An upcoming competition has professional chefs cooking up the culinary favorites of 15 grandmothers.
By ESTI KELLER
To an outsider, the jovial scene in the Aloni living room could be mistaken for old friends catching up. The sound of laughter reverberates as grandmother of nine Zahava Aloni and her husband Efraim trade family anecdotes and discuss mutual acquaintances with their guest, 32-year-old Lior Hafzadi.
Efraim lifts a dusty black-and-white photograph from the shelf - a family portrait - and points out his four-year-old self dressed in traditional Kurdish apparel. He reminisces about his family's three-month-long journey to Israel from Kurdistan made shortly after the picture was taken. His wife, meanwhile, disappears periodically, reappearing with Kurdish delicacies presaged by the alluring smells emanating from the kitchen.
Hafzadi consumes them heartily. Though different from the food he prepares as chef of upscale Jerusalem restaurant Canella, Hafzadi, who is of Kurdish heritage himself, feels a special affinity to Aloni's food.
"Zahava's cooking reminds me of my mother's cooking," he explains. "Being here reminds me of being back at home."
With this in mind, he chose to work with Aloni for next Sunday's Grandmothers' Cooking competition, which pairs 15 Jerusalem grandmothers with chefs from the capital's finest restaurants, among them Canella, Gabriel, La Guta and Magare. Each chef will prepare his partner's recipe at the contest, which takes place in the Mahaneh Yehuda market. Each dish will then be sampled by a panel of judges, comprising food critics and other culinary professionals.
Hafzadi's sentiments also capture the essence of the competition. Devised by members of Wake Up Jerusalem, an organization aimed at encouraging Jerusalem's youth to be active on behalf of the city that is also represented on the city council, its goal is to inspire Jerusalemites to embrace their cultural roots. "The recipes originate from countries as diverse as Hungary, Iran, Poland, Romania, Yemen and Ethiopia," explains the movement's Neta Yaron.
"In a country like Israel, which is made up of people of so many different cultural heritages, it's important for people to have a sense of their own backgrounds as well as each other's. Food accomplishes this on so many levels. Family recipes provide people with a link to their past, and meals enable families to come together and connect," she says.
A second goal of the competition is to forge a connection between the capital's senior residents and its youth. "As a youth organization, we think it's important to encourage the younger members of our city to interact with different segments of its population and particularly to have an awareness of the needs of its elderly members," Yaron says.
By visiting the competitors, each of whom either won a cooking competition at her community center or was recommended by a community worker, members of Hitorerut got to know some of their older fellow residents.
In addition, the competition will take place within the framework of a larger event, which Yaron says is geared toward the whole family. "The public is invited to come and watch the chefs at work and to taste the food and observe the judging. There will be other attractions as well, including the musical group Marsh Dondorme, street artists and workshops. This is something that Jerusalemites, whatever their age, can enjoy together."
Yaron also hopes the event will promote Jerusalem as a gastronomic attraction. "There is a misconception that all the sophisticated restaurants are in Tel Aviv. We want to show that Jerusalem also has something to offer on this front."
Hafzadi echoes her sentiments. "People don't realize how much Jerusalem has to offer in terms of food. It's great to be able to promote that," he says.
The project also appeals to him because it provides an opportunity to give something back to the community, as well as its emphasis on families. "Family is at the center of any good cook's experience," he says. "It's our starting point."
The choice of family, and in particular grandmothers, was an obvious one, Yaron says. "Grandmothers are the embodiment of connecting with the past through food," she says. "Most people remember their grandmothers cooking special dishes for family events, hosting big meals and telling stories about the past."
Competitor Shoshana Levi is an example. "I was always a stay-at-home mother, and cooking for my children was a central part of that role," she says. "Now, as a grandmother, I'm the one who cooks for special occasions and family events. My grandchildren know my food, and they have their favorites."
A particular favorite, she says, is her pre-Pessah meal, at which she serves rice, eggs, vegetables and meat. "Every year, I have all the family over for the lunch before Seder night. It has become a family tradition."
For the competition, Levi, who is of Iranian heritage, has chosen her family recipe for shufta, a dessert made of dried fruits and cheese. She notes some differences between the way she cooks it now and her mother's method. "When I was a girl, I would watch my mother use a long stone to stir the ingredients. Today I use a spatula or a food processor."
At the Alonis' too there are signs of the differences between Zahava Aloni's lifestyle and that of earlier generations of women in her family. An array of different dishes lines the kitchen counters, among them the kubbeh in tomato and fruit sauce that Hafzadi will be making for the competition. The walls are adorned with pictures of her grandchildren, but the kitchen counters are decorated with murals she painted herself. An open door at the end of a corridor reveals a spare bedroom that doubles as a studio, where Zahava, a trained beautician, treats clients.
"My mother would spend all day slaving over a hot stove," she recalls. "I devote a couple of hours in the morning to cooking, and then I am busy with my work or other hobbies and activities. I enjoy life. Today women don't spend all their time in the kitchen. Things have changed."
Grandmothers' Cooking runs on Sunday, March 22, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Rehov Etz Haim in the Mahaneh Yehuda Market. Entrance is free and food is priced at NIS 15 per dish. Proceeds will go the Elem charity for youth at risk.
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