That’s how love is expressed between grandmother and granddaughter in writer-director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical 2019 movie, The Farewell. “Love languages” are what Wang calls the unspoken ways we show affection. For many grandmothers, whether you call them Nai Nai, as Billi, the main character, does in Mandarin, nonna in Italian, or bubbe in Yiddish, food is a universal love language.
In The Farewell, food is also an organizing principle around which life swirls. The family squabbles and laughs over bowls of rice, baskets of bao, and vats of soup. Conversations and communal eating take place around a rectangular table in America. In China, it’s a huge round one, with a turntable of revolving delicacies: roast duck, fat shrimp, and steamed dumplings. During a trip to the cemetery to honor an ancestor, the family shares snacks of oranges, bananas, and cookies—the deceased’s favorite foods. Memorably, a mother-daughter dispute plays out in back-and-forth about how many wontons to eat.
Awkwafina plays Billi, an American who returns to Changchun, in Northeast China, to visit family she hasn’t seen since she was a child. The region's distinctive Dongbei (a.k.a. Manchurian) wheat-and-meat cuisine is still not well-known in America beyond its iconic dish, sweet-and-sour pork. But being with family and eating her favorite childhood foods forces Billi to rethink her identity and question what she and her family lost and gained when her parents emigrated to America. The result is what Wang calls a "screwball comedy that also had a lot of pathos."
When Nai Nai (Chinese television star Shuzhen Zhao) receives a terminal medical diagnosis, it’s delivered not to her but to her sister. The family has to decide whether to deal with it in the traditional Chinese way—tell her nothing—or in the American way—tell her everything. Communal deception ensues. Nai Nai is led to believe her children and grandchildren have come from across the globe to attend a family wedding, but the elaborate celebration is actually a covert excuse to bid her farewell. Tempers flare when the family suspects the caterers have scammed them by serving crabs instead of the lobster they were promised.
But these crabs are ready for their close-up. Garnished with purple orchids, platter-sized vermilion beauties crown a bed of greens. Along with massive amounts of food, Wang serves up humor and suspense as the guests sing and play drinking games with baijiu. Will one of the drunk guests blab the truth to Nai Nai? Will one of her sons spill the beans? Will Billi? When a bewildered Nai Nai asks why people around her keep crying, they brush it off as "tears of joy." When Nai Nai tells Billi to "Eat more," Wang films a mountain of food at table-top level, an overwhelmed Billi barely visible behind it. Even so close to death, food looms larger than life.
If you haven’t seen it yet, The Farewell is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. We’ve created a menu of Chinese classics to enhance your viewing pleasure. We focused on recipes that lean on simple, easy-to-find ingredients and pantry staples. Not all are specific to Northeast China, but we hope they bring comfort and flavor in these difficult times.
As the characters toasted to Nai Nai in the film, "Eat well, drink well, and remember to be happy!"
Pork and Scallion Dumplings
These dumplings are popular in the wheat-growing region of Northern China. The filling, a mixture of pork, stock, wine, and scallions, purées easily in the food processor, and plumps as it steams inside the slightly chewy wrapper. Don’t skip the chili-vinegar dipping sauce. If you don’t have dumpling wrappers, you can make the simple flour-and-water dough a day ahead and refrigerate it. Just make sure to keep the dough damp while you’re rolling it out so it stays pliable.
Egg Drop Soup
Here’s a simple, soothing soup with minimal ingredients that comes together in just 30 minutes. Chicken stock, homemade or purchased, is simmered with a bit of pork—Chinese ham, sausage, or slab bacon—and eggs, and brightened with scallions and ginger.
Sweet and Sour Pork
The recent popularization of Sichuan cuisine in cities across America has overpowered the more subtly spiced, sweet-and-sour dishes of Northern China. In this recipe for sweet-and-sour pork, canned pineapple chunks bring the sweetness and rice vinegar adds a sour note. This recipe is a great introduction to the technique known as velveting, wherein a mixture of cornstarch, egg white, and wine guarantees silky, tender meat. Chinese wine or sake is used to tenderize the pork in the marinade, but any white wine will work.
Mushrooms and Tofu With Chinese Mustard Greens
Popular at Chinese Lunar New Year—though traditionally made with abalone—this main course gets an umami boost from a variety of fresh and dried mushrooms. Toasted sesame oil in the sauce enhances the earthiness. Any dark leafy green or bok choy will work as a substitute if you don’t have mustard greens on hand. Drenching the tofu with boiling water forces it to release all of its liquid so that it stays firm and dry in the stir fry.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
Easy Fried Rice
Made all over the world, fried rice is a perfect and quick pantry and freezer meal. Fresh or leftover rice is combined with a handful of chopped vegetables, including peas straight from the freezer. Garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil provide all the flavor. Scramble the egg in the hot pan next to the rice, and then toss it all together.
The Japanese Cocktail
Just in case you don’t have any baijiu handy for your Chinese feast, consider a cocktail. In honor of the groom in The Farewell, who was living in Japan when he came back to China for his wedding, it’s called the Japanese Cocktail. This 19th-century cocktail calls for cognac and orgeat, an almond-flavored liqueur. In a pinch, try Amaretto. A splash of bitters and a twist of lemon, and you’re done.
Editor's note: This article is the first in a new series developed with A24 to celebrate the marriage of food and film during this period of self-isolation.