Local Life in Tbilisi: Georgian Culture, Food and Drink

Local Life in Tbilisi: Georgian Culture, Food and Drink

The birthplace of wine, a country filled with hospitable locals, mountain vistas and a mix of Ottoman, Soviet, Basque, Western and Eastern cultures… how could I possibly say no? After a week of enjoying delicious food, Orhan’s incredibly welcoming and loving family and many cooking lessons (I still may release a recipe or two), my feet started itching and decided that I could no longer resist Georgia’s siren call.  Altering my plan to stay in Turkey for the whole month, I booked a flight and in less than 24 hours, I was off! Flying to a place with no real plan except to figure it out when I got there (recently, I’ve discovered that can be the best possible plan).

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

My arrival in Georgia was pretty seamless- after months of travel in relatively undeveloped, low-income countries, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things. Landing at an airport where the immigration man smiled as he stamped my passport and said, “welcome”, where the wireless connection worked and the ATM was obvious (the Greeks like to hide them away) made me love the country already. After a crazy cab ride with a chain-smoking, pot-bellied man who tried to avoid all of my questions about cost with “no problem, no problem”, I arrived at a relatively random location in average-man-land-Tbilisi to meet Gela, my first couch surfing host in Georgia.

Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia… cloudy as per usual

Gela was a genuine, gracious, gentleman, born and raised in Georgia and the perfect person to introduce me to hospitable and traditional Georgian culture. After dropping off my bags, we headed to the foot of his apartment complex to wade through a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. I was familiar with most of them but he picked up a few items that I’ve never seen and still can’t identify even with a failed google image hunt this morning. I tried some nuts on a vine that you crack with your teeth and eat fresh and a sour, green, pitted, cherry-like fruit that tastes even stranger when they make it into a sauce to dip French-fries into, etc. (it’s an acquired taste, apparently!). After our appetizer of strange fruits, we tossed together a salad of ultra-fresh veggies and Gela whipped up a weird (but delicious!) dressing of mayonnaise, khmeli suneli (Georgian spice mix which often includes coriander, dill, basil, bay leaf, marjoram, blue fenugreek, parsley, safflower or saffron, black pepper, celery, thyme, hyssop, mint, and hot pepper) and fresh basil. With some food in our bellies, we decided to take advantage of the sunshine and grab our towels for an afternoon at Lisi Lake.

Fresh Air at Lisi Lake
Upon arrival, it was obvious that we weren’t the only ones who decided to frolic in the sunshine… the beach was abuzz with people sunbathing, swimming and socializing on it’s shores (after spending many cloudy days here, retrospectively, I realize how good the weather was for swimming!). We met up with two of Gela’s friends and hung out until sunset.
From there, we headed to a traditional Georgian restaurant in the Old City. We headed down to the brick basement, with walls lined with pictures of people dancing in grapes in top-heavy hats and a live chef pushing paddles of dough into an oven in the corner. We grabbed a table, ordered some beers and the boys started toasting.

My host Gela and I at another meal (my camera was out of batteries the first day)

My host Gela and I at another meal (my camera was out of batteries this whole day)

Drinking Culture in Georgia
Georgia is definitely a country with a drinking culture after spending time with Gela, I realized there were layers of subtleties that would probably take me a lifetime to master. From what I’ve gathered, typically, at a table, you have one person who leads the toasts for the evening (tamada).  In addition to being expected to create eloquent toasts, the tamada watches over the flow of conversation and sets the speed of drinking for the table.   Traditionally, Georgians drank out of horns and you can see those in souvenir shops all over the city but we stuck to normal glassware and I used my “I’m a girl card” to escape from Georgian amounts of alcohol.
Toasting is an elaborate process, so even at this dinner, Gela’s friends would add long-winded additions, often expanding on a theme with extra emotion and insights. Apparently, the toasts aren’t just for the people present… you also toast to your ancestors and future descendents who are invisibly present at the table. Some toasts are typical: to happiness, family, love and devotion… some toasts seemed to be more relevant to the moment at hand (to World Cup victories, new friends and a meeting of cultures).
After learning the basics of toasting, I learned about the different types of beverages. Usually, people drink beer with dinner and typically, you don’t toast with beer (supposedly, you only toast with beer if you want to wish someone bad luck). After dinner, people usually drink wine. Perhaps “guzzle” is the right word… Georgians don’t sip wine, they don’t savor wine… they often linking elbows with a partner, down the glass, alternate touching cheeks and prepare themselves for the next toast. If 10-15 glasses of wine per meal isn’t enough, sometimes Georgians will break out the chacha. This distilled spirit is made from the mash left over from wine production and can vary in quality. Gela’s dad’s homemade chacha practically burned a hole in my nose… so be careful and have a chaser ready!
Speaking of chasers, our table also had a couple bottles of lemonade, which is often typical for Georgian tables. Unlike American lemonade, it tends to be fizzy, carbonated, made with fresh ingredients and found in a variety of flavors: orange, cream, pear, lemon… and the list goes on! The tarragon flavor is particularly distinctive with its bright emerald green color and perky, but not overbearing licorice flavor. I highly recommend you try it, whether you need a chacha chaser or just a refreshing, non-alcoholic beverage.

Another meal that I ate in Georgia.... fresh bread, mushrooms, spinach/pomegranate/walnut mixture

Another Georgia meal (well snack according to my host) in Tbilisi…. fresh bread, mushrooms, spinach/pomegranate/walnut mixture

Georgian Food
So although most Georgians focus on alcohol as the sacred focal point of any meal, because of its magical ability to create warm conversation, their cuisine should not be missed! Our meal started with “spinach and walnuts”, shredded balls of spinach and walnuts topped with pomegranate and onions and served with bread (well, everything is served with warm, pillowy bread). Soon after, came mushrooms, lobiani (flaky red bean pastry) and badrijani (fried eggplant with a walnut paste). The main dish was Hershey-kiss shaped dumplings called khinkali, which can be filled with meat or a mushroom, potato and cheese mixture. Most people eat just the base, leaving the doughy tops behind on their plate.

Khinkali, meat or mushroom filled dumplings.  Photo courtesy of

Khinkali, meat or mushroom filled dumplings. Photo courtesy of ლევან ნიორაძე.

Side note for vegetarians like me: As with many Georgians, Gela is Orthodox and apparently they fast multiple times a year (not just before Easter and avoid meat, dairy and sweets for several weeks at a time. I’m not sure whether this contributes to Georgia being super vegetarian-friendly but most of Georgia’s most famous dishes don’t have meat. Vegans may have a more difficult time because Georgians love cheese but you can usually find pastries with beans or cheese made from olives, as alternatives.

The evening ended with a few more toasts, very stuffed stomachs and warm farewells. Gela and I walked off some of the meal, admiring the illuminated churches and the castles of the city as we found out way back. Gela designed my first day in Georgia to be a very average experience of every life here and I think he accomplished his goal and accurately captured the spirit of the country: a simple but pleasant place where life is centered around friendship and feasting.

For now, it seems like an appropriate place to figure out my next steps.  Life is a crazy road and recently presented me with a few future-altering surprises.  I’m no longer sure where I am going in the next few days, weeks or going to plant myself in the fall.  For now, all I know is that I like to be free and not stuck somewhere where I don’t have a purpose.  We’ll see what life has in store for me!

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age.In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Song of the Moment: Rosi Golan- The Drifter & The Gypsy

If YOU want to come to Tbilisi: Planes are probably the easiest way or you can cross the border at Turkey and Russia by bus or Armenia and Azerbaijan (by bus or by train).  Once here, Tbilisi has an extensive bus and mini bus system (which is cheap but a little hard to figure out), very cheap cabs all over the city and a metro.  Enough people in Georgia speak English to survive, they are very generous and everything’s very affordable.  Dinners cost about $5 (but I can easily survive by eating a giant, street side pastry for $1), big beers for about $1, cab rides within the city $3-5 and bus/metro transportation for less than $0.25.  The exchange rate is 1 USD~ 1.75 Georgian Laris.

 

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