When Judge Daryl Loomis is cooked, he gets raw.
A culinary journey through Taiwan.
Internationally, Taiwanese food doesn't get the same kind of attention as Chinese or Thai cuisines, but the nation has the second highest population density in the world and its offerings are as rich as they are diverse, even if they aren't so well-known in the West. German director Monika Treut (Seduction: The Cruel Woman) helps to rectify this with The Raw and the Cooked, a documentary that takes us on a tour across the country and exposes just how wonderful Taiwanese food can be.
Treut begins her journey in Taipei, Taiwan's massive capital city. As the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the nation, it's a natural place to start. Here, she takes us with her to vast markets, a traditional Taiwanese restaurant, and the place that makes apparently produces the tastiest soup dumplings on Earth. Here, at the start, The Raw and the Cooked appears as a solid, but less amusing version of an Anthony Bourdain project, but the heart of the matter comes when she leaves the big city and journeys on a clockwise tour of the country.
It quickly emerges that Treut's film is as much or more about culture than about food. Though food certainly colors her cultural observations, as she travels through the country, she finds music, religion, and increasing modernization equally important to the big picture of Taiwan. Visiting six locations in all, she shows just how diverse the culture is, from the big city life in the beginning to rural farms, monasteries, and aboriginal populations, a group in particular that is endangered by encroaching industrialization.
Through it all is the food that each of these groups eat. Whether it's the vegetarian diet of the monastic groups, the meal cooked by an aboriginal chef in a hollowed-out tree trunk, or the final meal in Pulin by a chef who deals in edible objects like rose petals and paper, all of the food looks terrific and represents a different aspect of this amazing and seemingly forgotten culture.
The Raw and the Cooked isn't some kind of somber lament for a dying culture, however; there is plenty of life and humor in the film that comes out in many ways. The family-style living of the monks, the music that is performed at various points in the film, and the dedication to natural, traditional farming methods display the humanity in the varying cultures in the country. On the other hand, the American expat gushing over his years-old fermented human excrement that has turned to good soil is a hilarious (though completely valid) expression of sustainable farming. There's a great spirit in The Raw and the Cooked that gives a genuinely caring and non-exploitive look at a diverse group of people who aren't often on or cultural or culinary radar, but deserve to be. Treut's documentary is a very good step in the right direction.
The Raw and the Cooked arrives on DVD from First Run Features in a package that is essentially the same level of quality as their other releases. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is adequate, but little more. It's a clear enough image without any digital errors to speak of, but there isn't much to separate it from the pack, either. The sound is pretty average, as well, with a flat stereo mix that gets the dialog across clearly, but little else. As typical for First Run documentaries, the only extras are text bases pieces, including cultural information, recipes, and biographies.
The Raw and the Cooked is a treat for anyone interested in not just Taiwanese food, but the nation's rich culture, as well. Treut has created a well-formed, highly interesting piece that entertains as much as it informs that any food lover should see. Highly recommended.
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