The text was originally published in the summer issue 2014 of the Slovenian paper magazine, IN.
A Touch of Spice
Danny Singh, UK and Italy
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
Politics and identity
Astronomy through gastronomy
Spicing up a dish
Spicing up a lesson
As cinema is one of my great interests, I have hitherto experienced an enormous variety and quantity of films. With that in mind, I can clearly say that this Greek/Turkish production is one of the most beautiful and poetical films that I have ever seen. It was made 11 years ago, back in 2003, yet I can still remember many of the most intricate details. Like many of my favourite films, it combines serious events with lighter and more humorous issues.
The serious political issue mentioned in the film is that of the Greek minority living in Istanbul, many of whom were deported to Greece, despite the fact that they hadn’t previously lived there.
This was due to the Ankara government decision to renege on the 1930 Greek/Turkish Ankara convention. Hence, the Greek community in Istanbul was reduced from 135,000 to 7,000 between 1955 and 1978, after which, Greek/Turkish relations improved, but for the average citizen, the damage had already been done. The lighter, but equally important subjects dealt with in the film, are predominantly linked to the use of spices; in cooking, in education and in love.
Although not a commercial film, it had huge success in Greece, as the story of the huge number of Greeks who were deported from Istanbul in the mid-60’s is not that well-publicised. The director of the film, Tassos Boulmetis, whose own family was forced out of the city that had been its home for several generations decided to tell the story after returning to his childhood home in later years.
The film looks at the prejudices in both countries and among the different communities, the Turks in Istanbul, the Greeks in Istanbul and the Greeks in Greece. Tassos Boulmetis the director says, “We left Turkey as Greeks and we were greeted here as Turks. We were caught in the middle, confused and ill at ease in a homeland that wasn’t really our home.”
Is the film about politics, cuisine or love? Or maybe a mix of all three? The Greek title of the film is, Politiki Kouzina (Kitchen Politics). The English title is, A Touch of Spice and the Italian title is, Un Tocco di Zenzero (A Touch of Ginger), so you can make your own mind up on that.
Fanis spends his early life as a small boy in his Grandfather’s store in Istanbul. This is his seat of learning, where he develops his skills necessary to face the world outside. In one early scene, a middle-aged lady tells Vassilis (the Grandfather) that her husband has lost all interest in making love. Vassilis gives her a secret ingredient and tells her to use this in her cooking. A few days later, she returns thanking him for the gift that has reawakened the passions that lay hidden within her previously unwilling husband.
Learning in a shop is not just about doing sums, giving the correct change and balancing the books. As a culinary philosopher, Vassilis uses spices to teach Fanis about the planets of the solar system.
“Gastronomy rhymes with astronomy,” he tells his grandson Fanis. “Pepper is like the sun, hot. Mercury is cayenne, that’s hot, too. Venus is cinnamon, sweet and bitter, like a woman, and the earth, can you guess which spice the earth is? Salt. Everything comes to life under its influence.”
Vassilis relates everything in his life to spices and demonstrates his passion for teaching, for learning and for life, as only the best teachers can.
Having someone like Vassilis as his teacher, parent and mentor, Fanis naturally developed his own passion for cuisine and had remarkable skills for a young boy. Every time there was a wedding, the young Greek girls were expected to participate in the preparation of a grand buffet. It can clearly be seen that they are doing it as an obligation, hence while some of them might be quite good at it, none of them are exceptional. Naturally, some of the older males occasionally complained that the food was lacking taste and the older women would start panicking and shouting at the younger girls to do something about it. On more than one occasion, Fanis intervened, adding some kind of spice to an otherwise tasteless dish and the results were clearly visible. The facial expressions of even the most critical diners changed, as they sampled what had been brought to them. Smiles emerged and grew, as the satisfaction increased from the mix of flavours and tastes that the secret ingredients had managed to create.
Later in the film, Fanis and most of his family were compelled to leave Istanbul for Greece. His grandfather Vassilis was able to stay as he didn’t have dual nationality. Fanis became a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, although his real passion was still cooking. Inevitably, Fanis had trouble adapting to life in Greece and so tried to spend most of his time cooking in the kitchen, as this was one strong link between him and his homeland. This bothered his mother and we see various scenes in the film, where she assumes that he is either homosexual, extremely depressed, or both!
While Fanis was helping the girls in the kitchen, there was one young Turkish girl who noticed his skills and desperately needed his help to spice up a dish, which was being prepared for special guests. Saime was extremely attractive, with a dark complexion, long dark wavy hair and a beautiful smile, a Turkish delight. She begged him to assist her, with a secret ingredient, a special aromatic spice which would make the difference. Before having the opportunity to reply, she added that she would do absolutely anything he wanted, in exchange for this spice.
What do you do when the girl you love presents herself and offers you anything you want? What do you ask her for? What do you ask her to do? He asked her to do the most beautiful thing that any girl can do for a boy, or that any woman can do for a man! He asked her to dance for him! And she did! It was so amazing to watch, I was in a trance myself as she danced in front of him and satisfied his strongest desires. This is my favourite scene from the film, contrasting with the moment when they say goodbye at the train station, as Fanis is forced to leave with his family, to go to a country where they have nothing and no-one. Saime in a typically sweet way and with her youthful innocence, dances in front of him again, trying to force a smile out of him, as he looks so sad and desolate.
Fanis didn’t manage to return to Istanbul until he was well into his 40’s. Vassilis had promised to visit him in Greece, but never did and when Fanis did get back to Istanbul, he managed to see his Grandfather just before his death. He also found Saime, an adult lady, married with two children.
They reflected together on their lives and on how politics could influence the course of one’s life.
I won’t give away how the film ends, just to say that it is not a sentimental love story, but the ending, like the rest of the film, has its own beauty.
The didactic scene where Vassilis explains the planets of the solar system using spices, influenced me to try and spice up one of my lessons. I was teaching two sisters for about 20 hours, an eight year old and an eleven year old. I was later told that the older girl was dyslexic, although I had no visible signs of this during my lessons.
I prepared some spices for them to use during one of the lessons. I used salt, curry powder, ginger, cinnamon, basil and black pepper. I decided to give my students a multi-sensorial experience using the spices. They described the spices, visually, what they looked like, their shapes and colours, their touch, how they felt in their hands, they listened to the sounds as they dropped onto paper, they smelt the spices individually and finally, they tasted them all.
The older sister insisted that the salt was her favourite taste. The younger sister and I looked at each other bemused, but we tried again. The taste was disgusting! At least it was for us, as the older sister continued to eat the salt. The younger sister selected the curry powder as her favourite taste, while I chose cinnamon.
At the end of the activity, the two girls attached the remaining spices to their notebooks using sellotape and wrote the name of each spice in addition to all the vocabulary which had been produced from this very simple activity.
This activity can be done with any number of spices and indeed, any number of students. It stimulates the senses and produces a plethora of words and vocabulary. The fact that students experience and feel all the spices, facilitates their ability to retain the information learned during the lesson. The particular spice that is chosen by each student as their favourite is subject to change if the activity is done at different times and in differing situations.
I hope that this article has whet your appetite to watch certain parts of this film, if not, in its entirety. The didactic methods of teaching, the dancing scenes, the gloriously flavoured food are really powerful. It may stimulate you to add cinnamon to your meatballs, or to pay a visit to Istanbul (Constantinople), to research the Greek/Turkish conflict, or to reflect on what damage governments can do with their creation of borders and changing people’s nationalities at random, a subject all too common in many parts of the world.
Most of all, it shows how a creative film can influence you in your teaching, offering you a variety of ideas, which make learning and teaching far more interesting and effective.
Please check the Methodology & Language for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How the Motivate your Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Teaching with Minimum Materials course at Pilgrims website.