My lifetime of familiarity with the country of Georgia came full circle last year when my mother and I decided to make the 14+ hour journey to its ancient and rustic capital, Tbilisi. We flew from New York City to Istanbul, where we spent a few sultry days before boarding our midnight flight to Tbilisi Airport. A quirky place, the airport only comes alive in the wee hours of the night and dies down again at the first rays of sun. As we made our final descent, at the unfamiliar hour of 4am I may add, I found myself looking down at the quiet, twinkling city. The same city that my parents and I, a little babe at that point, flew out of exactly 23 years ago, never to return to until now.
Despite the fact that I left before I could make any real roots in Georgia, its history, culture, food traditions, not to mention my parents own experiences there, informed and shaped a large part of my life and I was eager to finally experience it all for myself.
So what is Georgia actually like? Here in America, I more often than not get a blank stare with its mention, or the occasional, “You’re not talking about Georgia the state, right?”
In its part of the world however, Georgia is lauded for its overwhelming fertile and stunning landscape, and the delectable cuisine and vibrant culture that reflect this abundance. Georgian legend even speaks to this fact. According to the centuries-old tale, when God was distributing land amongst the nations of the Earth, the Georgians were nowhere to be found. There was no land left by the time he finished and so he set out to find what these mischievous people were up to. He stumbled upon them feasting and drinking, having totally forgotten what was asked of them. “But Lord, we forgot because we were so busy toasting You! Please, have a seat and join us.” Touched by their generosity and kindness, he gave them the land he set aside for himself…a little patch of paradise.
Half the size of its namesake American state, the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet Union republic, is situated east of the Black Sea in the Caucasus - an oasis indeed. It is home to sprawling beaches, and the kind of slopes that give the Alps a run for their money. Extremely rich in fruits and vegetation, it also boasts one of the most ancient cultures, and a language and alphabet that precedes Cyrillic by over 400 years! They’ve also been making wine for over 4,000 years, holding the longest tradition of winemaking in the world.
All these natural blessings and sunshine imbue the Georgians with a passionate love for life, and as an extension, any chance to gather around the table with food and drink to celebrate. Every meal is an excuse for a full-scale social event, and if you find yourself a guest- well, consider yourself a holy person, because that’s the degree of honor Georgians will bestow upon you.
What you’ll find once you take a seat is a cuisine that is as vibrant in history as it is in flavor and color.
Georgia’s prominent location on the trade routes exposed it to a number of peoples and their foods. Its little patch of paradise, however, also proved to be its curse. From the Romans initially, to the Arabs and Mongols, the Persians and the Ottomans, to most recently the Russians, the Georgians were subjected to hundreds of years of foreign rule, all the while preserving their own unmistakable character despite the intrusions, a blend of East and West. The spirited people continued to celebrate their national identity the only they way knew how- endless feasting and toasting. Overtime the cuisine assimilated various elements from these shifting spheres of influence, yet it has also, always, remained distinct in its own right.
Seasonal, fresh, and simple are the best ways to describe the food of these proud people. Dishes are named after and characterized by their piquant, aromatic sauces, they are usually either fruit, vegetable or nut-based and are often colored with herbs. Pomegranates, grapes, plums and other lush fruits abound in the hot, dry atmosphere of the east. In the west, with its frequent showers and steamy temperatures, you have citrus fruits, beans and tea. Eggplant, tomatoes, and corn are so sweet and tender, they’re like fruit themselves. If your beef or chicken is not combined with a sauce, it’s either marinated and grilled to perfection or stewed with fruits or vegetables.
Cilantro, parsley, tarragon and basil, among other herbs, are essential to the Georgian kitchen and are frequently eaten as is- so concentrated are they that the kitchen is perfumed with their scent. Garlic figures almost in every dish, and ancient farming practices produce, in addition to meat, superior local cheeses, most notably sulguni- this cheese finding its most beloved and delicious use in the making of khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread (more on that later).
Regional differences in cuisine in this republic is most notably evident in their puri, or bread. But whether you like it fine and crusty, baked in an oven similar to the Indian tandoor or made from corn flour and fried in the form of cakes called mchadi, you really can’t go wrong.
The best part of a Georgian meal however is not the food. The unparalleled hospitality, their camaraderie, and their excitement, both in the preparation and consumption of their meal, is what truly makes the experience of sitting at their table so special. This learned passion for all that life has to offer was part and parcel of my upbringing in Rhode Island and is probably the reason why I felt right at home within my first few hours of arriving in Georgia. Not surprisingly, we were offered a full 3-course meal despite it being 4 in the morning. This approach to life also defines my relationship to food and my practice in the kitchen. I derive joy from the ingredients themselves, the inspiration that brings them together harmoniously and satiably, and most importantly, the end result that gathers everyone around the table to create memories and experiences. All these dishes that I’m so excited to share with you!
Sooo with that little history lesson, I'll be diving right in with my next post! Expect a recipe you can celebrate with... such as when you launch a blog perhaps!