The famous Moroccan spice mixture ras el hanout, in its traditional form, contains no less than 27 distinctive spices. With a tendency to mix sweet with savoury – think beef with prunes, or chicken with orange blossom almonds – Moroccan food has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most complex, exotic and innovative cuisines in the world.
Notwithstanding the mystery and complexity of the cuisine that is the heart of this film, Jean-Philippe Gaud’s Tazzeka is beautifully simple and engaging. In his first feature length film, Gaud lovingly presents Moroccan cuisine in mouth-watering detail while gently mixing into the narrative themes of loss, love and family obligation.
High in the lush mountains of the rural Moroccan village of Tazzeka, our hero Elias (Mahdi Belemlih) memorises the ingredients of complex French recipes, while learning the secrets of Moroccan cooking from his grandmother and dreaming of one day becoming a professional chef.
When famous celebrity chef Julien Blanc (Olivier Sitruk) visits the café in which Elias works, he prepares, along with traditional couscous and broth, a dessert of caramelised apple pastilla with pistachio cream. Served with white cardamom coffee, the glossy, speckled apples, ruby red strawberries and fresh green mint, Elias’s dish elicits such praise from Blanc that Elias is compelled to leave his poor rural village, and seek his fortune in the world-renowned kitchens of Paris.
Gaud’s ultimate aim with Tazzeka was to make a film that was less cynical, more hopeful and gentler than other cinematic explorations of North African immigration. (See, among others, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul and more recently, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France.)
Tazzeka, Gaud says, is committed to portraying humanity and hope, in a reality in which hundreds of North African migrants have perished in the recent years attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar.
The kitchen, as the heart of the home, is an ideal place within which to navigate the difficult and distressing topic of immigration and diaspora.
As one of many thousands of undocumented immigrants seeking security and prosperity, Elias is thrust into a rough and uncertain world. Working as a labourer on Parisian building sites, and living in constant fear of deportation, a harsh reality sets in, as his dreams of professional chefdom fade and the links to his family back home grow ever more tenuous.
But hope springs eternal in Tazzeka, and Elias’s love of cooking ultimately leads him to new connections, new friendships and new experiences. Bonds are cemented when he shares a meal of yassa with his host family, and his passion is reignited, when in return, he makes for them traditional Moroccan sweet briouats.
Tazzeka is the cinematic equivalent of Elias’s broth, with added fenugreek, served to his hero Julien Blanc. Fenugreek seeds, Elias tells Julien, in his tiny village kitchen, stop the broth from becoming too bitter.
When dinner’s ready, press play on Tazzeka now streaming at SBS On Demand: