georgia: 5 posts

Niko Pirosmani : A Movable Feast

The paintings by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) throw me off balance. It may be a strange reaction to art, especially to the one depicting animals, people feasting, gathering grapes, or fishing, but Pirosmani is not an ordinary painter. Why are the deer’s eyes so much like human eyes? Why do the revelers raising their horns full of wine look so serious? What are they celebrating? What went through the artist’s mind as he sketched and what did he intend for us to see? What motivated him to paint?

Most likely–and we have so little information about Pirosmani’s life that we can only guess–it was hunger that prompted Pirosmani to take up the brush. Born in 1862, in a village in the Kakheti region of Georgia, he didn’t have any formal education, and his stints as a train conductor and cattle herder ended in failure. He learned painting from itinerant artists and he wanted to open a workshop producing signboards. It almost came to naught. The first order he painted for free, while the second one never came. He remained poor and hungry for the rest of his life, a vagabond and a pariah.

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Yellow Marigolds and Blue Fenugreek : Georgian Spices

I didn’t know that tagetes were edible until I went to Georgia. My grandmother cultivated several varieties for her flower beds, and I loved the spicy, green scent of the flowers we affectionately called chornobryvtsi, the black-eyebrowed ones, since dark eyebrows are one of the hallmarks of classical Ukrainian beauty.  On the other hand, I never knew that they have an equally alluring flavor and that it forms the main accord of Georgian cuisine.

Several varieties of tagetes are edible, but the most common one is tagetes patula. That’s the same flower woven into Indian garlands to decorate gods and honored guests, but only in Georgia is it used as food. The flavor of tagetes is earthy, spicy, with a hint of green apple and orange. It plays a base note in the finished dish, lending a lingering brightness to chakhokhbili, chicken stew with tomato and herbs, spice blends, chili pastes, or walnut sauces.

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Georgian National Ballet : Dance and Dazzle

If Georgia’s cuisine is any indication, this country’s other arts are equally dazzling, especially music and dance. The first time I saw Georgian dancing was when the Georgian National Ballet Sukhishivili-Ramishvili visited Kyiv during my childhood. By then I had already studied classical ballet for several years, so it was hard to impress me with complicated turns or jumps, but when the Georgian troupe took stage, it charged up the whole auditorium with so much energy that for the two hours of the performance I felt myself soaring. I have since seen hundreds of dance performances, both folk and classics, but this feeling of intoxication and euphoria returned only on a few occasions since, the most recent being during Natalia Osipova’s performance of Giselle.

And it’s hard not to be moved watching Georgian dancing with its energy, rhythm, complex technique and precision. The clip above is the rehearsal of the same troupe I saw as a child, but of course, with a new generation of dancers. Sukhishvili-Ramishvili Ballet is based on traditional Georgian dancing, though they incorporate classical ballet elements to polish the movements further. Men dancing on bent toes, though, is part of the traditional repertoire, predating ballet’s en pointe technique. Although this clip is only the rehearsal, it gives you a sense of the troupe’s virtuosity. I watched it at least ten times, and I still hold my breath when the dancers do pirouettes on their knees, then raise themselves en pointe before jumping in the air and holding a trinacria-like shape for what seems like minutes.

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Menu for a Georgian Feast, with Three Cookbook Reviews

My trip to Georgia was a culinary epiphany.  This small country in the Caucasus has one of the world’s most interesting cuisines, full of vibrant combinations of herbs, nuts, pomegranate and spices. It’s also one of the healthiest, offering a wide repertoire of vegetable dishes and herb rich stews (such as chakhokhbili, the chicken tomato stew I shared recently). Among my other favorites are pkhali, vegetable salads in walnut sauce, khachapuri, flatbreads stuffed with cheese, lobio, beans cooked with coriander leaves and walnuts, mtsvadi, grilled meat, and khinkali, juicy, peppery meat dumplings. It is a kaleidoscope of flavors. And just like the Georgian language is related to no other tongue, Georgia’s cuisine is uniquely distinctive.

Three Cookbooks

This fall gives me and other Georgian food lovers a reason to be happy, because there are three new Georgian cookbooks on the market, and all three are excellent. The first one I bought was Supra: A Feast of Georgian Cooking by Tiko Tuskadze. As an introduction to Georgian cuisine, it’s the ideal book. It contains recipes for most of the classics, including five types of khachapuri, the cheese stuffed flatbread, six types of pkhali, a vegetable dish that’s between a salad and a paté, and a wide array of meat, fish and poultry dishes.  I also liked discovering several recipes for adjika (also spelled as ajika), herb and chili pastes that function both as condiments and seasoning sauces. Tuskadze’s red adjika (p.30) is a symphony of chili, parsley, basil, coriander and celery leaves, with a basso profondo note of fenugreek.

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Georgian Chicken Stew with Tomatoes and Herbs : Chakhokhbili

Before the tomato season ends I would like to share a recipe for chakhokhbili, a Georgian chicken stew. It’s a dish that tastes and smells of summer, and I try to make it as often as I can during the months when ripe tomatoes are available. The idea is to cook chicken with onions and towards the end add almost twice its weight in tomatoes and herbs. The tomatoes are cooked only to soften them, which gives the stew a bright, sunny flavor. Few other preparations showcase the simple ingredients–chicken and tomatoes–to such advantage. And if you haven’t cooked Georgian food before, I urge you to start with this recipe and be ready to be dazzled.

Georgia is a country of about four million people wedged between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In my travels through Georgia it never failed to amaze me how such a small country could produce so many outstanding writers, artists, sculptors and dancers, from painter Niko Pirosmani and poet Tizian Tabidze to ballerina Nina Ananiashvili and choreographer George Balanchine. Today, however, I want to give you a taste of the famed Georgian cuisine, because it’s a heritage worthy of being enshrined by UNESCO, along with Georgia’s unique polyphonic singing.

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