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Georgia on my menu

W hen Lenin predicted the suffering to come under his successor Stalin, with the words "That cook will concoct nothing but peppery dishes", it was no accident that he chose a culinary metaphor. georgia

The most notorious Georgian of modern times may have turned his back on his fellow countrymen, as he prepared the Soviet system of totalitarian terror, but he could never entirely shed his epicurean roots. As his successor Nikita Khrushchev once said: "I don't think there has ever been a leader of comparable responsibilities who wasted more time than Stalin did just sitting around the dinner table eating and drinking."

But even if Stalin usurped the hospitality of his motherland for his own manipulative ends during terrifying all-night banquets, his legacy cannot take away from an extraordinarily rich national tradition of food, drink and entertainment - captured by the bulging tables portrayed by the Georgian folk artist Pirosmani - that merits a broader public.

For while Russia itself is often perceived as a country of uniformly bland food gobbled down between excessive and prolonged bouts of vodka-drinking, its southern neighbour Georgia does everything in rather different - and usually more civilised - ways.

If the Soviet Union's "Mediterranean" helped save the giant to the north by spicing up its diet in Communist times, it could now add fresh variety to the west, where a growing appetite for exotic dishes has yet to be introduced en masse to Georgia's impressive but little-known delicacies.

In the absence of the Iron Curtain, khachapuri, a delicious suluguni cheese-filled baked bread - sometimes served with an egg - could long have been the pizza or calzone of preference across Europe and the US.

Whole cafes in Georgia which merit a broad franchise specialise in nothing but khinkali or giant boiled dumplings, with the juice captured inside almost as tasty as the meat; and in green and red lobio or stewed kidney beans prepared with coriander.

The hallmark of the national cuisine begins, like its counterparts elsewhere, with fresh ingredients - which its fertile land and warm climate help produce. The basic flavours come from walnuts and hazelnuts, pomegranates and plums, and herbs, some hard to find beyond its borders.

There are also spices, notably in dishes from the western Georgian regions such as Mingrelia, although rarely in quantities that will upset palates used even to the more mildly racey Indian or Chinese dishes.

A full meal begins with badrijani or aubergine stuffed with ground walnut paste; ajapsandali or fried aubergine with sweet pepper; basturma or air-dried beef; and pkhali, or minced spinach with walnuts.

It may be followed by shashlik of marinated grilled meats, served with a range of sauces such as ajika, which uses chili peppers; or stews such as chakhokhbili or chicken with herbs; and chanakhi with mutton and aubergine.

Alongside fresh fruit, deserts and snacks include chuchkella or sweet sausages made from stringed walnuts set in a grape-juice puree and carved into slices; and matsoni with nuts, yoghurt and honey.

If the food is distinctly different from Russian, so is the drink. Where points further north prefer vodka, hard liquor drinkers in Georgia go for cognacs, some of which are home-produced rather than the better-known varieties from its neighbour, Armenia.

But a great Georgian strength is its wine. Archaeologists have traced pips dating back 8,000 years, giving the country the world's longest history of cultivation and a range of grapes found nowhere else in the world.

With production long geared to sweet Russian tastes, it is more difficult to come across dry and more subtle wines in shops and restaurants. Counterfeiting, and an absence of control - with many wines called after villages or varieties of grape the use of which goes unregulated - does not help.

But, hidden in cellars, there are excellent vintage wines that keep for decades in the right conditions. And modern techniques are helping to improve quality and develop brand recognition for the best contemporary varieties, such as those of Georgian Wine Services (GWS), now exported.

There are also excellent mineral waters, beginning with sparkling Borjomi, one of the Soviet Union's best-known brands, which has been successfully revived under joint Georgian-Western management over the past few years (albeit recently threatened by a planned BP-led oil pipeline through the local valley).

Drinking remains an essential part of the culture, with a traditional banquet always headed by a tamada or toastmaster, who co-ordinates a round of often long and poetic speeches.

If such rich food sounds far from the dieter's choice, and Georgians are not always the most svelte of people, there is at least a compensation: the peoples of the Caucasus, Stalinist purges notwithstanding, have a tradition of longevity.

Of course, a final ingredient for the perfect Georgian meal is difficult to transfer elsewhere. There is no substitute for the summer setting of an open-air restaurant in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital itself with its vistas of crumbling hill-top houses with precarious wooden balconies; or the views of meandering rivers and monasteries from nearby Mtskheta.

The principle elsewhere is that often the cheapest, most humble Georgian restaurants are the best. In Moscow, dozens have opened since Aragvi on Tverskaya Street was launched on Stalin's orders in the 1930s. There is the now rather over-priced U Pirosmani, for example, once a rare salvation from Soviet food as an early co-operative restaurant, but now most tempting for its view over the Novy Dyevechy monastery.

Better instead for food and atmosphere are the more intimate, informal places preferred by Georgian exiles, hidden downstairs and tucked in backstreets such as Mama Zoya's, Guriya, or implausibly, a little cafe with no name that I found in the pedestrian underpass on Moscow's ringroad near Zubovsky Boulevard.

Abroad, the US and the UK are beginning to open a handful of Georgian restaurants. So far, the chefs seem to be resisting the growing temptation of "fusion" cuisine (including sushi in the menu of at least one outlet in Moscow), attempting instead to guard their own traditional dishes as far as foreign palates will allow.

And if the thought of Stalin enjoying some of the same delicacies leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, then maybe it should not. If it is any compensation, at least in his latter years, eyewitnesses say that Russia's most evil dictator preferred non-Georgian food such as pelmeni (Russian boiled dumplings), for which he developed a taste during his years of Siberian exile.

After all, Vladimir Putin's grandfather, who had no known Georgian blood, was hired into Stalin's entourage as a cook. And some say that Stalin had wine bottled from his own special vineyard, allowing those with a guilty conscience to sup even on khvanchkara, purportedly his favourite red wine, with a little more ease.

By Andrew Jack, Chief of the Financial Time's Moscow Bureau

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