Food In Avatar: The Last Airbender; Cabbages, Feasts & Cultures

For those who grew up in the 1990s, the 2020s have been an interesting time. From English-language books this generation read, like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, to the shows watched on television in cartoon or anime form, most are now being quickly adapted into live-action series that evoke nostalgia with easy access on OTT platforms. Netflix’s recent release, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is just one among many franchises millennials are getting a chance to enjoy once again. But often, what gets missed out in live-action adaptations are the innocent, child-like and yet thoroughly enjoyable components around food.  

Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender changes all that with its approach though. Those who watched the classic Nickelodeon animated series would testify to the fact that humour and food, apart from the stunning world-building narrative, were the two core parts of the series that made the fictional world feel real. The series followed Aang, the titular Avatar, and his friends, Katara, Sokka, Momo and Appa, as they journeyed across a fictional world struck by the ravages of war—and managed to still find lighter moments along the way. The Nickelodeon classic ensured that the four elemental nations of Water, Earth, Fire and Air were represented by racially and culturally diverse people, and clothing, food and sometimes humour was used to set each tribe apart. 

And then came M. Night Shyamalan’s movie adaptation, The Last Airbender, in 2010. Widely panned for not getting the story right and for whitewashing the characters (who are all supposed to belong to the South Asia, Southeast Asia, Asia-Pacific and Arctic regions), Shyamalan’s movie was also disappointing because it missed out on humour and food as major components. Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender goes a long way in wiping out the bad memories of Shyamalan’s movie, while also giving those who loved the food component of the original series a better taste of how live action can be done right.  

Understanding Food In Avatar: The Last Airbender 

For those unversed with the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the first thing to know is that though the plotline is fictional, the people represented in the show are parallel to tribes, empires and cultures from the real world. The Water Tribe is populated by people from the Indigenous Arctic cultures like the Inuits and Yupiks. The Earth Kingdom’s people are usually from China, but characters like King Bumi and Guru Patik are considered to be of Indian origin. The Fire Nation is supposed to be a parallel for Imperial Japan, while the air Nomads are inspired by Tibetan Buddhist monks and their culture. 

Keeping this background in mind, the Nickelodeon show represented food from each of these cultures accurately, while also adding a flair of whimsical and creativity to the dishes you come across. Quite like the Inuits, the Water Tribe’s food culture focused on dishes like seal jerky and cured meats. Sokka, the Water Tribe warrior and Katara’s brother, not only provided humour in the show, but also proclaimed himself to be the Avatar-version of a die-hard foodie. “I’m a simple guy with simple needs,” he says, while always foraging and hunting for his next meal in an almost hobbit-like fashion at times.  

On the other hand, the Air Nomads’ diet is simple and spiritual in nature, with Aang being a vegetarian Buddhist monk. His mentor, Monk Gyatso, is also shown to be an ace baker, while Guru Patik has a cleansing concoction called onion and banana juice which is very difficult to keep down, naturally. Sometimes, the food borders on the bizarre but is strangely futuristic: A season 2 episode showcases unfried dough as a dish to celebrate the fact that Aang wasn’t cooked alive as a punishment, and you are bound to wonder if that’s where the strange trend of eating raw cookie dough came from.  

And of course, there are all the feast scenes, dominated especially by the one thrown by King Bumi of Omashu which featured skinless chicken, lettuce leaves and more. Let’s also not forget the running gag around the cabbage seller who travels from nation to nation hoping to find stability and good sales, but always has his fresh cruciferous veggies trampled or blown up by Team Avatar or soldiers or even benders! And ultimately, there were the ever-flowing cups of Jasmine tea that General Iroh loved to sip on and even opened a shop around.

Food From Avatar In Live Action: Feast For The Senses 

Given that food played such a central part in the Nickelodeon series, the very trailers for Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender promised that essential elements from the original show would be maintained and brought to life. While most will note that the cast of the new show is perfect—Kiawentiio, a First Nations actress plays Katara; Asian actors represent Earth, Fire and Air nations; Indian-origin actors like Utkarsh Ambudkar and Danny Pudi play King Bumi and the Mechanist Sai along with a whole cast of Indian-origin actors in Omashu—others will find that the humour and food are captured perfectly too. 

While in Kyoshi Island, Team Avatar indulges in a whole spread of sweetcakes, colourful breads and so much more. In the Nickelodeon show episode dedicated to Kyoshi Island, Aang had loved the fact that since they were being served dessert for breakfast, it was a sign of good times ahead. The fact that the Netflix show managed to bring this perfectly to life is a good sign for nostalgia-driven millennial viewers for sure. And then, the later episodes present two feasts which further prove that the makers of this new show were dedicated towards getting the food element right. 

King Bumi’s iconic feast, for example, didn’t just have a huge spread of royal looking dishes but also had him playing around with lettuce leaves and engaging in irreverential food puns. He offers Aang short ribs from Kangaroo Island saying “they practically jump into your mouth”, while the seaweed stew “kelps with your complexion”. For Indian fans of the show, the feast is also significant because you can just as easily spot motichoor laddoos, pinnis, mangoes and what looked like petha too! 

Last up was the Northern Water Tribe feast, an elaborate and long scene which dedicated time to showing not only dumplings, cured meats, caviar, wild berries but also especially focused on stewed sea prunes which Katara loved. Deviating from the source material fully, the episode also gives a glimpse of the royal kitchens where Princess Yue whips up an ice cream with wild berries sauce and offers it to a kid and Sokka for a taste. The playfulness of the scene is bound to melt every foodie’s heart. 

So, while purists and hardcore fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender might not be wholly impressed by the Netflix adaptation, the fact remains that those who loved the ‘90s show will find their own reasons to fall in love with it. For those who love food, movies and shows with a strong food element, and loved the Nickelodeon original, the live-action adaptation offers up a true feast for the senses. It highlights the fact that even in a world at war, hunger is always a driving force and food manages to represent cultures just as well as inviting those different from us to unite in celebration or scarcity. As Sokka says in the very last episode, “Food is always the right answer.”