for each continent, but first off, stupid, there’s no street food in Antarctica, since there are no STREETS. (There are a couple ROADS, but no streets) and Second, as I noted, they don’t even cover the entire continent of Asia in the first season. Whether or not they visit China at all is a topic of surprisingly fraught political argument. (Because they visit Taiwan. Which is legally NOT China, but anyone who mentions that around China finds that suddenly, all their trade in the area is a lot harder.)
And, tragically, this isn’t a very fair fight to start with.
It’s a well-shot and well-directed show that picks a couple dishes from each city/country it visits, and tends to focus on a specific vendor at each location. There’s a lot of pretty food, and nice people. However, there is a point that I wouldn’t have EXPECTED to be in my review of a Netflix show about foods, that does need to be made: the show is also a 4+ hour parade of human suffering. Mostly framed in a semi-positive light, but still, don’t go into this expecting a purely fun time, alright?
Why? How? Good questions. Let’s dive into them. But to do so will take a deeper inspection of what’s going on, and that could be construed as a spoiler. And despite my cavalier dropping of one before, there is a limit to my malignancy, a set of arcane rules that binds my infernal whisperings, and the talk I want to have steps over what I would say without a warning. As such, if you just want to know if we liked it, the answer is yes. As I said, it looks nice, there’s some great stories, and I’d recommend it. So go watch it with pure eyes, if you want, or we can press on, and talk about a couple of the weird bits of the show.
Bob Ross is Gonna Need a lot of Happy Little Trees
So, what do I mean when I say the show is a parade of human suffering, framed somewhat positively? I mean that, in almost every episode, the primary vendor they focus on has gone through a pretty fucking shitty life, and that’s why they’re a food vendor. This is, no joke, the backstory of one of the chefs:
His father owned a restaurant, and grew sick. His older brother took over, but became a drug addict and failed the family business. Eventually, the chef started his own business to restore the family trade and help provide for his ailing father. His sister pawned her jewelry to make the down payment, his friends took several weeks to try and help him, but the business didn’t take off. Eventually, he was working alone, losing money, and wondering if he had been completely wrong about the idea.
And then his dad died.
*Sad Trombone Noises*
This man tells us all of this, literally breaking down weeping at one point. And, again, ALMOST EVERY EPISODE has something like this. A dying parent, drunkenness, abuse, poverty, loan sharks, disasters, etc. In fact, many of them have MULTIPLE options from the list.
The only thing that makes it bearable, and it does do an alright job at softening the blow, is that each chef we meet is already established, and somewhat famous. So we KNOW their stories have at least a passingly happy ending. The chef from above moved his restaurant, and reached out to his family, and now they all work together. His brother has overcome his addictions, and returned. The man does so well, he was invited to a global conference of Street Food Vendors, and was recognized for the quality of his ingredients and work. The man did, eventually, reunite and restore his family.
Which is great, sure, but it comes after a wallop of “Good lord, what did these people DO to deserve to be treated this way?” Though, if I can get a little preachy and off-topic, that’s a pretty shitty way to think about it, one so widespread it’s had full scientific studies done on it. It’s called the “just world hypothesis” or the “just world fallacy”: People just instinctively like to think that, if bad shit happens to you, then you MUST have done something to deserve it, because otherwise the universe is a chaotic place of indifferent forces that must be mitigated through human action and compassion, while the first belief lets you do nothing, safe in the knowledge that these people must have done SOMETHING wrong.
And few people have the moral courage of Horse Thor.
Fun fact: this dude was technically in a marvel movie.
Sidebar of suffering over: I’m sure this quirk of the narrative would be easier digested (pun fully intended) in smaller bites. I binged the entire season on Saturday, so hearing 7 different tales of woe (2 of the narratives aren’t as tragic as the others: one focuses on a woman who gave up a career in America to move home to help her parents, and the other is about the stress one chef ran into trying to work with her parents on the family restaurant, since her parents refused to adapt or try new things, leading to several fights.) was a higher dose of tragic narrative than I was intending to get on a bright May afternoon.
But, still, as noted, the challenges are mostly overcome, and the chefs fairly happy, so that element, while jarring, isn’t a deal-breaker. There’s another issue in it, though…one that’s a lot more problematic and fraught for discussion. So…Double warning, I guess, here: if you want to watch the show, and just take it as it is, and make your own thoughts about it, turn away now. But, having watched the show, there’s some weird stuff I want to talk about, and I don’t know if hearing my thoughts will shape how or if you enjoy the show, so… do what you want, I guess.
Doctors and Lawyers and Indian Chiefs
That phrase, right there, is one I had NEVER heard in my life, until a couple months ago. “Doctors, Lawyers, and indian Chiefs”. Apparently, it’s from an old rhyming song (like, the kind of thing you sing while jumping rope or playing patty-cake.) and was covered by various artists, a lot of them in the 70’s. But it’s a slang term, established on Urbandictionary back in 2010, for “A successful group of minorities”. And that’s the context I heard it in. On another Netflix show, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious. Chang himself uses it several times to refer to Asian parents working hard at Chinese restaurants in the hopes that their children will become…’doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs”
CHIEFS, I said CHIEFS. These are Indian CHEFS.
I bring it up here because this idea, of working hard to provide for your family, or “to give your children a better future” or “for the good of the family”, is the other hyper-recurring theme of the show. Street Food Vendors are paying for their children to go to college, or to go work in America, to cover their spouse’s debts, or to pay for their parent’s graves. The ideas of “tradition” and “family” are HAMMERED in these episodes.
All of which, is, of course, perfectly fine. It’s a fine moral, and working for the betterment of your family is a respectable and honorable goal. The thing that frustrated me about it was that (and this is going to sound crazy), it sounded political…in an apolitical way.
Well, at least I have the comfort of not being alone in seeing it.
Again, this is a point they KEEP coming to. They bring up that Singapore is currently running into a PROBLEM, where because its street food vendors worked so hard, none of their kids are going to take over the shop, and they haven’t taught anyone how to make what they make. These cooks are in their 60’s and over. One of them talks about fleeing China to escape the Japanese invaders…WHICH WAS DURING WORLD WAR 2. Like, he says he fled at 15, which, assuming he fled more than a couple months before the war ended, means he is AT LEAST 80. (The Sino-Japanese War ran from 1937-1945. So if he left in 1944, then he was born in 1929. MATH.) So again and again we hear about these hard-working people providing for their families, and how they’ve overcome so much, and given their kids a better future.
And, not to sound arrogant, but that’s the American Dream, right there. That’s the promise our nation made back in the late 1880’s and mid 1900’s: “if you work hard, you will have a good life, your problems will be overcome, and your children will have better opportunities”. And yes, it’s the implicit promise of the concept of civilization itself, but… it just felt weird. Like, I felt like I was being preached at, but I couldn’t tell who was doing the preaching. “LOOK,” it stage-whispered directly into my face, flecks of spittle landing on my nose and cheeks. “THESE PEOPLE ARE JUST LIKE YOU AND ME. THEY WORK SO HARD TO CARE FOR THEIR FAMILIES.” Yes, thank you, I already kind of- “WHAT HARDSHIPS THEY’VE OVERCOME.” Yes, I get it. ‘BUT NOW THEY ARE SUCCESSFUL THERE, IN THEIR HOMES. THEY’RE WHERE THEY BELONG” Yes, I…wait, what? I no longer know what you’re trying to imply. I thought we were going with a Hands Across America thing, but that doesn’t seem to jive with your last bit. “We’re all the same, as long as we keep to where we belong?” Is that your message? Because that sounds a little “separate but equal” to me.
Which has historically been more than a little untrue.
And that confusion slowly built, as I realized the number of little incidents that had been niggling at my brain. One of the stories is about a guy who, as a child, fled his house most nights to escape his dad’s drunken beatings. Am I supposed to feel happy this guy overcame that? Where the fuck was Japanese CPS? A child was SLEEPING ON SCHOOL ROOFTOPS, and no one thought “maybe I should investigate that”? A lot of these stories build on the idea of the many struggles the street vendors have faced, and show them working, cooking at their stalls or restaurants…just to wrap up with “And since then, I’ve opened 4 locations.” Wait, so you’re actually like, a straight up franchise manager? Then why are you still doing this part? Or was this all an act? Have you been…wearing your past routine as a COSTUME for this segment? What the fuck am I supposed to feel about that?
I’m not saying this isn’t a culinary success. I’m noting that I’m confused on what degree of success it is.
Like I said, it’s weird, and I don’t really know what I think about it. But right now, three things stick in my head:
1. The beautiful fucking shots of the finished dishes they run at the end of each episode.
2. The flashes of human suffering and sorrow
3. A sense of nagging confusion, like a horse shaking its head to dislodge a fly, at a message of SOME kind I just don’t QUITE get.
So, yeah, I still recommend it, overall. Just not all in one go. Oh, and if you read this far: one of the dishes made in the episode is “reef eel soup”, which supposedly enhances one’s vigor and virility. That’s the answer to “will it tell me how to get my dick hard”, like, 2,000 words ago: eel soup, apparently. Was that a satisfying pay-off? I doubt it. But I also doubt eel soup’s ability to help me give more satisfying pay-offs, so here we are.
No links today either, because I gotta feed a chicken. I assure you, Past Jon can definitely help you, and so can future Jon. Hell, there are links at the top of the page if you need them right now! WHY DO I PUT THESE LINKS HERE?
MONDAY: JON DRINKS DEEP OF THE CUP OF RICE, AS HE IMBIBES HORCHATA TO BEAT THE LATE SPRING HEAT.
THURSDAY: I FEEL LIKE I HAD AN IDEA, BUT IT’S PRETTY LATE RIGHT NOW. LET’S SEE IF MORNING JON REMEMBERS IT. (I DID NOT.)