The Global Chef: Georgian culinary arts can soothe and unite | Food


Nancy Krcek Allen

Nancy Krcek Allen

In Putin’s and Russia’s quest to be a superpower, another of their longtime targets is the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Since Georgia gained its independence in 1991, Putin has continued to exert pressure by using or threatening military force, aiding rebel groups, anti-Western/NATO propaganda, economic measures, disinformation operations, cyber-attacks and by creating separatist regimes as leverage against the country.

Through it all, Georgians have persevered. Perhaps it is in large part because of its food and wine toasting ritual, the supra. Georgians believe in the power of their culinary arts to soothe and unite people.

Cuisine is central to the life and history of all Georgians. Sandwiched by Russia, Armenia, Turkey, Dagestan, and Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of Georgia was in the center of the ancient East-West silk and spice trade routes, her primary link to the known world.

Georgia has 11 common languages (Georgian, Russian, Armenian, Abkhaz, Azerbaijani, Greek, Ossetian, Svan, Mingrelian, Laz and Turkish), which reflects the diversity of her culture and food. Though many invaders (Persians, Ottomans, and Mongol) and traders (Indian) have left their influences on Georgian cuisine, its true excellence arises from the fertile Georgian soil, natural riches and abundant culinary ingredients. Citrus, pomegranates, plums, apricots, blackberries, walnuts, figs, corn, wheat, beans, herbs, spices, eggplant, tomatoes, grapes and more thrive there.

Georgian cooking is centuries old. This uncomplicated cuisine is a cross between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, which grew out of the ancient migrations along the Silk Road and from rural countryside farm cooking. The rich natural flavors of her fresh food and seasonings need little embellishment. Matsoni (buffalo milk yogurt), cow, goat and sheep cheeses, fresh and pungent herb salads, grilled meat (basturma) and kebabs (shasklik), sturgeon in walnut sauce, flattened pan-grilled chicken tabaka and stuffed vegetable tolmas (dolmas) are favorites. Fresh sauces made with tart wild plums, walnuts, apricots, cilantro or tomatoes and flavored with pomegranate juice, honey, herbs or chilies are popular. There are bean salads with walnuts or plums, clay oven breads, corn polenta, and fresh, succulent pkhalis (walnut-vegetable patés), characteristic of a cuisine bursting with tradition, color and natural flavor.

Persians love rice and Armenians, bulgur, but Georgians prefer wheat and corn. Instead of the typical Mediterranean lentils, chickpeas, and favas, Georgians love New World kidney beans. Walnuts and walnut oil dominate the Georgian kitchen over pine nuts and almonds.

Georgians are passionate about dining and drinking toasts. Their almost obsessive dedication to cooking and hospitality makes the Georgian meal a festive, tasty social event. Guests are highly honored. Indeed, some say that guests are a “gift from God.” Guests offered an invitation to dine need to be prepared for a long event.

A Georgian meal’s success depends on variety and abundance. Expect the table to be stuffed with small dishes ranging from appetizers, soup and vegetables, to meat, fish and poultry, served in many courses. First, khachapuri (stuffed bread), khinkali (dumplings), pickles or aromatic herb salads, eggplant with walnut and garlic sauce then fried fish, sautéed mushrooms, cucumber and tomato salad, baked trout, roast suckling pig, green spinach balls, meat casserole, pork kebab and fried chicken, all served with several sauces.

Georgians have great reverence for grapes and wine. Food is the heart of the Georgian feast, but wine is its soul. Wine unites culture and community. A supra or large dinner party with its wine-toasting rituals is presided over by the tamada or toastmaster. The supra is fraught with important rituals. The tamada makes toasts then selects guests to make toasts. The toasts come in a special order: peace, the reason for the gathering, the hostess, parents and ancestors, motherland Georgia, friends, the dead, life, children, women, each guest, the tamada, a safe journey home and future gatherings.

Keep all the countries beleaguered by Russia in your hearts this week by joining them in preparing their favorite meals and toasting like a tamada.

Georgian Plum Sauce (Tkemali)

Tkemali is the universal Georgian condiment used as much as Americans do ketchup. Georgian plums are similar to the tiny green Mirabelle plum, and very tart. This sauce is a good use for hard, American supermarket purple plums or fresh prune plums in season: the color is stunning. The addition of lime or lemon adds an appropriate tart-fruitiness. Prepare in small portions for immediate use or larger batches for freezing or canning.

— Adapted from “Discovering Global Cuisines” by Nancy Krcek Allen

Yields 2 cups

1 lb. firm or unripe purple plums, halved, pitted and diced

1/2 t. ground coriander

1/2 t. ground fenugreek

2 to 3 t. peeled and minced garlic

1/2 to 1 t. chili flakes or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 to 3 T. fresh lime or lemon juice

2 T. finely sliced cilantro, more to taste

Optional: 1 T. minced mint leaves

Pour 3 tablespoons water, plums, coriander, fenugreek and garlic into small saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover pot and simmer plums until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool plums to just warm.

Purée plum mixture in food processor or blender until smooth. To thicken sauce, place back in saucepan and simmer until slightly thickened. Scrape sauce into bowl and stir in salt, chili or cayenne, lime juice and herbs to taste. Rest sauce 1 hour. Taste again and adjust flavors. Cool sauce to room temperature and refrigerate up to 1 week.

  • More Flavor: Toast whole spices and grind before adding to plums.

Georgian Marinated Meat Grilled on Skewers (Basturma)

Mtsavadi, grilled skewers or plain lamb, beef, or pork, is the most common grill in Georgia. Basturma is made with less tender cuts marinated overnight before grilling. Pairing meat and fruit is one of the hallmarks of Georgian cooking. This marinade works equally well with pork and pomegranate.

— Adapted from “The Georgian Feast” by Darra Goldstein

Yields 1-1/4 C. marinade; serves 4 to 6

1 C. pure pomegranate juice

1/4 C. olive oil

1 bay leaf, preferably fresh, bruised

1 T. peeled and minced garlic

2 lb. trimmed boneless lamb shoulder or leg, cut into 2-inch cubes or 2 pounds boneless beef sirloin, cut into 2-inch cubes

1 lb. eggplant, 4 to 5 cups diced into 2-inch cubes

In a large mixing bowl mix juice, oil, bay leaf and garlic. Fold in meat and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 12 to 24 hours.

Toss eggplant cubes with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and rest 30 minutes. Drain and pat eggplant dry. Steam eggplant until slightly tender, 2 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat grill. Drain meat from marinade. Place on skewers alternating with eggplant cubes. Season meat and eggplant with salt and freshly ground pepper. Grill until eggplant is cooked through and meat is cooked to desired doneness: medium to medium-rare takes 8 to 10 minutes.

To Serve: arrange meat on platter with Georgian Tkemali sauce on the side. Serve with lavash bread.

Bigger Flavor: Beef for basturma is often marinated overnight in grated onion, minced garlic, finely sliced cilantro and basil, olive oil and fresh lemon juice. To strengthen the flavor of this marinade recipe, add 1/2 cup or more minced onion, 2 to 3 tablespoons minced cilantro, 1 to 2 tablespoons sliced fresh basil, more olive oil, and 1/4

Red Beans in Sour Plum Sauce (Lobio Tkemali)

Bean salads may be mashed and used to stuff khachapuri breads.

— Adapted from “Discovering Global Cuisines” by Nancy Krcek Allen

Yields 4 to 5 cups

14 oz. dry small red or kidney beans, 2 cups rinsed and drained1 recipe Georgian Plum Sauce (Tkemali), divided

1/4 C. finely sliced cilantro or Italian parsley

2 T. walnut, sunflower, or good olive oil, divided

Optional Garnish

1-1/2 to 2 C. peeled and thinly sliced or slivered red onion

4 to 6 oz. pickled mild banana peppers, about 6 slices

8 oz. feta, about 2 cups cubed

5 oz. kalamata olives, 1 cup pitted

Pour dry beans into large pot and cover with water. Stir in 1-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt. Bring beans and water to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover. Simmer beans until tender, 1 hour or more.

Drain beans. While warm, toss beans with 1/2 cup or more plum sauce or mash beans lightly with 1/2 cup or more Georgian Plum Sauce (Tkemali). Toss or mix beans with cilantro or parsley and season with salt and pepper. Stir in 1 tablespoon oil.

To Serve: Mound beans in serving vessel and drizzle them with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Serve with remaining plum sauce and garnishes on the side; each diner mixes them into the salad as they desire.

Georgian Flat Chicken (Tabaka)

This is a classic Georgian dish, simple but flavorful.

— Adapted from “Discovering Global Cuisines” by Nancy Krcek Allen

Yields 1 to 2 servings

1 recipe of Georgian Plum Sauce

1-1/2 lb. Cornish game hen

1 large clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1 to 2 T. oil

Cooked warm rice and steamed green beans

Prepare Georgian Plum Sauce and allow to rest.

Place hen breast side up on cutting board. Pat dry. Slice or cut through breastbone to separate rib cage. Turn hen over and lightly pound with a small skillet to flatten. Sprinkle hen liberally with salt on both sides, then rub with garlic clove.

Over medium-high heat, heat a 10- to 12-inch well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. (For large batches, cook and keep warm in low oven.) Add oil to skillet. When it shimmers, place hen into skillet and coat both sides. Cook hen skin side up 5 minutes, then flip to skin side down. Place a heavy weight or brick covered in foil to weight down hen. Lower heat to medium-low, and cook hen until brown and crusty, 20 minutes. Turn hen and replace weight. Cook on remaining side until hen is cooked through, juicy and golden, 10 to 15 minutes.

To Serve: Transfer hen to plate and ladle sauce over. Serve with rice and green beans.

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