Added to Netflix in 2021, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” is a TV drama based on the novel by the same name by Sarit Yishai Levi. Both are centred around four generations of the Ermoza family living in Jerusalem between 1917-1949.
The show begins when Jerusalem is under Ottoman rule, and when the future wife of Gabriel Ermoza, Roza, and her younger brother Ephraim are orphaned children fending for themselves. As the story progresses into the era of the British Mandate for Palestine, we see how life changes for the residents and in particular the Ermoza family.
As a food lover and history geek, I was totally absorbed in their world, and loved watching what they were cooking each week as much as I enjoyed watching the drama unfold. Set during a time when women did not work and pre-prepared food was unheard of, much of the show is centred around the kitchen, with the female characters Roza and Merkada doing the cooking. From beloved dishes that are still enjoyed today such as sofrito, to lesser-known dishes such as sutlach, the show’s culinary universe is diverse and multilayered.
If you’ve always wanted to eat like an Ermoza (without the side of drama), look no further:
Sofrito — a slow-cooked dish of fried potatoes and meat dating back to the mediaeval Jewish communities of Spain — gets the same amount of airtime as Michael Aloni (who plays Gabriel Ermoza, the main character) in the show.
We see this meal being eaten so often on the show that I would argue this simple dish is a standalone character. Sofrito is eaten at many family dinners, at the Shabbat table, and is sent to friends.
Sofrito is also how the family’s matriarch, Merkada, wins over her second husband Avraham, after his first wife passes away. Sharp-witted Merkada entices him with the taste of home, and it certainly works! It is also the dish that Gabriel Ermoza sneaks into the kitchen to snack on when he is supposed to be staying off rich food following his heart attack! While it may not be the wisest choice, the audience understands that Gabriel is looking for comfort.
Sutlach (Rice Pudding)
Hailing from the Turkish Jewish kitchen, this sweet rice pudding is baked and traditionally sprinkled with cinnamon on top, often in the shape of a Star of David. Special dishes like sutlach were reserved for Shabbat, which was served cold as part of a Shabbat morning breakfast.
Sutlach is one of the dishes Roza serves at her food stand for British soldiers, which she opens when the family experiences financial struggles. She knows that the dessert is also beloved in England, and is likely to pull on their heart strings. It does, and immediately establishes that they have something in common with Roza and her community, which warms the relationship between the two groups.
It’s no secret that Sephardi Jews love to stuff things! From yaprakas to Iraqi stuffed onions and tomatoes, there are countless dishes involving stuffing rice or meat into vegetables, then slow-cooking them in a tangy sauce flavored with tomatoes, lemon or pomegranate molasses. Roza instructs her daughter Luna to make stuffed peppers for her husband to ensure that he feels loved and looked after by his wife.
Luna stuffs her peppers with rice, which would have been typical for a midweek meal as it’s nutritious, filling and cheap.
Zucchini with Meat
Merkada is tough, but has a tender side that is often displayed through the meals that she prepares for her family. During one of many fraught family meals during the show, Merkada tries to cut the tension by telling her granddaughter Rachelika that she has made her favourite zucchini and meat. While the finished dish isn’t shown on the show, it is most likely zucchini stuffed with minced meat and then slow cooked. Rachelika nods and thanks her usually harsh grandmother for the delicious meal.
This dish appears in the first series on the Ermoza’s Shabbat table. It is one of the few dishes that is indigenous to Sephardi Jerusalemites, and is still cooked to this day. This Shabbat dish is lighter than cholent, and more suited to Jerusalem’s hot weather. While simple, it’s greater than the sum of its parts, relying on chicken fat and very few spices for flavor. Long, tubular macaroni is par-boiled then mixed with chicken pieces, onions and sometimes sliced potatoes. Water, a few spices and sometimes tomato paste are added, along with whole eggs. The dish is cooked overnight then served for Shabbat lunch, though the eggs, called huevos haminados, are eaten for breakfast.
Originally from Turkey, these little flaky pastries filled with spinach or meat, which are similar to bourekas, are a staple in Jerusalem. In a bid to teach Luna to become a domestic queen to her husband David, Merkada tries in vain to teach her granddaughter to make boyos. She tells her to find out from him exactly how he likes them: Thick pastry or thin? Meat or spinach filling? Unfortunately for everyone, most of all David, this turns out to be a complete disaster, as Luna almost burns down the kitchen!