Exploring culinary culture through cinema

It is interesting to note that the majority of the dishes we now consider to be traditionally 'Israeli' are in fact Mizrahi dishes.

Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This year’s Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque will include a culinary cinema program, featuring films that explore the culture and history of Jewish food in various ways.
Israel is a melting pot of cultures with Jews from all over the world, bringing with them traditional food from their home countries. Some of these dishes are connected to the Jewish religion, but many are simply local dishes of their country or town of origin, passed down from generation to generation. Often these foods and cultures have merged and been adapted to modern life, but for many, these dishes are sacred and are one of the few connections they have to the life they left behind, before they moved to Israel.
Juicy Nonsense, directed by Aliza Eshed and Eli Abir, is a 40-minute documentary in Hebrew and German, focusing on the specific culture of the German-speaking Yekkes in Israel, and how many of their traditions have passed down through generations. The film features interviews with members of different families, who talk about their connection to certain dishes and demonstrate the traditional dishes they still make.
While many of the younger generations have married people from other backgrounds and embraced Mizrahi food, for the older generation, humous and anything made with garlic are completely avoided.
It is interesting to note that the majority of the dishes we now consider to be traditionally “Israeli” are in fact Mizrahi dishes; however, schnitzel, which is one of the most popular Israeli dishes of all, is a staple of all Ashkenazi homes and has been embraced as a national dish.
Strudel in Tehina, directed by Ran Landau and Tomer Shani, is an hour-long documentary about the lives of three businesses on the corner of King George Street and Hahistadrut Street in central Jerusalem. Pinati is one of the best-known humous joints in Israel, and its first branch opened on this corner in 1975. Next to it was Fink, a German-influenced bar-restaurant that opened in 1923. The film also looks at the life of Galina, who works in the lotto stand between the two restaurants, but for me her story was a complete red herring.
During the time of the British Mandate, Fink was popular with the British, Arab and Jewish elite. Even when Moshe Fink sold his restaurant to David Rothschild in 1946, it continued to be a place for movers- and-shakers to convene and as the state was formed, it was a perfect place to entertain diplomats and visiting dignitaries who were used to European food and service. Rothschild’s son-in-law, Mouli Azrieli, continued the family business but as neighboring Pinati became more popular, Fink started losing business.
Whether people no longer craved traditional Ashkenazi food like goulash, chopped liver and herring, or they preferred more modern dishes when dining out, the film ends as Fink closed its doors to business almost 10 years ago.
The highlight of the culinary cinema program for me is the showing of Jerusalem on a Plate, an hour-long BBC documentary hosted by chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
Ottolenghi was born in Jerusalem but moved to London at the beginning of his career. Now a world-renowned chef and author, the film takes the viewer on a culinary tour of the streets of the Old City, the stalls of the Mahaneh Yehuda market and some of the more modern restaurants in and around Jerusalem. On December 2, the film will be followed by a panel discussion with Ottolenghi, chef Ezra Kedem of Arcadia, and chef Kamel Hashlamon of Turquoise, moderated by Ronit Vered, food journalist at Haaretz.
In the film, Ottolenghi examines the interaction between the Muslim and Jewish food cultures, with their similarities and differences. While Israelis are happy to take traditional dishes and adapt them to the modern world and changing tastes, the Arab world (like many Ashkenazi Jews), avoids making any changes to their dishes and they remain the same, generation after generation. In fact, both in their book, Jerusalem, and in their restaurants, Ottolenghi and his business partner, Sami Tamimi, are often accused of “bastardizing” the original recipes in their attempt to modernize the dishes they grew up on.
Many people credit the culinary explosion in Israel to the phenomenon of young Israeli chefs going abroad to train and explore other cuisines, then returning to adapt their new knowledge and skills to traditional Middle Eastern dishes. Whether you believe that culinary tradition should evolve or dishes should stay the same, the culinary cinema program will be an interesting addition to the Jewish Film Festival.
The festival runs from November 30 to December 6, and the culinary program will also feature the Joy of Israel with Jamie Geller and Café Ta’amon, King George Street, Jerusalem. Full details on film times and ticket prices can be found on the Jerusalem Cinematheque website: jer-cin.org.il.