The Soviet Republic of Georgia, though it covers only 70,000 square kilometers, less than Scotland or South Carolina, is a land of great contrasts, encompassing both alpine and subtropical climate zones. Because nearly all of Georgia is coverd in mountains, it’s various regions, even up to the present day, have remained remarkably self-contained, with their own dialects, costumes and culinary traditions. Considering Georgia’s historical vulnerability as a small, wealthy land continually beset by more powerful nations, it is surprising that its own culinary practices have remained so intact. While geography has certainly been a factor in Georgia’s ability to preserve, its indigenious gastronomic traditions, two other causes must also be noted. First Georgia is a Christian nation, unlike most of its neighbours (and most of its invaders) and second, its people have fought hard to affirm their own way of life. This strong national pride has helped the tiny population of only five and one-half million Georgians to survive with a culture that is distinct.
Food has always held an important place in Georgian life. One legend associates the founding of the new capital, Tbilisi, with a fifth-century hunt, when King Vakhtang Gorgaslani suppossedly retrieved a pheasant fully cooked from the hot springs where it had fallen (1). Naturally, a feast ensued, and to this day outdoor repasts highlighting game are still the rule.
Present-day Georgia encompasses the area known to the ancient Greek as Iberia, in the east and Colchis in the west. It was here that Greek Merchants established trading posts and chroniclers recorded the tales of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea and the Golden Fleece, and Prometheus enchained. They found the land exceedingly fertile, with apple, plum, pear, quince, apricot, cherry and nut trees in abundance as well as a great variety of vegetables and grains. Recognizing the agricultural importance of this area, the Greeks referred to the peoples living noth of the Black Sea as georgos or “those who work the land.” According to some historians, the name Georgia can be traced back to this Greek root via the Latin (Pliny mentions the Georgians in his Natural History [4:83]) (2) in which case Georgia has been defined terms of its foodstuff.
Largely because of its fabled riches, Georgia was visited frequently by outsiders, both merchants and travellers. The merchants established caravansaraies throughout the country, and Tbilisi became a major stopover on the trade routes, a meeting point for Moslem East and Christian West. The travellers, in turn, left journals of the wild landscapes and exotic customs they encountered. Marco Polo, Rubruquis and Sir John Chardin mention Georgia on their travel notes.
But not all who passed through the Transcaucasus were unbelligerent and such powerful peoples as the Mongols, the Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians sought to dominate its rich resources. The repeated upheavels left their traces not only on the political life of Georgia, but on its gastronomy as well, and in each of the country’s culinary regions one can find certain practices that reflect either georgraphical proximity to an nonindegenious cuisine or effects of foreign domination. The pilafs of southern Georgia, along with the meats stewed with fruits, echo those of the neighbouring Iran, while the prized khinkali or wonton – like dumplings of the mountain tribes show evidence of Mongol influence. Along the Black Sea coast in Western Georgia one can enjoy stuffed tolma or grape leaves, imported from Turkey. Generally speaking, in Eastern Georgia, where the rivers flow from the mountains into the Caspian Sea, the culinary arts have much in common with Persian traditions while in the West, the the rivers empty into the Black Sea, the foodways have greater affinity with Northeastern Turkish cuisine.
1.See Mepisashvili, Rusudan and Vakhtang Tsintsadze, The Arts of Ancient Georgia (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979,) p.44
2.For a discussion of the name “Georgia” see W.E.D. Allen, A History of the Georgian People (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971), p.369