Where is Georgia?
The beautiful country of Georgia is at the crossroads of the world. Nestled in the east of Eastern Europe and the west of Western Asia, Georgia lies on the coast of the Black Sea underneath the southern borders of Russia. Such a central location makes Georgia a historical stopping point for the silk road as well as every major crusade in the surrounding areas from the Greek and Roman empires, the Turkish and Mongol takeovers to the most recent control of the area by Russia. Georgia has been a witness to it all.
Center of the World
The central location of Georgia has made it one of the major trade stops for ancient nations. Between the Muslim East and the Christian West, Georgia profited from the influence and goods from both cultures and regions. This is evident in their own rich culture and their stunning culinary creations. Nowhere else in the world has the same mixtures of spices that the Georgians use. They have had centuries to perfect the use of diverse tastes from around the world.
The Land of Georgia
Legend is told that, during the creation of the world, the Georgians held a large feast. So busy feasting on their meat dumplings and grilled lamb were the Georgian people that they missed the deadline God had set for choosing a place for themselves in the new world and so the world was divided in their absence. The Creation complete, God sets out to return to heaven. On his way, he comes across the Georgians singing and toasting. Angry, God chastises them for their laziness and negligence. However, the Tamada, or Toastmaster, is not worried that the Georgian people have no place to live. “They have spent their time well, he explains, thanking God in lavish toasts for having created such a magnificent world.” (Goldstein 1999) Pleased with their celebration of Him, and that they have not forgotten Him, God grants the Georgian people the last place on Earth not promised to another people, even the place that He was saving for himself, even paradise.
Eat Like A Georgian
From this parable of the Creation of the world you can sense the great reverence that the Georgian people have for their land. Georgia is an incredibly fertile land. One of the first things I noticed about Georgian people was that everyone was growing something. If there is a crack in the sidewalk, then there will be a grape vine growing out of it. As I was walking along the freeway, I noticed that all the trees lining the road were pomegranate trees. There is no separation between farmer and consumer in Georgia. You eat what you grow, and they grow almost everything: oranges and other citrus fruits, peaches, apricots, nuts, grains, berries, and, of course, grapes. In their mountains, herds of sheep and cows can be seen grazing while the shepherds lie in the shade of a nearby tree. Cultivation is a part of every Georgian’s life.
Food then comes from two places for the Georgian people. It is a gift from God, and it is a result of work and cultivation.
Food is a uniting factor for the Georgian people, but it is also a defining factor. Georgia has a unique cuisine. It is unique from the rest of the world and it is unique from itself. For example, Khachapuri is a very common Georgian dish. ‘Khacha’ means cheese and ‘Puri’ means bread, so literally translated, Khachapuri is cheese bread. There are several ways that Georgians enjoy Khachapuri and how it is made emphasizes a person’s origin.
Adjaruli Khachapuri, coming from the southwest corner of the country bordering the Black Sea, is probably the most famous type of Khachapuri because of its unique appearance and delicious taste. Adjaruli Khachapuri is in the shape of a boat that is filled with melted cheese. Straight from the oven, an egg is cracked over the top so that the hot cheese can cook all but the yolk on its way out to the table. Top that with butter and you have Adjaruli Khachapuri.
To fully enjoy Adjarian Khachapuri, no tableware is required. Just rip off the end of the boat, dip it in the middle, mix all of the cheese with the yoke and enjoy. Repeat as needed. This dish is also great for sharing as it is larger than it looks.
Imeruli Khachapuri originates from the central region of Georgia. It is characterized by its round shape and salty cheese only made in the region of Imereti. In appearance, it brings to mind the idea of a pizza not just with a stuffed crust, but just plain stuffed. This dish is enjoyed in triangle slices filled with delicious melted cheese.
Megruli Khachapuri comes from the region of Mingrelia, which is in the upper North West of the country on the west side bordering the Black Sea. This variety of Khachapuri has a strong resemblance to Imeruli Khachapuri. However, showing their pride in their own unique cheese, they don’t stop at just stuffing their bread but also top it with copious amounts of melted goodness.
Achma Khachapuri, or just Achma for short, undergoes a complete transformation of what it means to be cheese and bread. This dish is layered with cheese and dough, over and over until it resembles a sauce-less lasagna. With a flaky top and melted layers of cheese, this form of Khachapuri definitely needs a fork.
What type of Khachapuri someone makes and serves describes where they are from and with what subgroup of people they identify with. Whether you are an Adjarian Georgian or a Megrelian Georgian can be expressed at the dinner table. This one food alone divides the Georgian people into smaller groups. This division also has a uniting factor as well. No matter which region of Georgia is from, they all know and take pride in the knowledge that they are all uniquely Georgian.
I lived in the country of Georgia for eighteen months. While I was there, I learned some of the language, got to know some of the people and was privileged to eat a lot of the food. The need that humans have to constantly consume food made it so that one of the first things I did when I got to the country was to sit down and have dinner.
To celebrate my coming to stay with them, the people I was going to stay with took me to a restaurant for a traditional Georgian meal. One of the most treasured traditional foods in Georgia is Khinkali. Khinkali is a type of dumpling that is traditionally filled with meat mixed with spices and vegetables and then boiled. While it is boiled, the meat and vegetables release juices, filling the dumpling with a savory broth. How to eat these delicious dumplings was the first thing I was taught in regard to meal etiquette.
“First you grab the top of the dumpling where the dough comes together with your fingers,” I was instructed, “flip the dumpling upside down, take a small bite out of the side and drink the broth, (slurping is acceptable), when the broth is gone, you can then eat the rest of the dumpling except for the top where you are holding it, that part goes back on your plate.” I learned this process at my first meal of my first day in country and did not think much of the importance of it until my last week in country 18 months later.
My last week in the country of Georgia I acted as a tour guide for my mother and aunt. As my first guides did for me, I took them out for a traditional Georgian meal and the first thing that I taught them was how to eat Khinkali. At one point, we wanted to go to a specific historical church at the top of a mountain called Kazbegi. To get there it was about a three-hour drive. Being able to speak Georgian, I hired a taxi driver named Dato to drive us there and back.
When we arrived at the base of the mountain it was lunch time. My mother and aunt offered to pay for our driver’s lunch as a thank you for spending a full day driving us. This made him a little uncomfortable because they were women and he was a man. A woman buying food for a man is not common in Georgia, but they would not take no for an answer and he hesitantly agreed. Sitting at a table outside with a gorgeous view of the mountains, our meal came out and, of course, there was a large plate full of Khinkali.
Engrossed in conversation about the differences each party has had living in different parts of the world and, in my case, the translation of conversation, we began to eat. That was when it happened. My mother picked up her fork, reached across the table and stabbed one of the Khinkali. Pandemonium immediately ensued. All signs of being uncomfortable vanished as Dato and I both leapt to our feet.
“What is she doing!?” He exclaimed, holding his head.
“I don’t know!”
“The juice is going everywhere!”
“I told her how to eat them!”
On and on our exclamations went. My mother describes the situation: “I decided to dish myself some dumplings and stabbed one with a fork to put it on my plate. Before the dumpling made its way fully to my plate, both my daughter and the taxi driver were on their feet waving their arms around them, voices raised talking fast in Georgian to each other and then my daughter turned to me and said, “ You ruined the dumplings.””
Dato and I eventually calmed down and no actual harm was done. The dumplings were still edible, and the situation became something to tease the Americans about more than anything that caused actual offence. Conversation actually became smoother and less awkward after the yelling. This experience drove home to me the idea that the Georgian people take great care in how they eat their food, and this shows how important that food is to them. I also learned that I had unconsciously internalized this value, not because it was specifically important to me necessarily, but because I knew that it was important to them.
Me at the top of mount Kazbegi
“Fill your life as you would fill your plate.” These were the last words I heard in person from a dear friend, named Luka, as he gave me a parting gift on my last day in the country. He handed me a humble plain white dinner plate. These words have prompted a lot of thought as I have reflected on my experiences living in the country of Georgia.
In the story of the Creation of the World, Georgians express that food is a gift from God, but they understand that it also needs hard work and cultivation to grow and become a dish ready to be served. Life is viewed in a similar way. Life is a gift and what you do with it is a recipe.
That plate reminds me of how the Georgians express who they are through their food. Like what type of cheese bread the Georgians serve describes them, what I have on my “plate of life” tells the story of me. Who does my food connect me to? It reminds me that my everyday decisions describe me better than any other description could.
That plate also reminds me how much care the Georgians take in eating their food. The simple act of giving me a plain white plate showed me how much Luka cared for me and valued me. How much care do I take of the people and things on my plate? Do I unconsciously stab those things and people who are most important to me or do I make a conscious effort to value those things that are most important?
The Georgian people take pride in their food and their culture. I have gained a lot from them, including a couple of pounds. The experience I had was more than just new food, if only for a moment, I experienced a new view of the world. I was able to see how people are so different from one another but also how people are all the same. After all, we all need to eat. With that plain white dinner plate in a place of honor on my dresser, I hope to never forget the wisdom I learned from my friend Luka on how to live my best life. Eat like a Georgian.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
The Georgian culture is rich in history and tradition. Every aspect of life includes culture: the way we speak, the way we dress, the way we dance or sing, and the way we eat. Georgians view food and life in similar ways, so food helps us understand the Georgian people better. How people interact with the world around them shows what they value and prioritize. Understanding what people value is the best way to connect with other cultures and people.
Goldstein, D. (2018). The Georgian Feast, The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia. Oakland, California: University of California Press.