Food in Film Series: Politiki Kouzina
Politiki Kouzina (2003)--A Touch of Spice, English Title--directed by Tassos Boulmetis is a recent example of how food can be not only the basic ingredient to a wonderful film, but also its protagonist. The film takes place over the span of roughly four decades, beginning at the time of the population exchange of Greeks out of Turkey [to Greece] in the late 1950’s-early 1960’s. It is set largely between Athens and Istanbul (Constantinople), the latter having been built on the Bosphorus which adds tremendous sensitivity to the scenery and majestic nature of the Turkish city.
Politiki Kouzina weaves together the story of a grandson’s love and loyalty to his grandfather and home with the memories and passions he sets out to fulfill, including his love for Saime, his childhood companion and love of his life. Fanis, an astronomer and professor in his adult life, falls into memory throughout the film. Allusions to subtle and strong scents along with visual references to food are the mechanisms for evocation of Fanis’ remembering experiences from his past.
Ever-present throughout the film, spices and food can certainly be considered a major character in this film. Structurally, even, the film is formatted to follow the courses of a meal. The opening scene of a baby breastfeeding, with a touch of sugar to the teet, is a very tender look at our first meal in life and a very artistic and philosophical reference to the very natural and nurturing aspect of the female breast—oftentimes a sexualized aspect of female anatomy, which in fact provides essential function to the circle and beginnings of life and nourishment.
In the geopolitical and social contexts of the film, food and its presence quite pronouncedly propel the storyline forward. There are gender-role expectations associated with food (cooking is for the women), excitement and conversation about the perfect recipes and how the young culinary genius (Fanis) continues to perfect them despite being a boy, and references as to how and where the food and meals create a common link and bond between otherwise conflicting Greek and Turkish communities.
One of the more beautiful ‘food scenes’ (in my opinion) is early on in the film, when Fanis—having opened the film with a look through his telescope—recalls his early interest in stars alongside his grandfather, a spice-shop owner in a small village in Istanbul, Turkey. To paraphrase, his grandfather makes an analogy of the spices to each planet. Salt: the Earth. Venus (or, “Aphrodite”) is represented by cinnamon: the spice of love and, like all women according to his Grandfather, ‘cinnamon is both bitter and sweet’.
Fanis' grandfather elaborates these two specifics in reminding the young boy that, like salt, ‘even if we cannot taste it, that does not mean it isn’t there’. This comparison returns later in the sad form of departure. When Fanis and his parents are forced to leave, as part of the Turkish expulsion of Greeks to Athens, his Grandfather—hugging him—whispers a confidence to Fanis’ ear: just because I am not with you, like salt, it does not mean I am not ‘here’, as he points to Fanis’ heart. This idea of the ‘presence’ vs. ‘absence’ of people, places and emotions is thereafter [subtly] connected to the use of salt in the preparation of different dishes.
One of the most beautiful analogies, in my opinion, is the reference to cinnamon. The tender origins of the shop attic scenes, dancing, and the dipping of postcards into cinnamon between Fanis and Saime connect to the emotional context of the film’s present focus when Fanis, having returned to Turkey after his grandfather’s death, finds his long-lost childhood love. In hopes to woo and court the beautiful woman, he prepares meatballs—‘kofte’—with cinnamon. Both she and her estranged (Turkish) husband detect the aromatic, delicious taste of the fabled aphrodisiac and Fanis’ impervious, and now unrequited, love manifests in front of everyone, including the audience.
Sophia and I discussed the variety of recipes she could prepare for this adjunct, and we agreed that the Kofte (with cinnamon) would be exciting for both the palate and the soul. In that, she has prepared a recipe to add to the Kitchen Caravan recipe bank that will bring a spice of life to your kitchen.
There are countless places in Politiki Kouzina where a spice, a recipe, a taste, or a food represents a vessel for emotional expression without words. It is a very strong reminder for each of us, I am sure, as to how we associate different aspects of our lives with olfactory and taste memories—and how pivotal and constant each can be in our ability to cope, laugh, cry, and simply feel.
The next film we will discuss and recipe-up for Kitchen Caravan is Woman On Top (2000) directed by Fina Torres and Even Ramboz, and starring the beautiful Penelope Cruz. Prepare for a more sensual journey into Brazilian cuisine and remember to rent it from your local video store, or NetFlix!
Bon Appetit! In Greek, “Kali Orexi”! In Turkish, “Afiyet Olsun!”