How I Made, and Lost, My Concept of Georgian Food
In Georgia, nestled on the south slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, food and feasting are national obsessions. A lucky food-conscious visitor to this remarkably varied and unique place will find themselves at the Georgian Supra table. In a dinner lasting hours, they will be assaulted by endless stream of food and wine quite unlike anything they may have tried before.
They will be greeted by a table straining under a mountain of cold dishes. Platters of fresh bread, salads of chicken liver and walnut, and the exquisite walnut-stuffed grilled eggplant slices called badrijani nigozit to name but a few. Plates of local bone-white cheeses like the soft sulguni and sharp, salty imeruli, are always on hand. A fresh salad of cucumber and local tomato dressed with cilantro and a peppery extra virgin sunflower oil from Georgia’s eastern province Kakheti, will offer a crisp palate cleanser before the arrival of the hot dishes.
Hot dishes come one by one to the Supra table, where they are shared out by the happy diners. Bony cuts of calf, stewed tender with fresh herbs and sour plums. The hallowed Khinkali, a soup dumpling stuffed with minced pork and beef, prized for the number of individual creases a cook can fold into its tail. Roasted bone-in chicken pieces are served in a sauce of yogurt and cheese or alongside a tahini-like sauce of pureed walnut and a sour sauce made of fresh plum and peppers. Mtsvadi, long metal skewers of charcoal-grilled salty pork arrive accompanied by raw onion and pomegranate seeds.
The whole feast is washed down by glasses and glasses of Georgian wine. Georgia is home to the oldest continuing winemaking tradition in the world. Fossilized cultivated grape pits from 6,000 BCE have been discovered in ancient Quevri, a beeswax-lined clay vessel that Georgians still make their wine in.
Oh and also, Georgia is home to over 500 endemic varieties of grape.
Also, there’s Kchachapuri. Arguably Georgia’s most famous dish, certainly its most ubiquitous, these cheese stuffed pies are eaten for breakfast lunch and dinner across the country and can be found in countless varieties. The classic Imeretian Khachapuri from Western Georgia is a simple disk of warm bread and salty cheese. Ossetian Khachapuri is stuffed with a mixture of cheese and mashed potato. The most famous, and dangerous, variety comes from Adjaria in the country’s Southwest where the bread is fashioned into an open boat shape. As the pastry nears perfection a single egg is cracked into its center. Served with a pat of butter on top for good measure, it is eaten by swirling the egg, cheese, and melted butter and devouring with the crispy edges of bread. It is immediately followed by a nap.
Coming from North America, where pineapple and strawberries in February are totally acceptable and we lack a coherent food culture to guide us, Georgia is a hugely refreshing change. It is immediately apparent that the food here is deeply reflective of Georgia’s place, climate, tradition, and history. Georgian food and wine reflects a country of limited pasture land, relative poverty, and frequent invasion.
Georgian meat dishes are far less common than dairy, and focused on smaller quantities of well-seasoned meats. Pork and Chicken, being easy and low-cost animals to raise are the most common options. Mutton, as well, is quite common but the sheep are only slaughtered after years of wool production. Beef is largely eschewed in favour of veal. In a mountainous country like Georgia, without vast pastures to raise steer up to 36 months, farmers have to choose what to raise on their precious land. Female dairy cows, therefore, are prioritized over male beef steer. Male cows will be killed young so as to not be an undue strain on resources.
Where cuisines from the lowlands of the middle east will involve soft beans and seeds like chickpea and sesame, walnuts dominate the Georgian table. These hardy, nutrient-rich nuts take well to Georgia, where they are largely ground into pastes and sauces. On new year's, Georgians embark on the incredibly labour intensive process of making Satsivi, a dish of chicken cooked in walnut sauce. Walnuts are also eaten in Churchela, the ‘Georgian energy bar,’ made by ladling a roux-like combination of grape juice and flour over strings of walnut. Once dried, these semi-sweet snacks can last for months and formed a central staple in the diets of shepherds and soldiers.
In a crossroads between Europe and Asia, various parts of Georgia have been ruled by Armenia, Pontus, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Seljuk Turkey, the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. All of these empires left their mark on Georgia and Georgian food. The many wars fought over Georgia, especially in the east, lend themselves to the simple tradition of Mtsvadi. Skewered meat cooked over flame is the easy food of foraging soldiers. Georgian grills, however, share the same wide, open design found across Persia and Central Asia. Khinkali were first described to me as a Chinese import brought by mongol invaders.
So, two weeks into my third trip here I started to think I was figuring out Georgian food. It helped that most places I ate had the same menu and the food started to seem a little repetitive. It was easy to see, therefore, the surface of Georgia’s culinary traditions, perceive Georgian cuisine as something heavily driven by external forces, and forget one of the most present and damaging legacies in Georgian cuisine: that of soviet cultural homogenization. That’s when I went for a wine tasting and lunch at Pheasant’s Tears winery in Signagi.
That meal, totally unlike anything I’d eaten in Georgia to that point, celebrated local, seasonal Georgian ingredients. Salads of roasted beetroot in plum sauce, blanched spinach with caramelized onion and dill, and crisp lettuce and roast tomatoes dressed with tahini and Georgian wild thyme. Followed by sauteed eggplant and roast tomatoes, beans cooked with hot peppers and tomato, chicken roasted with wild thyme and more plum tomato, and simple golden potatoes fried with rosemary and garlic. There were salty Georgian cheeses and fresh bread baked from local Georgian wheat. A plate of Georgian pickled veggies offered the biggest revelation, including jonjoli, Georgian pickled sprouts, as well as pickled baby watermelon and wild plums. There is nothing that tastes quite like a pickled plum. The flavours and ingredients were all Georgian, but celebrated for their uniqueness, not jammed into the same basic menu found in most other restaurants.
The tasting involved a conversation, as well, with John Wurdeman. John is an american artist who moved to Georgia in the 1990s and opened Pheasant’s Tears in 2007. Through the lunch he shared his encyclopedic knowledge of Georgian food and wine traditions and pointed out something that changed my whole concept of Georgian food. When the Soviets took over in Georgia, they took an incredibly varied country with rich and unique regional wines and cuisines, and said ‘you get 12 menu items.’ One of the many missions at Pheasant’s tears is to bring back those old varieties, in wine through John and the chief winemaker Gela, and in food through Gya, the chef at Pheasant’s tears, and a few other remarkably talented Georgian chefs.
That day, as my entire idea of Georgian food lay in ruins, I asked John if he took volunteers. The next day I was working at Azarpesha, one of his wine bars in Tbilisi. Four days later I am back in Signagi, helping out as I can at Pheasant’s tears and finding a way to discover a sense of Georgian food. I still think my initial impressions were somewhat correct. Georgian food certainly reflects the country’s geography and history in an almost raw way I never experienced with Canadian food. But the depths and range of these traditions, I’m learning, run so much deeper and farther than I could have imagined.
I first fell in love with Georgia because the place could always surprise me. This time, just when I thought the surprises were wearing off, I realized that surprise, more than any grape or grain, is endemic to this country.