Georgia has a rich and woefully underappreciated culture. Its history stretches back for millennia, and its literary traditions are deep. Georgia has its own epic literature, with The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin serving as the national classic. The poet, Shota Rustaveli, was prince and treasurer at the twelfth-century court of Queen Tamar of Georgia, under whose rule Georgia reached it apogee as a major state. Considering its distinctive history, it is no surprise that Georgia has developed it own sophistical traditions of gastronomy. But despite its riches, Georgia cooking is little known to the rest of the world.
Georgian cuisine, like those of other countries, varies by region. A complex interplay of cultural influences has divided the country east from west at the Surami Pass (see map on the left). The dishes found on either side of the divide feature distinct ingredients, cooking techniques, and flavorings. Western Georgia is smaller in territory than Eastern Georgia, but more varied in terms of climate, ethnography, and historical influences. The main differences in the two culinary traditions derive from the influences of Turkey (and more generally, of the Mediterranean world) on the cuisine of Western Georgia, and of Iran on that of Eastern Georgia. Western and Eastern Georgians show preferences for different types of meat and bread, and they exhibit distinct uses of herbs and spices, giving a different overall aroma and flavoring to their dishes.
In Western Georgia bread is usually made of cornmeal (called mtchadi in Georgian), while in Eastern Georgia wheat bread predominates. Georgian cuisine, like Armenian, relies on a variety of meats: muzhuzhi is made out of pork, chanakhi out of lamb, chakhokhbili out of chicken. Beef is favored for the traditional kharcho soup. But as with bread, regional differences separate Western and Eastern Georgia: in the west, the most common type of meat is fowl (mostly, chicken and guinea-hens, as geese and duck are not eaten), whereas in the east lamb is much more popular.
The Georgian table is noted for its frequent use of cheeses. However, unlike French, Dutch or Swiss cheeses, those of Georgia are typically of the brined curd variety, like the Greek feta. Cheeses produced in Western Georgia (e.g. sulguni, imereti; the latter is named after the Imereti region where it comes from) usually have more subtle flavors than those found in the east. Georgian cheeses differ from those familiar in the West not only in their flavor and consistency, but also in how they are eaten. In contrast to the typical European cheese course, where different types of cheeses are consumed “as is”, Georgian cheeses are usually cooked: stewed in milk, grilled on a spit, fried in a skillet, baked in crust, or pureed and flavored by herbs and spices. This tendency to cook cheese derives in part from the fact that Georgian cheeses are seldom fully ripened and are thus thought of as a semi-finished product. There is also a general tendency of peoples living in the mountains to use the same cooking methods for meats and cheeses alike. For example, melting, cooking and frying cheese is also common in Alps: think of the traditional Swiss fondue!
Finally, differences between Western and Eastern Georgia are also marked by the use of herbs and spices. Overall, Georgian cuisine is more savory than spicy, with cilantro, tarragon, basil, savory, leek, chives, parsley, dill, and mint playing a crucial role. The only sources of “heat” are garlic (typically finely minced) and red pepper. The latter is associated with the Turkish influence and therefore is used much more heavily in Western Georgia and especially in Abkhazia, which for nearly two and a half centuries – from 1578 to 1810 – was under the Ottoman rule. Thus, the traditional spice paste known as adjika in Western Georgia consist up to 25% of the red pepper, but as one travels from west to east, the proportion of red pepper in such preparations decreases to just 5-10%.
Most Georgians are Eastern Orthodox Christians and as such are subject to fasting on certain days of the religious calendar. While some fasts are strict, forbidding all non-plant food, oils and sugar, others are light, allowing fish and vegetable oils. Throughout the Orthodox Christian world, such fast days constitute a significant portion of the calendar: for example, Russian Church imposes some 196 to 212 fast days a year (the number varies in different years). In the Russian and Armenian traditions, a wide array of fish and mushroom dishes were developed for such occasions. Georgian “fast food”—in the religious rather than the McDonald’s sense—focuses on vegetable and fruit dishes. As a result, vegetable- and fruit-based meals became popular in Georgia. Among the most commonly consumed vegetables are beans, eggplants cabbage and cauliflower, beets, and tomatoes (the latter are not traditional, of course!). Vegetables can be served raw (in a salad), or boiled, baked, fried, stewed, marinated or pickled. In Georgia, different types of vegetables are rarely mixed. Alongside vegetables and fruit, nuts – hazelnuts, almonds and most frequently walnuts – occupy a prominent place on the Georgian table, added into spice mixes and sauces, or served with chicken, vegetables and even fish. Meat soups, sweets, salads and hot main courses alike may contain nuts. In short, if I were to pick a “secret ingredient” for a Georgian “Iron Chef” battle, it would have to be walnuts.
But Georgian food should not be imagined as a simple menu of grilled meats, boiled vegetables and nuts. Much like French cuisine, the Georgian tradition is based on complex and varied sauces. But unlike the French, who use cream (Normandy), lard (Alsace), or olive oil (Provence) to create body for their world-renowned sauces, Georgians favor sour fruit juices, soured milk (known as matsoni), eggs, and nuts to enrich their sauces. One of the best-known sauces (one can buy it in jars in ethnic food stores) is tkemali, made from sour plums of the same name. Other sour ingredients used in Georgian sauces include pomegranate juice, blackberries, barberries, and pureed tomatoes. Such sour liquids are also used to emulsify eggs for soups and sauces, in contrast to the European technique of tempering the eggs in custard-making. Such heavy reliance on sour components makes the food not only more flavorful but also more easily digested (the same motif of sour and fermented foods aiding digestion is commonly found in traditional Russian cuisine as well). Another celebrated Georgian sauce is satsivi, made from pureed nuts flavored with minced garlic and other herbs and spices. Typically, a cook selects three to four herbs among the wide assortment available; combining herbs and spices is part and parcel of the Georgian culinary sensibility and a true art. Unlike the Italians, who have strict rules for combining various sauces with different shapes of pasta, Georgians use the same sauces with different meats or vegetables; conversely, the same main ingredient may be sauced in different ways. For example, “chicken tapaka” (i.e. grilled under weight) can be sauced with satsivi, satsibeli or garo (all three based on pureed walnuts), tkemali (sour plum sauce), garlic-wine sauce, and so on. Sauces serve to flavor otherwise mostly neutral ingredients like chicken or beans.
Finally, no overview of Georgian cuisine can be complete without mentioning wine. Viticulture and viniculture have deep roots in the Caucasus; in fact, Patrick E. McGovern in his recent book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture, proposes modern-day Georgia and Armenia as the most likely sites of the domestication of the Eurasian wine grape, which occurred some 8,000 years ago. Winemaking spread from the South Caucasus into the Near East, with wines being produced in northwestern Iran (at Hajji Firuz Tepe) by 5400 BCE. A little more than 4,000 years later, Near Eastern wine culture had evolved to the point where amphoras found in the palace of Amenhotep III in western Thebes noted vintage, quality, appellation, and even the purpose or occasion for the blend. Today’s global multi-million dollar wine business apparently traces back to Georgia and Armenia. Some sources even derive our word wine, as well as the Greek oinos, the Latin vinum and the Hebrew yayin, from the Georgian word for wine, gvino.
Climatic conditions in Georgia are well-suited for viticulture: summers are warm but rarely excessively hot, while winters are mild. In addition, the mountains are full of natural springs, and rivers drain mineral-rich waters into the valleys. Topographic and climatic diversity allows Georgians to grow over 400 varieties of grape, a greater diversity than anywhere else in the world. Around 40 of these grape cultivars are used in commercial wine production. Roughy 40 million gallons (150 million liters) of wine are produced each year in Georgia, with around 45,000 hectares of vineyards under cultivation. Georgia’s wines are produced in several zones: most notably Kakheti and Kartli in the east, and Imereti, Samegrelo, Guria, Ajaria, and Abkhazia in the west. By far the most important of these areas is Kakheti, which produces 70% of all Georgian wine. In those zones, 18 Specific Viticulture Areas – a local analogy of the Controlled Appellations of Origin – are distinguished (see map above); planting density and yield in these Specific Viticulture Areas are tightly controlled. Much like French regional wines such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, Georgian wines – which are typically blended from two or more grapes varieties – traditionally carry the name of the source region, district, or village.
Unfortunately, traditional Georgian grape varieties, which are different from those cultivated widely in western Europe, are little known in the West. In fact, none of the three maps of major wine producing regions reproduced below feature Georgia at all! Not having an outlet in the West, most Georgian wines were either consumed locally or exported to Russia, but recent political tensions led to Russia’s 2006 embargo on Georgian wine. Emotions ran so high that a major Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda printed a Soviet-style poster extolling Russians to “Respect Yourself and the Motherland — DON’T DRINK Georgian Wine!”
Winemaking remains a vital part of Georgian culture and national identity. Georgian families throughout Georgia grow their own grapes and produce wine the old-fashioned way, by placing grape juice in underground clay jars, or kvevri, topped with a wooden lid, covered and sealed with earth, to ferment during the winter. This winemaking technique, especially in the colder mountainous areas, lends itself to sweet wines (both red and white): late harvest and early winter prevent complete fermentation so the wine stays sweet. In the spring, when the temperature rises, such wines tend to re-ferment and spoil. As a result, such wines were once consumed quickly and locally. Nowadays, famous Georgian semi-sweet wines such as Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara (the latter is said to be the favorite wine of Joseph Stalin) are specifically created to preserve their high sugar content.
Georgia not only has a well developed system of viticulture and wine making, but also an elaborated tradition of wine drinking. In the local wine culture, being able to say an eloquent, intelligent, sharp-witted toast is an all-important social skill, at least for a man. Male guests at Georgian feasts typically compete in their toast-making skills and only the best of the best can be selected as the tamada, who acts as a director of the party, teacher, and drinking-policeman of the feast table (to ensure that he can carry out such duties, the tamada is supposed to drink less than the other guests). And while Georgian toast-makers try to distinguish the most interesting, original, and praiseworthy features of the person toasted, such toasts are not viewed as flattery. Rather they are suppose to ennoble the object of the toast: for example, when a person is told that he is kind and honest, he will find it difficult to do evil; when he is told he is generous, he will try not to be greedy; and telling a person than he handsome is meant to help him avoid an inferiority complex. Not only the guests present at the table can be toasted but their ancestors too. And even such abstract notions as love, life, and friendship are frequent subjects of eloquent toasts at the Georgian table.
Georgian feasts are also important venues for the country’s noted tradition of complex, polyphonic singing, but that would have be the subject for another post.