When discussing or recommending Georgian cuisine people focus on the well-known dishes, such as khatchapuri, mtsvadi, lobiani, and khinkali, rather than the ingredients of the regions, the fruits and vegetables, or the terroir. This is understandable. After all, when discussing Chinese or Italian or Mexican food we tend to think of recipes that represent the daily food of those respective nationalities, not their rice or tomatoes or beans.
We all know Georgia’s dishes, or at least the major ones. It’s one of the first cultural lessons for someone arriving in Georgia. The average visitor tastes khatchapuri and khinkali within the first few days or even the first meal. But the overlooked part of Georgian cuisine is the quality of the raw ingredients, especially given the affordability compared to the same ingredients in Western countries. It’s a culinary paradigm shift.
I grew up in the Upper Midwest, where my childhood experiences with fruits and vegetables were limited. I ate the common things, like apples, bananas, and oranges, but I never ventured into the more exotic shelves of the supermarket. Even older, I stuck to dairy and meat. In my world vegetables were only for appetizers and side dishes, and fruits cocktail garnishes. As a result I had a profound ignorance of fruits and vegetables—let’s call it a low fruit and vegetable intelligence quotient (F&V IQ). I’d trouble identifying squashes, bell peppers, asparagus, never mind things like cilantro, lentils, and pomegranates.
Then I came to Georgia.
In this new land I discovered that when children return from school they don’t rush to the cupboards and open a bag of Cheetos and camp out on the couch playing Call of Duty. Instead, they might chop up some tomatoes, sprinkle a little salt on them, and eat them plain. Plain! Not even warmed up. Not even with mozzarella cheese and olive oil à la caprese. Just tomatoes. As if that were a meal.
It was a shock for me living in a house where the pantry contained only whole foods. My attempts at late night snacking were aborted when I found entire shelves and containers filled with green stuff and bags of spices, barren of the oily snacks and junk food in which I’d sought refuge. Bah! I’d no use for nature’s bounty. I wanted my tried-and-true Pringles, Doritos, Hostess cakes, Cheez-Its, and Ritz crackers.
But I’d no where to go. I was in the countryside. In the village. No supermarket to load up on snacks. No pizza delivery to save me. No restaurants. So I had to adapt.
I learned that eating fruits and vegetables is an acquired habit. Although I found plain tomatoes rather disgusting (something about the cold texture), I gradually grew found of them. They became delicious—ney, irresistable. I even surprised my Georgian hosts by declining the salt they always used on raw vegetables. Much to my delight I began eating entire meals consisting of healthy stuff.
My V&F IQ increased remarkably. For example:
My first pomegranate was in Georgia. Before then I’d only known grenadine, a bar syrup made from pomegranate juice used for mixing Jack Roses and Shirley Temples, among other cocktails. When I cracked open the fruit I was amazed at the little fruity bulbs inside of it. I still don’t quite understand the evolution of that fruit.
I learned that grapes have seeds in them. When I ate my first grapes in Georgia I thought I was eating grapes containing beetles. Not until spitting one out did I realize my misconception. I was amazed that fruits are able to reproduce and spread without the aid of genetic modification and the watchful eyes food scientists.
I had my first apricot, beet, and shallot. I also had many berries and small fruits which are possibly unique to Georgia or the Caucasus region, things which I’d never even seen before and which had no obvious translation. I began to feel like Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace voyaging through faraway islands and documenting my botanical novelties.
It’s a lesson I didn’t expect to learn. I knew I’d learn about cultural differences. But my low V&F IQ was a blind spot in my life, and I credit my culinary adventures and my willingness to try anything once for showing me a different side to the dinner table, a healthier side, a side without red meat and artificial flavorings.