She sat there, speaking in her gruff, smoker’s voice calling me dear, petting her dog and thanking me for learning how to cook Georgian cuisine. Wine in large water canisters lay on the floor as were her other possessions. The wallpaper was archaic, from a different era altogether. I went over to the empty fish tank and peered at it.
“It belonged to my son, George. I named him after St George,” she said while dutifully crossing her head and shoulders in the Orthodox Christian manner. Georgia is a birthplace of both the sinner and the saint – St George whose sculpture slaying the dragon signifying the devil, is in the centre of the Liberty Square while Gori, 90 km away from capital Tbilisi, is where Josef Stalin was born.
I had come to Irina to learn Georgian cuisine which is known to be the most unique in its creation, history and influence. The first question she asked me: Russian? To which I said no. “My English no good,” she said.
Irina is a Georgian but spoke Russian most comfortably like many others from her generation when the country was a part of the Soviet Union. At the same time she was passionately adhering to Georgian ways – being religious was an important part of her identity which was not possible during Soviet times.
The house seemed quiet, almost as if it was robbed of cheer. Irina had a cookery school which shut down during Covid and I assumed the silence was just her reeling from a very severe aftermath. She had resumed teaching to cook albeit in her home, a ramshackle of a building which the government had conveniently forgotten to repair. They were sturdy old buildings no doubt, but extremely run down.
We were making Ajapsandali, Khinkali, Khachapuri and Churchkhela – four unique Georgian dishes.
Ajapsandali consisted of cubed eggplant, pepper, onions and garlic cooked in tomato purée with a generous helping of herbs – a mix of parsley, coriander, dill and Georgian purple basil. “Dear, remember, without Georgian basil, it is just not Ajapsandali,” she reminded me.
Khinkali are wheat flour dumplings filled potatoes and cheese. These are traditionally made with meat but for me, she made it with Georgian cheese called Sulguni and boiled potatoes mixed with a generous helping of pepper. These were then pinched to create parcels that are traditionally eaten with hands. They were cooked by boiling inside salted water.
Khachapuri, the quintessential bread with an egg yolk in the centre and Churchkhela – the Georgian sausage like sweet which were essentially walnuts covered in grape juice thickened using wheat flour made the remaining of the cooking course.
Georgia was occupied by the Persians (Safavids), who also fought the Ottomans to gain control of the South Caucasus region that was once along the Silk Route. To its south is Armenia, to its east, Ajerbaijan, to its west, the Black Sea and to its north, Russia, making it most diverse for languages, topography, religion, language and culture.
As staunchly Orthodox Christians, Georgians sought help from Russia, which under the rule of Tsars, followed the same religion. In 1783, Georgia became Russian protectorate and following the October Revolution, became a part of the mighty USSR.
Georgia, known as the birthplace of wines and water that comes from the Caucasus glaciers, quench the thirst of Russians for both even today. That and its food are hugely popular in Russia – almost like Mexican food being popular in the US.
“Have you ever been to Russia?” I asked Irina as I rolled the dough into small discs. “Once, to St Petersburg, when I was very young,” she said. “But now we need visa to visit.”
The Russians who want to enter Georgia don’t need visa through, Georgians require visas to travel to Russia, an arduous process many feel is unfair. “My family is from Abkhazia,” Irina said which made me dart a glance at her. Abkhazia was liberated by Russia in 2008 and now is an independent republic, a region Georgians call a part of their country and feel bitterly about the war. Many, like Irina, can no longer return to their family homes where they spent their childhood.
The Khinkalis were floating to the top in the boiling salted water indicating they were done. Irina kept praising me for my cooking skills. I bet she does that to all her students. She laid out the table for me. Wine from Kakheti region was poured into a carafe. The Georgians like semi-sweet, dry wines and this one was tasted like summer in a cup. She then crushed 5-6 pods of garlic and mixed it inside Georgian yogurt which is called Matsoni (like Greek yogurt) with a pinch of salt.
My 1st course of Georgian meal was Khinkali dumplings with a helping of garlicky yogurt and Ajapsandali while Irina went for a quick smoke break. She had shut the poor dog away to give me time to enjoy my feast but I could hear it whimpering, begging to be let out.
“My silly dog is all I have now,” she said petting it. “Everything I had I have lost – my childhood home, my cooking school, my chance to visit Russia…. and my son too.” I gulped hard and looked up. She pointed to the fish tank. “It was my son’s.” I looked around for cues. I didn’t know what to say. “He laid his life to defend our land,” she continued as she petted her dog. I didn’t dare ask her which war but assumed she referred to the Georgia-Russia war that was fought in 2008.
It suddenly dawned on me why the house was so silent. And then I looked at the empty fish tank and wished: if only empty fish tanks could speak.