Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Georgian food - the best little-known cuisine in the world

Having become acquainted with Georgian food nine years ago, and having, like many newcomers to the cuisine, fallen head-over-heels in love with khachapuri, I was certain that I would gain a ton of weight when we moved to Tbilisi.

Adjaran khachapuri - cheesy bread with a lake of butter and lightly poached egg on top.
As it turns out, I got sick of the national cheesy bread pretty quickly upon arrival to the country. But my love for the rest of the Georgian table has remained true.  My favorite thing about it is the variety and deliciousness of available vegetarian and vegan cuisine.  Orthodox Christians are called to fast from all or most animal products (with varying intensity) for roughly six months out of the year.  In Georgia, that isn't so difficult.

It's hard to pick a favorite among the vegan stars of the Georgian kitchen, but if pressed I think I'd have to go with the salad with walnuts.  At its core, it's just cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, fresh herbs, and crushed walnuts.  The real standout salads also include white wine vinegar, some of fresh, spicy peppers, and maybe a sprinkle of one of the classic Georgian spice blends.  It is delicious.

Salad with walnuts and beet green pkhali.
Right up there with the walnut salad is my old friend pkhali.  Pkhali is a vegetable-walnut pate made with white wine vinegar, garlic, herbs, and Georgian spices.  The photo above features my favorite pkhali, made with beet greens.  In the photo below you can see some spinach pkhali that I made myself at a local cooking class last winter.

Lobiani, a bean-filled pastry, is another mainstay of the Georgian table. It is sold in roadside stands, too, and is a popular local snack food.  You can either get your lobiani flavored with lard/bacon, or in a fasting, animal-fat-free variety, which is also very tasty.  My housekeeper makes lobiani for us weekly, and it is my son's favorite food.  Unfortunately I don't have any photos of it, but it is a pretty humble looking thing anyway - just flat bread filled with mashed beans.

Georgian cuisine has a lot to offer the carnivore, as well.  Pork, chicken, beef and veal mtsvadi (barbecue/shashlik), meat kebabs, ...

Another mainstay is khinkali - a dumpling usually filled with meat and herbs, but sometimes containing cheese, potatoes or mushrooms instead.  There is an art to eating khinkali.  You are supposed to hold it by the knob, take a small bite out of the side, and drink the juice inside before eating the rest of the dumpling and its contents.

But you always have your rebels, and sometimes you'll find them eating their khinkali like so.

No matter how you eat them, they are darn tasty.

Which brings me to my last item - my beloved favorite, chkmeruli (or shqmeruli, if you prefer).

Ahh, chkmeruli.  This bowl of deliciousness consists of a well-fried village chicken immersed in a butter/milk/garlic sauce that is out.of.this.world.  I think it deserves another photo.

It does not get any better than this, folks.

Yes, I am going to miss Georgia.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Niva

When I moved to Yerevan, I had dreams of owning a Niva, the tiny 4x4 hatchback that is a mainstay of the roads in the former Soviet Union (and probably rural Russia, though not so much Moscow).  I was strongly discouraged from buying one by everyone who knew anything about them.  One of the local consular staff half-joked to me that if I did buy one, I should make sure to get one that was manufactured in the morning, because by afternoon all the workers are drunk.

So I drove a Jeep Cherokee in Armenia. And I wasn't entirely against the idea when Jeremy decided to buy a Niva here last year.  He used it primarily for commuting the five minutes to and from work, and ended up driving up to four other grown men at a time.

It looked a little crowded to me, but then, Nivas and other cars native to this part of the world are no strangers to being jam-packed.

I got into a car accident in March that took our Ford out of commission for two months (due to snail-like action from our insurer and the time it takes to ship parts to Georgia), and so I spent some time driving the girls to and from school in the Niva.  Thankfully my dad taught me to drive stick when I was 16, so it was only the Niva's particular quirks that I had to learn.

First of all, it has a throttle. You have to pull out the throttle to start the car when it's been sitting for awhile.  Second, it has an inadvertent kill switch.  If you press one of the buttons marked with a lightbulb above the stick while the car is in gear, it will die.  Pretty awesome, right?

The first day I drove it, Tbilisi was being inundated by monsoon-like rains.  Every dip in the pavement became a lake, and I held my breath while driving through, hoping the water wouldn't consume my tiny little tires.

The windshield wiper was next to useless.  I say "next to" because when the wiper flew off in the middle of heavy traffic, my visibility was worsened just slightly.  The entire car was already irretrievably fogged up, to the point that there was zero visibility out of the tiny rear windshield.  That day I learned that, if the Niva slightly ahead of you tries to merge into your lane, narrowly missing your front bumper in the process, it is likely not grossly negligent driving, but simply that he cannot see you.

I also learned that there is a reason men drive these cars hunched over the steering wheel. I had assumed it was because there isn't enough space in the car for them - but Georgians as a whole are pretty short and though the car is small, hunching is not necessary for space reasons.  I, however, found myself hunched over the steering wheel for a different reason - I was trying to get the car to go faster.  Any faster than 65 km/hr (40mph), and it felt like doors would rattle right off their hinges. To say nothing of projectile windshield wipers.

The good thing about Nivas (and similar cars) is that they can be fixed with some silly putty and a rubber band - which is often necessary, right there in the middle of the road.

While I really detested driving that car, I will say that it taught me some humility.  As terrifying as it can be to navigate the roads of Georgia in a large, sturdy truck, it is immeasurably more frightening to be driving a rusty tin can amid the SUVs.  I learned to give the Nivas a little more space and be less of a road bully.  My driving habits, like those of most Americans I know here, have changed a lot in the last two years.  It's going to be weird to get back to the States where people actually stay in their lanes and signal before turning.

I do have to mention, though, that while every last Georgian driver would fail the behind-the-wheel test at any American DMV, the women drivers here really are the worst.  They don't exhibit the same brash insanity of the drivers of shiny SUVs, who skid along the highways on two wheels as they cut everyone off so that they can get to the shwarma stand first.  Rather, if you are behind a car that slows to 3 mph when approaching an intersection, wavering hesitatingly between lane markings, I will bet the farm that the driver is a woman.  The American stereotype finds truth in the Caucasus.

I will leave you with the rules of the Georgian road, as I have observed them.

1) Not sure which lane is going fastest?  Drive between them.  It's ok - the lane markings are just there so someone can have a job painting them.

2) If you need to stop your car to look under the hood or take a wizz, wait until you have just rounded the corner and are not visible to cars behind you.  That way no one will see your pee pee while you do your business, and they'll probably be able to swerve to avoid hitting your car at the last minute.

3) If you would like to pass someone, drive right up onto their tail and honk loudly. That way they will be sure to notice you.  Flashing your lights won't work; they're too busy texting or lighting a cigarette (or both) to notice.

4) This is important.  Merge first, look second.  Better yet, don't look at all - it will just confuse you.  The other driver will move.  He doesn't want you to hit his car.

5) If you are unsure about where you are going, just stop your car in the intersection while you figure it out.  You wouldn't want to miss your turn.

6) No parking spots outside the quickie mart?  Just park in the righthand traffic lane.  The other cars will go around you.

Happy Driving!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Trip to Svaneti, part 2

A double rainbow greeted us when we arrived in Mestia just in time for dinner (a huge one, that I neglected to photograph, provided by our guesthouse).  You may have noticed the rainbow we photographed on the road from Zugdidi, in my last post - that was a different rainbow.  

I think I have seen more rainbows during my last two years in Georgia than in the entire rest of my life - both at home in Tbilisi and around the rest of the country.  The Georgians believe that this land is under the protection of the Mother of God.  Maybe the rainbows are related to that.

The next morning we had breakfast at the guesthouse.  On the menu was khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread), cucumbers and tomatoes, cheese, bread, boiled eggs and cake.  The cake, by the way, was a swirled chocolate-and-vanilla affair that tasted identical to a cake my mother used to bake in a Bundt pan.  I do not know what recipe she used but when I get home I will go through all her cookbooks to see if I can find it.  It's the little things like this that I imagine will continue to be tough as time marches on after her death.

After breakfast we set off exploring.

Staring at the rusty playground mean old Mama wouldn't let them play on.

In downtown Mestia - that peculiar building in the background is the police station.

The guidebook counseled us that the best thing to do in Mestia was to turn off into the dirt alleyways and explore.  So that's what we did.

The girls were dying to go into a tower (since, clearly, Rapunzel must have lived in one of them).  As they are all privately owned, we weren't sure how to make that happen.  We ended up walking until we saw a woman standing in the courtyard of this house and tower, and we asked if we could come in and check it out.

She graciously agreed.  She didn't speak any English or Russian so I was unable to ask her about the history of her house and tower.  Jeremy and the girls climbed the ladder to the first floor of the tower, but I stayed below with Gabriel.

This was the inside of her house.  The ladder to the right leads to the entry to the tower.  The part in front of the stone wall, to the left, is traditionally where the livestock would live.  The living space is on the other side of the stone wall.

We headed back into town for lunch, and were delighted to find the square set up for a folk dance performance.  Georgian folk dancing is wonderful and we have caught several professional performances by the two main troupes that come through Tbilisi each year.  The performance in Mestia was put on my school children from throughout the Svaneti region and it.was.awesome.  I think I enjoyed it more than the professional performances.  The girls were enthralled.

The kid leaping in the below picture was awesome.  He could totally dance professionally.  We saw him later on at the museum and I don't think he was much older than 12.

Check out the faces of the kids below performing the highlanders' dance.  You can see video of a similar dance by professionals here.

We tried to delay nap time in order to stay for the whole performance, but were unsuccessful.  After naps, we headed to the Ethnographic Museum, which was happily open even though the guidebook said it was usually closed Sundays.  Svaneti was historically a hiding place for cultural artifacts due to its isolation and the fact that invaders rarely made it all the way into the mountains, so the museum's collection is wonderful.  There are a number of ancient icons - the following photos show icons of St. George and the Archangel Gabriel. Georgian iconography has a distinct style that I like very much.

This pulpit dates from 1100, and just hangs out in the middle of the room with only a single rope to guard it from prying hands.  It seems to be holding up pretty well, despite that.  Seeing stuff like this abroad always makes me think that Americans make things needlessly complicated.

Thousand-year-old Bibles.

The Armory.

Before dinner we took another walk behind our guesthouse, where we found more of that fantastic honeysuckle.

The scent was not quite as nice there, though, mingled as it was with cow dung.

The next morning we got up, ate another hearty breakfast and headed back for Tbilisi.  Though long, it was a great trip and I am glad we were able to fit it in.  With just a week left in Georgia, we won't get to see anything else.  I hope that we will make it back here sometime, but you never know.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Trip to Svaneti - part 1

We have less than two weeks left in Georgia, and the past month has flown by.  I have resisted making a bucket list for the end of our tour because, well, stressful.  Who needs that kind of pressure?  With three little ones at home, I'm pretty satisfied with the traveling we have done around the country and beyond.  Two jaunts to Batumi, a day trip to David Gareja monastery, Gori and Uplistsikhe, Gudauri, Bakuriani, Yerevan.  My favorite experiences of our tour here, actually, have been the trips that weren't in the guide book: Nunisi (twice, we just yesterday returned got back from a week there, more on that soon) and Samtavro convent, which I have visited a number of times since February.

In any case, the towers of Svaneti are considered a must-see.  It's the highest inhabited region in the Europe and is nestled among Georgia's highest peaks. In addition to Georgian, its people speak Svan, an ancient, unwritten language that has been designated by UNESCO as "endangered."

It's an 8-hour drive each way, and we only had a three-day weekend to work with, so we opted to spend our one sightseeing day in Mestia.

The last three hours of the drive, the stretch from Zugdidi to Mestia, was touted by our guide book as the most dangerous road in Georgia.  As such, it is peppered with memorial shrines for those who have died in car accidents.

Some of the shrines are simple, with just enough room for a glass of cha cha (local grape vodka) so that visitors can toast to the departed.

Some are a little fancier - with headstones and benches 

There were a couple of very elaborate ones, with roofs to shield visitors from the elements.

The drive was beautiful.

The mountain air was wonderful.  There were tons of these bushes of what I believe, based on their intoxicating scent, to be giant yellow honeysuckles.

As we neared Mestia we began to see the square-topped defensive towers Svaneti is famous for.

These towers, 25 meters high and each 900 to 1300 years old (!!), were built by families to protect themselves from marauders and from blood feuds between locals.  As far as I know, all are still privately owned.  You can see some diagrams of the inside of these towers here.

The road wound through mountain passes, treacherously close to the cliff in spots, but nonetheless well-maintained.  We were surprised, then, that our GPS did not seem to recognize the road as the most expedient way to get to Mestia.  It kept trying to get us to make a u-turn and drive back the way we came. I snapped this picture of the GPS just a mile or so out from our destination - note how close we were, and the estimated time of arrival ... it was about 6:30 p.m. when I took the photo.

That's about enough photos for one post, I think.  Stay tuned for pictures of Mestia and an account of the rest of the trip.