The scent of green papaya is a French film set in a Vietnam nostalgic for the past that evokes the poetry of everyday life. This movie is a perfect excuse to order Vietnamese dinner at Xinh Xinh Cafe and stay for a romantic night out.
Despite the title, The scent of green papaya does not concern food. It is really about rituals, rhythms, the cycle of life and the interdependence of all things.
Photo by First Look International.
Set in 1951, this 1993 Franco-Vietnamese co-production begins as a moving painting of a long lost Saigon seen through rose-colored glasses. Through a voyeuristic camera, we see the daily rhythms of a family: waking up, praying, working, playing, eating, sleeping. We follow a ten-year-old maid as she cleans, cooks, serves, and curiously examines the natural speech that surrounds her. It is a delicate balance between the roles of man and woman, master and servant, innocence and mischief.
Soon we settled into the legato rhythm of the film, slowing down and enjoying the details so meticulously captured for our review. We feel the heat. We hear the sounds of nature, crickets, frogs, birds, the sounds of the occasional airplane flying above. Wait, when was the last time you heard the background sounds of an airplane flying above them in a movie? Did the director make a mistake and choose the wrong take in the editing room? Are we not on a set in a studio in Paris? Was this sound added on purpose? If yes, why? Gradually, the importance of these details is revealed. Yes, we hear planes flying above us again later in the movie, when we jump ten years ahead in the story. Yes, the sounds of the plane will be different – and that’s the point. Things change; things stay the same. People grow up – or not.
There is betrayal. There is death. There is love. And there is food.
The scent of green papaya is a complete film, perfect in its conception, perfect in its execution. The film has little dialogue, but what is not said is just as important as what is said. When we hear a dialogue, it is as if the words have been heard, that we have just listened to a conversation that we are not meant to hear. Every element of the film was crafted to evoke the right atmosphere, the right pace, the right balance for the story being told. The repeating themes and patterns make subtle connections that add to the texture of the film: the repeated images of bare feet, perhaps reminding us of the journey of life; the breaking of vases, perhaps alluding to the loss of something even more important; cutting a green papaya to reveal the seeds, perhaps invoking the birth or beginning of something new. This film is visual art, to be cherished and revisited over and over again. I’ve seen this movie three times, and it always reveals something new with every viewing. No wonder, then, that this first feature film by Tran Anh Hung was nominated for an Oscar.
What about dinner? The film contains many scenes of people eating simple, homemade Vietnamese food. They cook over a simple charcoal fire in a simple backyard kitchen. As an added bonus, we also get a few cooking lessons, so you can cook at least two simple and authentic Vietnamese dishes after watching this movie. Do they say good food doesn’t have to be complicated? That a slower, simpler life could be just as fulfilling? By the end of the movie, you will agree that the answer is a simple “yes”.
If you haven’t tried a green papaya salad yet, you must watch this movie to see the traditional preparation. Then you can order this dish at no less than four different restaurants in the city (Bangkok Thai, Thara Thai, Sticky Rice, and Xinh Xinh Cafe). Because the movie is set in Vietnam, we decided to order from Xinh Xinh Cafe. As usual, we ordered in advance, and at the end of the movie, we reheated the food, prepared the dishes, and had some fun.
Photo by Paul Young.
Xinh Xinh Cafe offered four different proteins to complement their green papaya salad, and we chose shrimp ($ 8). The salad was dressed in a sweet and tangy dressing made from fish sauce, topped with bean sprouts, carrots, cilantro and ground peanuts. We added an extra pinch of ârooster sauceâ to increase the heat, and the result was a very satisfying appetizer.
Photo by Paul Young.
As a second appetizer, we ordered the Pork Sausage Summer Rolls ($ 6.50). Sometimes called âspring rolls,â this cold appetizer is traditionally wrapped in a thin sheet of rice and stuffed with grated daikon, cucumbers, cilantro and carrots. Of the two types offered at Xinh Xinh, we opted for the Vietnamese sausage version which also gave a nice spiciness to every bite. The peanut dip was perfectly balanced and added depth to this mouthwatering entry.
Photo by Paul Young.
Since we are going for a Vietnamese dinner, we had to order a bowl of the signature Vietnamese national dish: pho (pronounced “fuh”). This is a noodle soup in a large bowl traditionally made with beef broth and rice vermicelli (also sometimes called rice sticks). Xinh Xinh has eight versions of meat and a vegetarian option on its menu. I’ve always ordered the Pho Dac Biet Combination Bowl ($ 10), so tonight was no different.
A good bowl of pho starts with the broth, and Xinh Xinh’s version was delicate and tasty. The combo includes thinly sliced ââsteak, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatballs, a great variety in the beef department. The best part is always the raw vegetables which are added at the last minute: bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves, cilantro and jalapeÃ±o peppers. The steaming hot broth softens the veg just right and also helps cool the broth a bit for your first sip.
Photo by Paul Young.
For a second starter, we ordered the bowl of bun nem nuong vermicelli ($ 8) which was topped with roasted pork sausage and served on a bed of greens with lots of bean sprouts, fresh herbs, roasted peanuts and a side of fish infused with lime sauce for dressing. A room-temperature dish, this refreshing noodle dish hit the mark.
Xinh Xinh Cafe
114 North Vine Street
T-Sat 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The scent of green papaya is currently streaming on Kanopy (in HD) and Hoopla (in SD). Both platforms are available for free through your local public library (see: information on Kanopy and Hoopla in Champaign or Urbana).
Kanopy is one of those best-kept secrets in the streaming world. If you have a library card, you can stream up to 20 free movies per month at Champaign (but only 10 at Urbana). Running out of credits? Ask other members of your household to create a Kanopy account; how many people in your household already have a library card? There are plenty of free movie streaming sites out there, but almost none are ad-free, and no other platform offers the wide range of great titles you actually want to see. Paid by your taxes, Kanopy’s ever-rotating movie roster features the most diverse collection of independent, foreign, classic, and documentary films available on any streaming platform. Can’t afford to subscribe to Criterion Channel? Kanopy is offering 50 Criterion titles this month. Don’t want to subscribe to Paramount + to access their classics? Kanopy currently owns 176 older Paramount titles. A big fan of the independent studio A24? Kanopy is the go-to platform for A24’s ever-growing archive of cutting-edge groundbreaking titles (some say A24 never made a bad movie). Want to open up your streaming world? This is a good place to start.
If you have any other cool dinner / movie combo suggestions, please comment below or email us. Be creative, but avoid obvious titles like Ratatouille Where Sushi east side. They’re both worth watching, but we know you can do better.