No matter your level of culinary worldliness, there's likely something to be learned in Toronto-based documentarian Richard Fung's search for the origins of his favourite childhood food.
The moist, doughy, flatbread-wrapped curry goes by many different names in many different regions around the world. What we know of as roti in North America is a Trinidadian dish called dal puri, a hybrid with uncertain roots. Intent to uncover this secret history, Fung sets out on a journey that takes him from his native Trinidad to the Indian Subcontinent.
Initially, the focus remains on the food itself, but shortly after talking to his first chef, Fung's ulterior motive begins to steal the show. It begins with one of many historical info bombs—this one concerning the production of sugar cane—and quickly morphs into didactic political discourse on how the slave trade shaped the food industry.
Fung uses a combination of info graphics, local footage and interviews with various food authorities and enthusiasts to illustrate the conditions under which the diets of indentured workers influenced the proliferation and evolution of cultural foods. There's a bit too much attention spent on minutia, like the strict itemization of foodstuffs by British colonialists.
While it is certainly applicable to the topic, it's the sort of dry detail that makes the film a bit dull. A lot of the cultural tidbits Fung uncovers are quite fascinating though. For example, we have religion to blame for the woeful lack of fish roti. Through a local historian, we learn that many inland Indians have a "religious injunction" against eating ocean fish and Trinidad is an island.
When it pays more mind to the cultural significance of cuisine – never more articulately expressed than by food historian Pushpesh Pant's philosophical musings on its border-shattering ability to signify the commonality of people – than its academic urges, Dal Puri Diaspora can be fascinating, if a little visually indifferent. Unfortunately, Fung seems more interested in preaching than teaching.
Dal Puri Diaspora screens on Saturday November 10th at 4:30pm at the Royal. (Independent)