Georgia’s ongoing flirtation with Iran may be raising eyebrows in Washington, but there are signs Tbilisi and Tehran are taking their courtship to the next level: culinary affairs.
Iranian restaurants are popping up in Tbilisi’s popular dining districts, with eateries ranging from the height of touristy kitsch to night clubs. While there are just four in the central district so far, they appear to be taking root.
On Akhvlediani Street, a café-filled side street that runs parallel to the capital’s main boulevard, Farsi ads and Iranian flags are the newest addition to an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants.
A large Iranian flag stakes out a swath of prime clubbing space for New Mask, an Iranian restaurant/night club. While the ambiance is thin – generic carnival masks make up the bulk of the décor – Iranian pop music sets a certain mood. Plus, at an average of 18 lari ($10.84) an entrée, sampling Iranian comfort food like zereshk polow ba morgh (roasted chicken with a sweet tomato sauce served with rice and barberries) is an affordably exotic treat.
The baby step from tourism to restaurants seems like a safe move in the diplomatic minefield of fostering relations with Iran. Georgia, long considered Washington’s main ally in the region - and recipient of $1billion in aid money over the past four years – has been understandably circumspect about forming close ties with Tehran.
In 2010, Tbilisi lifted visa requirements for Iranians – a move that has helped bolster tourism between the two countries and led to a small, but noticeable, increase in bilateral trade.
But Georgia has also been careful to seek a balance between closer commercial ties with Iran and its diplomatic responsibility with the West: during an interview with CNN on July 9, Economy Minister Vera Kobalia sidestepped a question about Georgia’s increasing ties with Iran.
While there is little that is political about a mouth watering array of kebabs, the restaurants illustrate just how much baggage both sides brings to this relationship.
For example, One Thousand and One Nights – an Iranian restaurant in the heart of the old city - offers delicious Iranian tea in a "Shah Abbas" tea set (pictured above), an unfortunate reminder of Georgia’s bloody and painful past with the Persian Empire. From the 16th to the 18th century, Georgian kingdoms fought for independence from the shahs, finally turning to Russia to escape from the Persians' grasp.
While a tasty lamb kebab cannot make up for past sins, good eating appears to be having an effect: on a recent summer evening, Georgians – as well as Iranians and tourists – were dining at One Thousand and One Nights.
If one must discuss delicate issues of nuclear security, regional peace, and centuries of aggression, talking over a dish of joje kabab bedon ostokhan (boneless chicken kebabs) might make a dose of difficult diplomacy easier to swallow.
1001 Nights, 9 Leselidze; New Mask, 20, Akhvlediani Street