When spending time abroad, one’s English conversation becomes sprinkled with words from the host country’s tongue that are best left untranslated. While they may have literal equivalents in English, we keep them as they are because, in their native form, they contain both literal meaning and cultural context. The Georgian word “supra” is one of these. I am told I have yet to experience a true Georgian feast, which must be lead by a specially designated toastmaster who pronounces successive toasts throughout the meal in a strict order dictated by centuries of tradition. Nevertheless, two of the meals our group of volunteer teachers has enjoyed thus far would certainly qualify as feasts in any American sense of the word.
Just 24 hours after arriving in Tbilisi, we take our seats on a hilltop restaurant balcony heavy with grapevines. The city spreads below, lights glittering through the evening heat. Our tables are already laden with drinks and platters of meat and vegetable dishes: plates of fresh herbs and scallions meant to be eaten raw, slices of cold pork with a light, creamy walnut sauce to accompany them, and lobiani, a thin savory pie stuffed with mashed beans and seasoned with herbs. We use cornmeal cakes (mchadi) to sponge sauce from our plates or spread them with pkhali, a spinach and walnut puree.
Pickled vegetables clear sinuses with their swift kick: there are squat carrot-shaped yellow peppers, Kirby cucumbers, shredded white cabbage, and dzhondzholi, otherwise known as Colchis bladdernut, a decorative plant whose tiny garlicky furls resemble neither nuts nor urine sacs.
Rather than serve meals in courses, with the table cleared between each, the supra aims to shock and awe through displays of abundance. Many Georgian dishes are designed to be served at room temperature: those that must be served hot are brought out throughout the course of the meal.As additional dishes arrive, they supplement, rather than replace, the previous spread. Our servers pile plates on top of napkin holders, other platters, and any available square inch of space to ensure maximum visual impact.
My tongue flits from one flavor to another, resting from time to time over slow sips of white wine or tarkhuina, which I can best describe as tarragon-flavored cream soda. It is everything I hoped it would be: impossible, overwhelming, delightful; a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.
The next day at lunch near the town of Mtskheta, we find ourselves confronted with a similar, equally formidable spread. Today’s balcony overlooks a slow-moving river and rocky bluffs, terraced homes tucked here and there into the hillsides. The opening dishes are succeeded by sizzling mushrooms stuffed with briny cow’s milk cheese called sulguni, spicy ground meat rolled into sausages and wrapped in paper-thin lavash bread, and succulent cubes of beef shishkebab whose salt-tinged outer crust makes our lips tingle in anticipation of the fatty juices inside. Somehow, when–miraculously–space is found in the middle of each table for platters of watermelon and cantaloupe, our overstuffed stomachs find room for just a little more.
I came to Georgia in search of gastronomic adventure. Ladies and gentlemen, I think I’ve found it.