Food holds infinite power in the souls and bodies of the Asian diaspora. For first generation immigrants, it shelters memories of a home departed. For millions of others, it serves to remind those of their ancestors’ cultural heritage, the hardships endured to get where they are now.
These ideas are perfectly exemplified in the 2024 Seattle Asian American Film Festival, running from February 22 to March 5, in the shorts program Have You Eaten Yet?
Eight films will play — narratives and documentaries — telling stories from the Hawaiian Islands to the United Kingdom.
“[Have You Eaten Yet?], was collectively programmed together by our small programming team of myself, Em Chan, and Em Halladay Ptáček Choi,” wrote Ellison Shieh, Co-Director of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, in an email to the IE. “The [films] we chose for this program shared many different threads between our relationships with land, memory, connection, and care when it comes to food.”
Have You Eaten Yet? takes its name from translations of many Asian language phrases, meaning more, “How are you?” rather than “Are you hungry?” The phrase links the Pacific Asian languages and communities, just as those ideas of memory and heritage do.
Cuppa Chai (2023) is the first film of the program, telling the magical story of Mira, a young British Indian girl mourning the death of her grandmother. She comes across an old journal and her grandmother’s glasses, which allow her to read her family’s chai recipe written in Hindi.
Directed by Amit Kaur and featuring a women-led production crew, Cuppa Chai is a heartwarming affair, illustrating the magic that can come with rediscovering old recipes that, for one reason or another, have been lost to time.
The second film on the program is mẹ con | my mom (2022). Directed by Melanie Ho, this short is both a heartwarming and heartbreaking documentary following Ho’s mother as she manages her garden, recalling stories of her own mom. The film dives into the strain that immigration can put on familial bonds, and the toll that takes over decades.
“There’s a familiarity, I think, between the intergenerational dialogues that I explore within the women of my family and other diasporic stories and I think the simple recognition of this familiarity becomes the means of my own familial story continuing,” wrote Ho in an email to the IE. “To share the burden of remembering is proof that we lived.”
Women in Markets (2023) is a different kind of documentary. The film, directed by Chyan Lo, features unnamed women in different Chinatown markets, shopping and speaking about their lives — friends, family, and food. There’s a sense of nostalgia, seeing milk crates filled with produce, and a spotlight is shown on the gendered role that food and food preparation play in Asian cultures.
The fourth film, MSG: Mysterious Savory Grains (2023), feels as punchy as the flavor enhancer it’s named for. Director Kyle Finnegan analyzes the properties of monosodium glutamate and its use in Asian American cuisine, including its ostracization and modern revival.
Featuring interviews from chef Tim Ma, who isn’t afraid of using MSG in his restaurants, and food historian Sarah E. Tracy, MSG: Mysterious Savory Grains opens the conversation regarding the titular seasoning, encouraging reevaluation of the long-held stigma against it.
The next film, Matsutake (2023), was my personal favorite of the program. A cozy, nature-filled documentary, this short follows the late Homer Yasui — at the time of filming, a 98-year-old second generation Japanese American continuing a family tradition of mushroom hunting.
“They are a part of our family traditions,” Mari Hayman, the film’s producer and Yasui’s granddaughter, said. “But matsutake are also valuable, and they feel like a gift… they’re a symbol of Japan in America, something from the old country that is now gone over there but persists here.”
Matsutake filmmaker and Yasui’s grandson, Theodore Caleb Haas, alongside camera operator/colorist Marlon Savinelli, shot the film in a weekend, collecting invaluable footage of an energetic and sharp Yasui in the forest with his family.
“The man could talk, such an orator,” said Haas. “He went for two hours straight… I used his narration basically as our scripts. It was pretty simple when you have such an amazing speaker like Homer.”
The next film, Homestead (2023), marks a tonal shift by telling the story of Liane, a Laotian cucumber farmer in Hawaii saving money to return home. Liane documents her difficult work on the farm, all born from love for her family abroad. Director Justin Hiromi Pascua frames the documentary within Liane’s relationship with her American grandson, Aiden — once estranged relatives now drawn together by the titular homestead.
The penultimate short, BENKYODO: The Last Manju Shop in J-Town (2023) details the spirited history and bittersweet final days of the eponymous Benkyodo manju shop in San Francisco. Owners Ricky and Bobby Okamura juggle with maintaining the legacy of their long-running family business and what it means to preserve their cultural heritage, all with infectious attitudes.
“I think it really is kind of a metaphor for the Japanese American community as a whole,” said director Tadashi Nakamura. “One hand, we have this rich history of settling, establishing businesses, and surviving camp. At the same time, that generation is slowly disappearing.”
The final film on the program is 100% USDA Certified Organic Homemade Tofu (2022), a perfect comedic sendoff for the list. The film follows Nikki, a Korean American girl, who takes shifts at her overbearing mother’s Korean restaurant to pay for her gender affirming surgery. There, an interaction with an annoying influencer leads to the creation of a comically spicy challenge that brings much-needed buzz to the restaurant.
100% USDA Certified Organic Homemade Tofu is as heartfelt as it is funny, with director Gbenga Komolafe finely illustrating the growing bond between daughter and mother provided by the restaurant and the spices that bind it.
Together, these eight shorts run the full gamut of heartwarming to isolating, contemplative to humorous. Stories of ancestors and predecessors are just as important as the food that got them there.
Through all the hardship that comes with displacement, food, practices, and heritage serves as both an important reminder of what came before, and a hopeful look at all that lies ahead.
“Food brings us together, whether it is a homemade recipe or a special ingredient, some of our most vivid and fond memories revolve around something delicious,” reads the event program.
‘Have You Eaten Yet?’ is showing February 25, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., at the Northwest Film Forum.