Loading up Venba for the first time—a game I’ve been excited about for a while now—I immediately knew I was in for a treat. The rattle of cookware resounded over a collection of gorgeously-illustrated spice jars, each representing a menu option. As I selected the “Play” jar, I settled down for a cosy cooking game, but I wasn’t expecting the emotional heart beating at the centre of Venba.
PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series, Xbox One, PlayStation 5
July 31, 2023
Sidequest was provided with a copy of Venba for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Venba is a short but sweet narrative cooking game that tells the story of Venba, a Tamil woman who migrates to Canada with her husband, Paavalan. The game is split up into chapters, most of which feature a vignette punctuated with a recipe, which is where the “cooking game” aspect comes in. In the first chapter, Venba makes idli, a steamed savoury cake that’s a staple in South Indian cooking. The cooking mechanics are straightforward but fun: a variety of cooking utensils and ingredients are laid out before you, to click on in the correct order. For idli, you’ll need to work out how to assemble the steamer, dragging each component into place, and then click to pour ladles of batter into it. For biryani, later in the game, you must add each ingredient—meat, spices, ghee—to a steaming pot in a precise order. An extra layer is added to these simple mechanics with the cookbook Venba works from. Inherited from her mother, the book is faded and falling apart, so Venba—and the player—need to figure out some steps of each recipe on their own. None of these “puzzles” are particularly complicated but they’re a neat addition and help to develop the story by bringing to life Venba’s memories of her mother and her life back in India.
I’m a sucker for cooking games, minigames, mechanics—if you give me virtual food to make, I’ll do it with zest, partly because I generally hate cooking in real life. Cooking exhausts me but I love the smell of something delicious roasting in an oven or bubbling in a pot. The sounds of spices hitting a pan filled with hot oil, the sizzle of protein or veg being added, the steam coming off a stove—and, most of all, the anticipation of eating and of nourishment. Venba captures this feeling better than any other cooking game I’ve played. It doesn’t have extremely in-depth mechanics like some simulators, and there’s no intensity or timers to rush you, but the foley is incredible and so realistic I felt able to smell the game’s dishes through my Steam Deck.
While many of the game’s dishes are familiar to me, I loved how Venba helps to bring its food to life through little tooltips and Venba’s memories of learning to cook with her mother. Instead of simply explaining South Indian cuisine to unfamiliar audiences, Venba roots each recipe in its characters’ histories, which evokes childhood memories for South Asian players like myself while deepening character development for everyone (and, I expect, getting all players to feel hungry!) As you progress through the game—as Venba gets older and more practised at cooking—you no longer need the cookbook to whip up a meal. Instead, the player is thrown into slicing and frying fish, and adding oil and batter to a pan before collecting the cooked patties.
Venba tells a story that specifically relates to a Tamil and Indian immigrant experience, but it also resonated deeply with me as a second-generation South Asian. In so many ways, Venba reminded me of my own mother—the ways she worries about her family in their new home, the way she uses food to express love, the difficulties she faces while navigating a new culture, and her quiet strength in the face of it all. Venba is characterised by her jangling bracelets when she moves on screen, and the dialogue boxes are muddy when her son, Kavin, is speaking English too quickly for her to fully follow.
Kavin’s story in Venba is just as important as his mother’s. While Venba is certainly the star of the game, migration does not solely impact her and Paavalan. Kavin struggles to fit in with his white Canadian schoolmates and, as an adult, feels unsure of how to negotiate work with a boss who tokenises him. There are many aspects of Kavin’s story, as the child of immigrants, that I don’t personally relate to—though many second- and third-gen kids do try to distance themselves from their family’s heritage, hoping this will let them finally belong among their peers. However, I think Kavin’s story is relatable to players of all backgrounds, whether they rebelled against their parents as a kid or teen, or tried to fit into various social spaces as an adult. Kavin’s story, ultimately, is one of trying to understand where he belongs in the world, and I adore the nuance that Venba brings to his experiences.
Most of all, though, it’s beautiful to see how Venba is treated as a full person through the game’s narrative. After her son grows up, she learns to put herself first. She is not solely defined by her status in relation to the men in her life—she’s not just a wife or a mother, or even a brown immigrant in a white society. She’s a full person, and just like my own mother, gains her independence after years of cooking for her family. By the end of the game, she is no longer cooking alone and while she might not know what comes next, she is happy.
Venba made me cry, made me hungry, and made me call my mum to check in. For many South Asian players, the game will resonate deeply with its nostalgic soundtrack, authentic kitchen noises, and gorgeous narrative. But Venba has something to offer everyone—whether you’ve ever felt like an outsider, or had a complicated relationship with your parents, or simply love a hot saucepan of good food.