Culinary influences abound in Georgia, a small country with a big history.
My taxi buddy, surprisingly fluent in Georgian, Russian and English, thanks to his battered smartphone, is dismissive of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet expansionism into nearby Crimea. Georgia endured 70 years of Soviet occupation from 1921, so Moscow’s renewed influence is not welcomed. His thumbs-down sign needs no translation.
After a few hours’ sleep, I wake to find an astonishing urban panorama in the Caucasus dawn. Just metres from my Airbnb apartment’s hillside terrace, a gondola system swings lazily over Tbilisi’s Mtkvari (or Kura) River to the summit of the ancient Narikala fortress and the 20m aluminium statue of Kartlis Deda (“Mother Georgia”). The near horizon is dotted with the cupolas of 6th-century Georgian basilicas, and some of the world’s most spectacular modern architecture – including the elegant, bow-shaped 2010 Bridge of Peace, which spans the river – provides contemporary and audacious balance.
Who knew a 2am arrival in Tbilisi was such a smart move?
A modern, independent nation, Georgia is bordered by the states of Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its history has long been influenced by its position on the ancient Silk Road trading routes that linked Europe and Asia. Empires that washed over the compact country, called Sakartvelo by its modern population, include the Mongols, the Ottomans and the Persians. In the streets and lanes around the Old Town, the compelling architectural mash-up combines faded art-nouveau apartments and 19th-century wooden pavilions with elegant verandas that hint at oriental lands to the east.
The food scene also combines influences from neighbouring cultures, and Tbilisi’s biggest market is crammed with culinary reminders of the ebb and flow of trade and conquest.
Named after absconders from the army who sold their equipment here in the 1920s, the Deserters’ Market is a gritty, authentic affair. I meet Maka Tarashvili, a guide with Tbilisi-based Taste Georgia, near simple bakeries selling khachapuri, and we breakfast on a crisp example of the country’s famous cheese-filled pies. Soon, I’m fast-tracked to a basic understanding of Georgian Cuisine 101.
“Here in Tbilisi, we think Georgian cuisine is the original fusion food,” she says. The market’s rows of stalls provide colourful and fragrant evidence to support her view.
Hinting at the culinary influence of Turkey, walnuts and pomegranates sit beside overflowing plastic buckets of fresh spices, including saffron and chilli. Echoes of Persian culture and modern Iran linger in tubs of preserved sour plums. In the compact dairy section, the flavours of Greece and the Levant can be found in velvety matsoni (Georgian yogurt) and slabs of briny white sulguni cheese.
Meanwhile, butchers cut lamb, pork and veal to order for threading onto skewers for Mongol-influenced barbecues. On crowded pavements outside the market, Azeri traders wearing Muslim headscarves sell bunches of fresh dill and tarragon to Georgian Orthodox grandmothers, and families from the city’s rural hinterland proffer plastic bottles filled with amber-hued homemade wine.
In an increasingly globalised culinary world, Tbilisi’s Deserters’ Market is thrillingly real, and more “farm to table” than a score of earnest menus from hipster eateries in Sydney, Shoreditch or Seattle.
Leaving the market, I explore more of the foodie spots recommended by guide Maka and Taste Georgia. Yeasty aromas lure me into a simple underground bakery opposite the History Museum. Fluffy flatbreads are baked on the curved clay walls of a t’one, a wood-fired oven similar to an Indian tandoor.
I detour downhill from the grand promenade of Rustaveli Ave – scene of the demonstrations leading to Georgia’s pro-Western and peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003 – negotiating meandering backstreets to seek out what are reputedly the city’s finest examples of the country’s unofficial national dish.
Reached via an unmarked yellow door into the courtyard of the Giorgi Leonidze State Museum of Literature, Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan serves platters of khinkali: steamed dumplings filled with meat, cheese and mountain herbs. Forget notions of delicate eating; khinkali are fist-sized and the correct etiquette is to pick them up in your hand, slurp the steaming broth from inside, then devour the silky pastry.
Continue east on ancient trade routes and the similarity of khinkalis to Shanghai’s famed soup dumplings are more evidence of the culinary influence of border-busting Mongol warriors such as Genghis Khan.
From Sofia Melnikova’s, it’s a short walk through rambling public gardens to Tbilisi’s other essential market. On an elegant but faded arch across the river, the Dry Bridge flea market is an ad-hoc retail labyrinth with poignant detritus from Georgia’s 20th-century history.
Vintage Russian cameras and retro enamel badges celebrating communist achievements big and small are laid out on tarpaulins and blankets. Framed portraits and faded postcards are a reminder of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who was born in the town of Gori, just an hour away. Stacks of vinyl records are one of the market’s most popular features. In spring sunshine, lots of the vendors are cooling off by swigging casually on big bottles of local beer.
Who knew that a Soviet-era pressing of a 1960s Rolling Stones album – complete with Cyrillic text, spelling out the classic Mick Jagger and Keith Richards songwriting team of – was on my Georgian shopping list?
This article was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.