Foodie Friday: Khachapuri, or how to ruin your diet

Just the sight of Khachapuri would make a Cardiologist cringe. White bread shaped like a canoe, covered with a ridiculous amount of cheese and topped with a pad of butter and a raw egg. My arteries are closing just thinking about it. This picture isn’t ours, our arteries couldn’t take it again and we didn’t have our camera the first time.

KhachapuriSitting in a restaurant in Tbilisi, everyone around us had what looked like cheesy pizza on their table. We couldn’t see exactly what it was, but from the pictures on the wall, depicting the size options and the fact it was on nearly every table, we figured it was the house specialty. Somehow we failed to realize it came with a raw egg on top, so when the Khachapuri was put in front of us my eyes opened wide in disbelief. We didn’t eat raw meat in Ethiopia and I wasn’t going to chance a raw egg in Georgia, so we did the best we could trying to extract it from the cheesy, buttery mess.

Now before you get totally grossed out, this is only one kind of Khachapuri, Ajarian. It can also come filled with beans, meat or vegetables and lacking the raw egg.

Our Khachapuri was deliciously cheesy, but I felt like a 13 year old girl afterwards my face was so covered in grease. Interestingly enough, this dish is so popular across the country that the price of Khachapuri across the country is apparently used by Tbilisi State University’s Economics Department as a measure of inflation!

Josef Stalin is not who you think he is…

IMGP5882When you hear the name ‘Stalin’ what comes to mind? Steel. Soviet. Dictator. Evil Man. Iron Curtain. Red Scare. Big Mustache. Nazi Killer. Follower of Lenin. Communism. Roosevelt’s Russian Friend. Not Russian?

That’s right. “The Great Architect of Communism” is not Russian, he is Georgian.

We visited Gori, a town about 90 minutes to the west of Tbilisi, to see the his old home and the museum erected in his honor. We were astonished. His old neighborhood was bulldozed so that only his home, which he lived in until the age of 4, was the only house left standing on the city block, allowing for a whole Stalin park. His father was a cobbler.

IMGP5878Ironically when “The Father of Nations” lived here, his name was Joseb Besarionis dze Jugashvili. He changed his name to Stalin (Steel) much later when he needed a pen name for his communist writings. He rose up through the communist party over the years, being deemed unfit for military service due to his deformed hand; his face scarred with small pox didn’t help either.

The museum though, focuses on these things as something of a hero-worship to “Humanity’s Brilliant Genius”. It somehow manages to ignore all the painfully evil things he did to maintain control within the Communist Party and the broader Soviet system; pacts with Hitler, various famines, the sending of people to the Gulags, etc. IMGP5877The guide did talk about the open disagreements between Lenin and S

How we became Italian, in Georgia

It all started with a heavyset, jolly Russian mini-bus driver. Surrounded by minibus drivers the moment we stepped from the taxi, he was the only one of the group going north to Kazbegi. Georgian isn’t an alphabet that we understand, so basically we’re like children, asking 1000 times which direction to go even though we might be standing right next to the sign. IMGP6878 As he walked us to his mini-bus he chatted away in Russian and Georgian, which we didn’t understand. Determined to make himself understood he asked if we spoke a number of languages. “Ruske?” he asked hopefully. “Net,” I said. “Georgian?” he tried again. “Net, Espanol,” I said hopefully. “Net.” he replied. “English,” I continued. “Net, Italiano?” he said with a huge smile. Terror struck my heart, I literally haven’t spoken Italian in five years, but before I could protest Danny said “si.” and the man’s face lit up. It turned out that his Italian was just as bad as mine. Through charades and a few Italian phrases we introduced ourselves and our Italian backgrounds.

Thrilled to be with us, he took us to a small bakery stall for breakfast and arranged for us to ride in another mini-bus to KazbegiIMGP5844. We were unclear what was going on, and his initial price was double what we were expecting, so we assumed it would be private. As we threw our stuff in the back of his friends shared mini-bus he was no where to be found. Our jolly, friendly and delightful Russian friend had taken our money and ran. Slightly perturbed, you can imagine my surprise when a few minutes later he appeared with small change to give us a refund. Delighted we shook hands several times and the mini-bus took off for the hills.

Kazbegi is the highest mountain in Georgia and we spent our time in the area hiking to a glacier, waterfall and monastery. The scenery was beautiful and although we were only 15km from Russia we never made it all the way to the border, which isn’t probably such a bad thing since we heard occasionally there are still shots fired across the frontier.

On our last day in Kazbegi, walking back from the waterfall near the Russian border, a white mini-bus stopped short on the cliff side road. “Italiani! Amici!” a voice boomed in the sunlight. Squinting to see the man’s face, I realized it was our Russian mini-bus friend from Tbilisi. IMGP6865Offering us a ride back to Tbilisi, we had a difficult time explaining that we already had arranged a ride back. With his passengers anxious to get back on the road, we exchanged phone numbers and went on our way. Standing with his number in my hand, Danny and I laughed, we could hardly communicate face to face, what on earth would we do on the phone?

That night, back in Tbilisi, we had our hotel receptionist call him and explain the situation. He was delighted to hear from us and called again the next day with his own translator. Although we shared only a few words in common, he invited us to his home the next time we were in Tbilisi and wished us luck on our journey.

If You Go: Mashrutka’s (mini buses) run regularly from Tbilisi’s Didube metro station to Kazbegi, expect to pay around 10 GEL for the 2.5-3 hr ride.  There is a hotel in Kazbegi but most travelers choose a homestay, which usually includes breakfast and dinner.  Expect to pay around 30 GEL per person for a double room, dorms are cheaper, but look first, many homestays cram too many beds into one space.  Trekking maps are available at the Mountain House, which also may have accommodation space and helps organize climbing and multi-day trekking trips.  Basic food & sundries are available in town, but the selection is limited.  There are tons of great day hike and day trip opportunities throughout the area which can be arranged in Kazbegi, ask at your homestay or the hotel.  Note that the Russian border is CLOSED to foreigners, only Georgians and Russians may cross.  At the time of our visit the area was very safe and quiet, but keep an eye on ongoing problems in bordering Russian states as well as relations between Georgia and Russia.

My Loss of Innocence in the Baths

Having spent most of my childhood participating in athletics, I am not squeamish about locker rooms. That was until I went to the Orbeliani Baths in Tbilisi. Having read in the guidebook about the public sulfur baths, I figured it was a great way to relax and unwind, plus we had skipped the hamam in Turkey anyway. Through a series of hand gestures, we determined the entrance fee was about $1.50, a scrub was less than $3 and a massage was less than $5. Excellent. I figured I’d give myself the whole treatment.

Public Sulfur Bath in TbilisiI’m not sure how exactly to describe the locker room. While the exterior of the building was richly decorated in blue intricately designed Persian style tiles, the interior was starkly utilitarian. Stamped with individual numbers, unpainted lockers lined the wall of the dimly lit room. Handing over my ticket to three women playing cards at the front, I began to arrange myself in a locker when a women approached me talking quickly in Georgian. From her uniform, or rather lack there of, I determined that she probably worked there, but all I could understand out of her mouth was massage and scrub. Nodding my head vigorously, I repeated scrub and massage. Before I could protest she and another employee began to grab at me in a grandmotherly let me show you how this is done sort of way. Awkward to say the least, I felt rather exposed and vulnerable as they practically pushed me down the steps into a sulfurous room.

Pushing me under the shower, the “head” lady turned on a stream of sulfur water above my head and motioned for me to rinse myself. Standing there somewhat bewildered I took a moment to compose myself and nearly laughed out loud. Just go with it I thought. Yelling at me, the lady motioned for me to come over to the “treatment” bench where she literally scrubbed me raw. Astonished at the layer upon layer of dead skin coming off me, she yelled for the other women in the room to come see the freakish tourist. Public Sulfur Bath in Tbilisi Surrounded by Georgian women in a steaming sulfurous room as my body was literally scrubbed raw isn’t exactly my idea of fun, but there wasn’t much I could do. Treating me like a doll, the scrubber lady pulled at my arms and legs ensuring that not a speck of dirt remained anywhere on me. By the time we got to the massage, my skin was bright red and frankly I was a bit terrified.

Massage means different things to different people, and mine basically consisted of torturous elbows and slaps on my back which seemed to be methodical. After cracking almost every joint in my body, the torture was over and I actually felt rather like putty. Emerging from the sulfur bath back into the harsh reality of the locker room I quickly changed and got the heck out of there, but not before I had to answer a dreaded question- where are you from? America I replied. “America! America!” the women repeated over and over again, almost like a toast. “Ciao” they called after me.

Intimate cultural experience? You can bet it was, and as I greeted Danny outside I actually heard myself tell him that it was “good” and I’d definitely do it again. Painfully relaxing I suppose.

Foodie Friday: Khinkali

Meat wrapped in dough. Every culture seems to have one. You may remember my love affair with Argentine baked empanada’s in South America, but alas there are no empanada’s to be found in the Caucuses. There are however…dumplings.

IMGP6767Piled high on a metal tray, Khinkali, or Georgian meat dumplings, are served in enormous quantities. About the size of your fist, the minimum order at a restaurant is usually five. Frankly, that’s more than I can eat, and I usually leave some dough behind when I am unable to fufill the Khinkali challenge. Grown men will sit and eat 10 and 20 at time while downing pints of their favorite local brew.

Spiced meat balls mixed with onions, peppers and a little garlic wrapped in dough, Khinkali are like the chicken soup of Georgian cuisine, they instantly make you feel like you’ve been sitting in Grandma’s kitchen all day. The juice is probably the best part. Steamed inside the dough, the meat’s spiced juices fill the dumpling and spill out when you bite or cut into it. The best technique is to try and eat them whole or suck out the juice, but that’s one I haven’t mastered. Instead I just soak up the juice with the little dumpling “tops” where the dough has been pinched together. Easy enough!