Empty fish tanks

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.

At George’s statue in Liberty Square. This was previously where Lenin stood but as the country retraces its identity, religion is filling the big void that was left behind by Soviet rule.
St George brought Christianity to Georgia from Cappadocia. He is depicted across Georgia slaying a dragon that is the symbol of the devil.
Most monuments of Stalin have been removed from public spaces and displayed only in museums to “eliminate symbols is totalitarianism” so they are not used for propaganda purposes.

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.

Irina’s building where she lived
The backside of Irina’s building has a common landing that connects all apartments along a wooden deck.

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.

Potato filling, Ajapsandali and walnuts for Churchkhela

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.

Khinkali in the making. Incidentally, Khinkali owes its origins to Mongolia where soldiers carried these dumplings filled with meat to battlefield as they didn’t perish too easily

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.

Khachapuri is a wheat flour bread with cheese fillings topped with egg yolk that is half cooked inside the oven and is cut up to mix the runny yolk with the cheese. There are many other kinds of Khachapuri with different fillings.
Churchkhela in a Georgian “candy store”. They consist of walnuts primarily coated with grape juice thickened with wheat flour. The newer versions have other nuts like hazelnut and dry fruits like apricots coated in cherry or pomegranate juice.
Dried fruits coated with pomegranate juice – a new twist to the traditional Churchkhela.

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 Russia friendship monument near Kazbegi which is about 3 hours away from Georgia – Russia border
The monument commemorates 200 years of friendship – from 1783 when Georgia became Russian protectorate until 1983 when it was erected. In the centre is Mother Mary who is the most revered in Orthodox Christianity with Infant Jesus flanked by Georgian iconography on the left and Russian iconography on the right.

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.

Paravani lake is a sweet water lake formed by glaciers in the Caucasus mountains. It is 2073m above sea level and covers a surface area of more than 35km. The lake is frozen during winter. There are many such lakes in Georgia that bring water good enough to drink from the tap.

“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.

Khinkali dumplings made with wheat flour and filled with potatoes and Georgian cheese, Sulguni, topped with garlicky yogurt; Ajapsandali – a tapas-like dish eaten with bread containing eggplants, onions, peppers and garlic cooked in tomato sauce; and the quintessential Georgian wine were my creation.

“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.

Irina’s chair where she sat and petted her dog. That chair too must have many stories to tell.
All across Georgia, I saw Ukraine flags in solidarity with the country.
These messages flash across the country on LED displays

7 comments

    • Very unique food Anna. They were ruled by Persians and the Ottomans too as well as Russians but have such a unique cuisine that is not influenced by any of them. Absolutely I recommend Georgia or Georgian food if you can find it in Oz. BTW I purchased The Eight Life. Looking forward to reading it. Thank you again for recommending it.

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      • I doubt I’d find a Georgian restaurant in sleepy Perth, if not maybe the whole of Australia! I dont think there is a large population of Georgians here. Btw did you do this travel solo or part of a tour? X

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      • Hey Anna – I went on my own. Got in touch with a tour guide, a man with a van, who took me to places. We don’t have any cool restaurants here either in Singapore. Just gonna have to make a trip there to eat it’s food and drink it’s wine.

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      • Ah ok, i was wondering if Georgia was easy to get around of better if on tour. Id rather do on my own and have the freedom to organise the things I want to see. Yep, I think the only way I’ll ever get to try Georgian is to go there!!

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      • You can absolutely do it on your own Anna. Just that you will need a guide with a car. Also, I was there only for a week so a vehicle does help. I felt very safe as a girl and didn’t have to look over my shoulder.

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