After a few days in Tbilisi gathering contacts and getting ideas, I set off for my first homestay, in the western Georgian region of Samegrelo. Samegrelo is the home of the Megrelian people, most of whom speak both Georgian and Megrelian, one of the few languages in the world that is related to Georgian. To me, Megrelian sounds to Georgian as Portuguese sounds to Spanish—a little softer and swingier, with rounded corners.
The region is also known for its spicy food. When I asked Oleg (the man with the puppy from my last post, who used to host a travel documentary-style TV show about Georgia) why these people eat spicier food than the rest of the country, he said, “Simple: malaria.” He told me that this area of Georgia is swampy and was once a breeding ground for malarial mosquitos. People who ate loads of hot peppers seemed better-shielded against the blood-sucking buggers, so chilis appear in everything from soups and salads to meat and egg dishes here.
Oleg set me up with a family in Odishi, a village about 15 minutes’ drive outside the regional capital, Zugdidi. Sixteen-year-old Tako Qobalia and her father Beso met me at the train station at 6:30 am, when the stuffy, lumbering overnight train from Tbilisi arrives. The Qobalias have been hosting teachers from English-speaking countries in their home almost continuously since 2010, when the Teach and Learn with Georgia program began. (This is the same Georgian government-sponsored program that brought me to Georgia for the first time, as an English teacher in a public school in Batumi on the Black Sea coast.) As a result, their daughter Tako speaks fluent colloquial English, peppered with her own sly observations and quick wit.
The Qobalias live in the home that Beso’s grandfather built around 100 years ago, though hired laborers are at work on a new one they’ve commissioned a few yards away. Outside they keep a small orchard of hazelnut, walnut, and fruit trees, a kitchen garden, and a screened-in box on stilts where they dry their own apples and figs in the sun. Their calf is still too young to milk, but she makes herself heard with a well-timed moo whenever the herd of small dogs that carouse around the yard are getting overly riled up in their competition for the affections of Sausage, the family dachshund.
Tako’s mother, Arleta, is ethnically Megrelian but grew up in Abkhazia, the northwestern-most region of Georgia (at least officially). A devastating war between Abkhazian separatists (with Russian support) and Georgian troops in 1992-1993 forced more than 250,000 people to flee their homes. Arleta and her family were among them. Now the place exists for her in memory and in the foods she grew up with.
She starts our lesson by taking two pepper mixes out of the fridge, both called ajika. One is a powdery rub made with dried chili peppers, the other a fiery red paste made with fresh chilis, herbs, garlic and plenty of salt. This paste was what they used in Abkhazia, she tells me. Just smelling it wakes me up. I taste a bit for heat: it makes my lips burn on contact and draws blood to my face, the way a good chili paste should.
We begin with ajika chicken. Arleta stabs a hen carcass with a long fork and holds it directly over the gas flame of her stove to sear off the remaining feathers, then butterflies the chicken to make it lay flat in the pan, smears ajika and salt all over the bird’s skin, and pops it into the oven half of her wood-burning stove to roast.
As in many Georgian village homes, the wood stove heats the kitchen and living room area throughout the winter (and is often the only source of heat in the house). As Arleta cooks, she continuously tosses new logs into the fire (contained in a box on the left side of the stove) to keep it hot. The oven half is on the right side. Any food cooked there must be turned halfway through to ensure even cooking. The flat top of the stove is used like a modern cooktop, though the cook can only turn down the heat by moving a pan from the side directly over the firebox to the other.
Next we move on to ghomi, the Georgian polenta, which is a staple throughout much of western Georgia. (This dish is called “ghumu” in Megrelian, and in both languages the “gh” is pronounced a lot like a French “r”). Historically, people in western Georgia relied on ghomi and other corn-based dishes as their go-to carbs, while people in the eastern part of the country ate bread.
Arleta takes her own dried corn to the local mill to be ground. She sifts the ground meal through a fine-mesh sieve at home, reserving the finest meal and rinsing the coarser grits ten times to remove any hulls and debris. She pours the grits into a pot of boiling water and lets them heat and thicken while we move on to other dishes. When the water boils, she’ll add some of the fine meal to bind the grits. Just before we eat, she’ll pile a hummock of ghomi onto a small plate for each person at the table, then stick a thick slice of smoked sulguni cheese into the center of each. If you melt cheese directly into the grits, you’ve got elarji, which tastes good with just about everything.
Continuing on with the cheese and carbs theme that runs through Georgian cuisine like a backbone, we prepare the dough for Megrelian khachapuri. (Its contents are self-evident in the name: khacho is one Georgian word for fresh cheese, while puri means bread.) Megrelians typically make this pan-Georgian favorite with an extra layer of cheese mixed with egg and butter or oil slathered on top of the basic cheese-stuffed pie.
Judging by Arleta’s practiced movements as she cooks and the easy transitions she makes between several dishes in various stages of completion, I get the sense that cooking 4-5 different dishes in one afternoon is nothing new for her. She says she spends half the day cooking, on average. She’s also the director of the pre-school up the road. As I’m pondering how she manages to fit it all in, she plops a plate of sticky black figs in front of me. “From our garden,” she says. “They dried in the sun.” I’m beginning to understand that here, nature is still very much a partner in labor for most people living outside of major cities.
While the khachapuri dough is rising (and the chicken roasting and the grits bubbling…feel like you’re in a nursery rhyme yet?), Arleta gathers the ingredients for another Megrelian specialty, gebzhalia. She presses freshly made sulguni (lightly salted cow’s milk cheese) into a flat rectangle, spreads it with a mild green chili and mint ajika, and rolls it up like a jelly roll. She cuts the roll into bite-size slices and covers them with a garlicky mint-yogurt sauce. I’ve rarely seen this dish on Georgian restaurant menus, but I’d certainly put it on mine if I ran one.
It’s time to think about dessert. Arleta pours a couple liters of grape juice (pressed from her own grapes, of course) into a pot on the stove, adds sugar and corn flour, and brings it to a boil, stirring constantly as it thickens to a pudding-like texture. Once the flour taste has cooked out, she pours it into flat dishes to cool. This is pelamushi, which is as fun to say as it is to eat. (It’s also known as tatara in parts of eastern Georgia, where it is made with wheat flour).
Finally, we stuff the khachapuri with cheese and bake a few pies in the wood-burning oven. She pulls out the bazhe (garlic-walnut sauce) she made yesterday to accompany the chicken, which she cuts into pieces with kitchen shears. A few chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers make a simple salad. A pitcher of sweetened feijoa juice goes on the table, along with a bottle of Georgian white wine. (Normally the Qobalias drink the wine they make themselves, so uncorking this bottle marks a special occasion.)
With just about every inch of the table covered with something edible, we sit down to lunch: all this for just Arleta, Tako, and I. There is far more food here than the three of us could eat in three days, but that’s the Georgian way: variety and abundance are the hallmarks of hospitality. It will all appear again on the table over the next several meals, though seven new dishes will be added tomorrow (including two corn dishes, two meat dishes, another type of khachapuri, and two desserts). It will feed not only the family, but also the American teacher couple the Qobalias are hosting this year, the workers who are building their new home next door, and other friends and relatives who may stop by or stay the night. Bones go to the dogs, some vegetable scraps to the cow, used napkins feed the fire.
We end the day with a surprise midnight birthday celebration for one of the American teachers. Tako pops a balloon filled with confetti she’s made herself, Beso is standing by wine and shots of chacha (Georgian grappa), and Arleta has made a poofy layer cake with two different fillings, a third type of frosting, and more sweetened condensed milk than I care to remember. I’ve come down with a bad cold and should probably be sleeping. The teachers have to be at school early the next morning and should probably be sleeping. Yet we all sit in the kitchen with confetti in our hair, toasting to lofty ideals I can’t remember and giving ourselves a drunken bedtime sugar rush. It feels irresponsible and for that, all the more festive.
I’m generally wary of national stereotypes, but there is one about Georgians that I do support: let it never be said that this is a people who do not know how to party.
Note; Recipes for many of these dishes, adapted for urban kitchens, are forthcoming after I’ve had a chance to test and measure them with American ingredients back home.