The conversations I have here with people I’m meeting for the first time tend to follow a predictable pattern. They involve a barrage of questions starting with my name and quickly moving toward juicier subjects such as whether I’m married, whether I want a Georgian husband, and whether I can see myself spending my life in Georgia. Then, just as earnestly and invariably, I am asked, “And what about Georgian food? Do you like it?”
“Yes, yes, I love Georgian food. That’s why I came here!”
“Have you tried khachapuri?” (Cheese bread that appears in various forms. For the regional variety, see here.)
I’m sure they ask knowing as well as I do that the statistical probability of spending three days in Georgia without trying khachapuri, much less a month and a half, is next to nothing. Still, they must make sure: just as you can’t say you’ve been to Japan if you’ve never left Narita, you can’t claim to know Georgia until you’ve eaten their national dish. And enjoyed it.
(Incidentally, researchers at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University have created an alternate scale for tracking inflation within Georgia known as The Khachapuri Index.)
Food in this culture is intimately linked with national pride to an extent that we as Americans struggle to grasp. We understand strong linkages between food and ethnic identity. We cling to the recipes our ancestors brought with them from “the old country” long after those dishes have fallen out of fashion in their native lands. But–freedom fry debacle aside–allegiance to the American flag has never implied allegiance to a particular dish or set of dishes.
If khachapuri stands aloft the Georgian culinary pantheon, mtsvadi (shishkebab) comes in a close second, and khinkali (large twisted dumplings filled with spiced ground meat and boiled) takes third. (I am basing these judgments on the order in which strangers typically name the dishes as they test the depth of my knowledge about their national cuisine, as well as on my own observations concerning the relative prestige of various dishes.)
While khachapuri is more or less indigenous to Georgia, I’m curious how the other two attained their hallowed status. I am not debating their deliciousness–what’s not to love about steaming hunks of succulent flesh (on a stick!) and attractive bundles of ground beef and pork whose rich juice simmers inside, ready to burst forth in a peppery gush? Still, these dishes so closely resemble related ones in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran, and the North Caucasus that they can hardly be considered a symbol of national uniqueness. Yet they are revered here as such.
In my opinion, the real stars of the Georgian culinary landscape are the vegetable, walnut, and bean dishes that (as far as I’m aware) have no direct correlations in neighboring countries. My students laughed out loud today when I told them that my favorite Georgian dishes are lobio (bean preparation that may be prepared as a hot soup, cold salad, or something in between) and phkali (any of various vegetable purees often including garlic, walnuts, and herbs, served at room temperature as an accompaniment to bread or other foods). I guess it may have been analogous to a foreigner telling a classroom full of U.S. students that his favorite American dishes are succotash and chicken noodle soup.
In the end it’s silly to break dishes or ingredients down by national origin and assign them a status based on those designations. What we now consider southern Italian cuisine would be unthinkable without the New World tomato, and I won’t even get into the ways that corn has radically altered the world’s diet.
Suffice it to say that while I may not agree with their ranking system, I am thrilled to be spending time in a country where enjoyment of cheese bread, dumplings, and kebab are discussed as frequently and sincerely as one’s name, occupation, and marital status.