Georgians have kept their culture despite millennia of invasion and occupation by overlapping empiresby Wendell Steavenson / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
France taught me to cook, but Georgia taught me to eat. I lived in Tbilisi for two years at the end of the last century. It was during the dark years of President Eduard Shevardnadze’s post-Soviet era: electricity down to four hours a day; no heat in the winter. Economic flatline. The country fell back to subsistence. Georgia had no intensive farming, no food processing industry and no supermarkets. There was no money for chemical pesticides or packaging; bunches of herbs were tied with onion fronds, homemade vinegar was sold in plastic coke bottles. Every day I went to the market, and it was here—piled up on tarpaulins laid on the sidewalk or pouring out of the back of an old Lada—that I discovered the true splendour of the original ingredient. Tomatoes were soft and pulpy and delicious with thin skins that split with a fingernail push. When strawberries came into season I would take glass jars to the market: they were so perfectly ripe that if you put them in a plastic bag they would be jam before you got home.
I learned that real food (produce that has not been picked unripe, irradiated with argon, genetically engineered) is fragile and lasts no more than a day or two before it wilts. But oh how real food tastes! It tastes! How can I describe the shock and compound delight of the delicate, flowery scent of an unwaxed lemon, the bitter coffee cream aftertaste of walnuts that a wizened grandmother has been extracting with a hammer and a pair of nail scissors all morning, the honeyspicemusk of a really truly ripe apricot?
The Georgian feast, or supra, must be, according to the traditions of Caucasian hospitality, abundant. The table is piled high with multiple dishes: skewers of pork, plum sauce with garlic and dill and coriander, spiced kebabs, spinach pounded with walnuts, fried cornbread, slices of salty cheese, lamb stew with tarragon and sour green spring plums, roasted suckling pig. Glasses of wine are raised as the toasts roll over one another. Ever since Georgia I have avoided the three stages of the dinner party: starter, main, pudding. Now I put dishes on the table all at the same time and everyone digs in.
But while the Georgian table is wonderful and delicious, the menu is constant. Kinkhali, the national dish of pleated top-knot meat dumplings that squirt hot broth into your mouth when you bite into them are sublime (especially when eaten beside a wood burning stove with a snow storm outside), but the recipe never varies. Kitchen tenet is preserved as national dogma. Plum sauce goes with meat, walnut with chicken. Vegetables are always cooked and then served cold.
In this way Georgians have kept their culture despite millennia of invasion and occupation by overlapping empires: Armenian, Greek, Roman, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian.
“That’s why most Georgians don’t like me,” says Tekuna Gogechaishvili, who is the first Tbilisi chef to dare update Georgian food at her restaurant Culinarium. “Eighty per cent of our clients are foreigners. Regular Georgians think I am destroying Georgia.”
Tekuna originally studied psychology and went to New York to get her PhD. She ended up at the Culinary Institute of New York instead. Her parents were furious. When she returned she had worked at several restaurants in the United States, including Thomas Keller’s three Michelin-starred Per Se.
Culinarium grafts Tekuna’s worldly experience onto the venerable root stock of the Georgian ingredient. Sit down and discover: bread dipped into a saucer of tobacco coloured cold-pressed sunflower oil that has an extraordinary strong nutty diesel taste. A jug of fresh feijoa juice, a fruit from the subtropical Black Sea shore of Georgia that is somewhere between a kiwi fruit and guava and wheat grass. Quince soup, an indefinably complex mélange of sweet, sour and umami made with salt from the high mountain villages of Svaneti. The spice mix that recurs in Georgian cuisine and tastes unlike anything else you know: blue fenugreek, coriander seeds, paprika, caraway, clove, cumin, garlic and at its heart an untranslatable ochre-coloured powder. In Georgian it is simply known as “yellow flower” or “foreign spice”; English books sometimes give it as marigold or saffron, but it is neither. “Georgia was on the old silk road,” says Tekuna. “I think it’s originally from India, but no one knows what it is.”
Keep eating: fried elargi spheres, white corn polenta that is usually mixed with smoked cheese and served as a congealing porridge, with an almond butter dip. Raw carpaccio of trout with fresh green apple to sooth the adjika, a fiery red pepper condiment that usually accompanies kebabs. Beef with red cabbage and lentils echoing the Georgian combination of fruit and sour.
Georgians remain unconvinced. “My grandmother is my barometer,” says Tekuna. “When she says something I make is ‘very good’ I know everyone will love it. But she still says to me: ‘Why are you doing this?’ She says the Georgian kitchen that has been passed down [the generations] will be lost. Once I made her gomi [yellow polenta] with squid ink so it was black instead of white. She almost had a heart attack.”