Amid mounting accusations of gluttony, the Georgian finance ministry has decided to run official dinner menus by taxpayers, who are increasingly averse to groaning under the weight of the government’s dinner table.
A Georgian dinner party, or supra, is known for its gastronomic excesses. No square centimeter is usually left vacant on the table, when Georgians start piling up the dishes. Yet they don't want to let their government do the same at official receptions.
The dining habits of Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri have become the talk of the town, with copies of the ministry’s restaurant invoices bandied about online and broadcast on national TV. When he takes an official delegation out for dinner, Minister Khaduri tends to go the whole hog . . .or rather the whole lamb.
Many Georgians found the 4,000-lari ($2,282) dinner, complete with an entire roast lamb, that Khaduri shared with an official delegation from France a bit hard to digest. That bill is roughly five times the size of a Georgian household's average monthly income, according to Geostat.
The 43-year-old minister’s rotund physique only encouraged the criticism.
Georgia has a surplus of farmland and not enough farmers to work it. The Indian region of Punjab has too many farmers and not enough affordable land to keep them occupied. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Punjabi farmers are increasingly being found tilling Georgian soil. As the Guardian's Jason Burke reports, agents in Punjab are starting to do a brisk business in Georgian land deals. From his report:
The sun dips, the cattle low as they are driven back to the farms and a telephone rings with a Bollywood soundtrack tone. Tujinder Singh is calling the sarpanch – the elected head – of Manochahal, his native village 30 miles from India's western border.
The conversation – about crops, prices, weather and mendacious middlemen – is like a million or so similar early-evening calls placed by farmers across south Asia. Except that the land that Singh is now tilling is in Georgia, the small mountain nation in the Caucasus.
Singh, 38, is one of a new wave of farmers pioneering one of the world's more unlikely migrations. During a recent spell as a cook in Düsseldorf, Germany, he heard about thousands of acres of fertile land on former collective farms lying fallow in Georgia for want of manpower.
The contrast with his native Punjab, with its surging population and high land prices, was striking. So two months ago, he and three friends flew from Amritsar to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to seal a deal for the lease of 50 hectares. Back for a short break and some tandoori chicken, Singh said he was very happy with the move, even if he remains slightly vague about the geography of his new home.
"We are paying $950 [£580] for each hectare for a 99-year lease. You'd not get much for that in the Punjab. I'm not sure if the farm is in the north or south but it is sort of over by Turkey and Armenia," he said.
EurasiaNet's photoessay from the other day about how the supra -- the traditional eating and drinking feast that is a bedrock of social life in Georgia -- is evolving and modernizing is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand how Georgian society itself is changing.
Interested in getting more details about the story and the evolution of the supra, I sent several questions to its author, the Tbilsi-based Molly Corso, an American married to a Georgian. Our exchange is below:
1. What gave you the idea for this story?
I first started wondering about changes to the supra after I read a blog post on changing views toward the funeral feast on ISET.ge, the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. After I read it, I started noticing that, fairly often, when my husband and I met up with friends, there would be an argument about who should be tamada (the toast master) since no one wanted to be saddled with the role of drinking so much. Sometimes there would be little disputes over whether or not it is necessary to say all of the traditional toasts. I started to wonder if it was something isolated, just among my husband's circle of friends and relations, or if it was a wider trend.
2. Based on your own experience, how would you describe the role of the supra in Georgian life?
Tbilisi-based journalist (and frequent Eurasianet contributor) Paul Rimple has a very interesting take on billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream party was the big winner of Georgia's Oct. 1 parliamentary elections. How to understand the surprise contender? sit down with him for dinner, suggests Rimple. From an excellent post of his on the Roads & Kingdoms blog:
Dozens of guests are sitting around a table that is at least 20 meters long, piled high with plates of earthy east Georgian dishes. More home-cooked food is coming. I’ve got one eye on a bowl of khashlama that was just set down. So does the billionaire.
We are in Kakheti, the hilly wine region of eastern Georgia, where khashlama is the signature dish. It might look like boiled beef, but that’s like saying wine looks like vinegar. It’s actually a heroic mix of fresh herbs, salt and beef, slow-cooked in an open cauldron. The billionaire, sitting across from me, spoons a chunk onto his plate. He is the only person holding his utensils upright, like a proper European (the English journalist with us might have done the same, I suppose, but he was still holding a pen and notebook). It’s not that I hadn’t expected such upstanding usage of the cutlery—earlier I watched him taste the homemade wine as if it had been corked in France in 1981—but there are plenty of foods, including some of the herbs on the table, that are just expected to be eaten by hand in Georgia. There’s something unsettling about a man, no matter what his tax bracket, using knife and fork at a country table in Kakheti.
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.
Tbilisi-based photographer Uta Beyer has a thing for pig carcasses and other assorted cuts of meat. A previous post on this blog featured her lovingly rendered photos of pig heads on display in Tbilisi's main meat market, but Beyer appears to have been so captivated by what she saw at the butcher's that day that she's started an ongoing project called "Flesh," a collection of meat-based still lifes. Here's how Beyer describes the project:
Animal still lifes are one of the oldest genres in art history.They touch upon questions of transience, mortality, and death, and are, at the same time, among the most masterful paintings, always with a clear focus on the aesthetic presentation of the depicted dead animals. This photo essay is a modern, photographic interpretation of the animal still lifes genre, an exploration into this sphere between beauty and death.
[UPDATE - Whoops! I completely failed to notice that Eurasianet had previously published a far superior and photo-rich story about this exact same subject. That story, with Justyna Mielnikiewicz's superb photos, can be found here. Check it out.]
Countries have all kinds of schemes to attract both foreign capitol and high-value migrants, but the government of Georgia may have come up with the most unusual plan of them all. According to AFP, the Georgian government has set up a program to attract white South African farmers who have decided to leave their homeland due to political and economic pressures. From the article:
A long way from his South African birthplace, amid the sweeping wheat fields of eastern Georgia, farmer Piet Kemp says that he has found a new home in this former Soviet republic.
And if the government gets its wish, hundreds more like Mr. Kemp will follow to help revive Georgia’s ailing agricultural sector, bringing in both cash and expertise.
As Foreign Policy's The Cable blog reported yesterday, violence recently broke out on the disputed border between Georgia and the breakaway republic of S. Ossetia, with a group of 15 people being shot at by either S. Ossetian or Russian troops. Two people were killed and four injured in the incident, according to the report, which stated the group was in the area "collecting food."
But just what was this "food" they were collecting? According to Kebabistan's Georgian sources, the food in question is jonjoli, a wild green that is a staple of the Georgian kitchen. Says EurasiaNet's Giorgi Lomsadze, via email: "Jonjoli is a bush (Staphylea colchica). The pickled sprouts of this bush are a popular appetizer/side dish. It is normally mixed with olive oil and sometimes with other . . . pickled veggie[s], such as cucumber, pepper, or tomatoes. It's mostly associated with western Georgia, has a strange taste but everyone loves it for some reason. There are no popular beliefs connected to jonjoli, but it is a must on a Georgian supra, or traditional feast table. Some are apparently dying to get it."
Georgia Today has an interesting article about Tekuna Gachechiladze, an ambitious Tbilisi chef who is opening up a restaurant called Georgian Fusion, that, as the name implies, will serve up Georgian fusion cuisine.
“I still want to use typical Georgian ingredients, such as tarragon or tkemali (a cherry plum sauce), but mix them with new ingredients such shrimps, or combine eggplants, very popular in many traditional Georgian dishes, with foie gras," Gachechiladze says. “Look at Spanish cuisine, just 20 years ago it was still very traditional. Look at it now, it has some of the most radical and innovative chefs of our times.”