April 12, 2020
Rough Notes From Tbilisi
We land June 16th at 9:25 am in Tbilisi airport. ‘Tbilisi loves you’ is etched in the floor at the end of the aerobridge. The airport is cavernous, a bit bedraggled around the edges, preternaturally quiet and particularly unnerving to us Asia dwelling urbanites; both Hong Kong – where we arrived from- and Mumbai- where I spend a lot of my time- are amongst the densest and most space challenged cities in the world. ‘I think there’s just not that many people in Tbilisi’ says Jason. We whisper amongst ourselves about what to say in case the immigration officer interrogates us about the purpose of our trip or our nanny Vina’s Visa, but it’s a breeze passing through. Nine of our ten suitcases arrive within minutes. I send Vina to the opposite side of the baggage belt to retrieve the last suitcase- a medium sized black one, loaded up with baby stuff. An officer approaches her when she lifts it off the belt. ‘Whose is it?’ Vina points to me. ‘Passport?’ the officer asks. Jason and I follow him into a glassed in room off the arrival hall. We open the suitcase, move packages of diapers and wipes out of the way. The officer, who looks to be about fourteen, points to a black case. ‘What is it?’ Ah. I unzip it helpfully. ‘Breast pump.’ He waves us away, the tips of his ears vibrating with embarrassment.
Tbilisi, The city that loves you. The phrase rings in my head as Goga, our smiling landlord loads up our heaviest suitcases into the two vans he has hired to drive us from the airport. It was certainly not the dour, Soviet style greeting I expected from a country that has a legacy of enforced communist occupation, civil unrest and gangsters freely roaming the streets. But then this was no ordinary journey. I had arrived in Tbilisi for the birth of my twin daughters by surrogate at the Chachava clinic. 3/5 Galaktion Tabidze Street off of Liberty Square would be home for the next few months.
The building we are staying in is 120 years old, built by a wealthy Armenian oil magnate. Our flat reminds me of a classic Parisian Hausmann but stretched vertically- the ceiling must be 12 feet high. The floor creaks. It’s the start of the hot season but people in Tblisi don’t turn on the air conditioning unless necessary. It’s a socialist, frugal preservationist routine I know well. Then there’s our street: Galaktion Tabidze, named after the Georgian King of Poets, committed to a life full of love, pain and poetry. It’s a Georgian compulsion to rever and canonize poets and writers. It’s another cultural impulse I know well, from both sides of my lineage: my father’s Calcutta and my mother’s Warsaw.
But that’s where the familiarity ends. Here where the crossroads of Old World Europe and Asia meet, I will embark on a culinary, cultural and deeply personal odyssey I’ve never experienced before. That’s saying a lot for someone who has lived in eight cities and travelled relentlessly beginning before I could string together a coherent sentence. I search my memory for the last time I’ve encountered a country where everything is utterly new and unfamiliar. Of course, there’s a booming creative scene and contemporary, repurposed hot spots like the Rooms Hotel and Art House provoking those in the know to label this survivalist town the next Berlin. But having overdosed on the cool hipness of the hyper paced Hong Kong, I am attracted to more timeless pleasures, for instance the dome shaped ancient bath houses, where one can poach in the magical, mineral rich sulfuric hot springs, that date back millennia. The name of the city derives from these steaming waters, ‘Tbili’ in Georgian means ‘warm’. Oh, and have I mentioned the Georgian language script is one of the 14 unique scripts in the world, the current script in usage dating to the first century? It looks vaguely Tamilian, but on closer inspection, like so much of Georgian life, it resembles nothing I’ve come across elsewhere.
Just a week before the birth of my twins, my trusty Vina and I go to a local supermarket, Goodwill, to buy chicken. It’s in a new, shiny shopping mall- completed just a few months back, according to Goga. Vina cooks a chicken thai curry. The chicken is a bit tough. This is the flesh of an animal that ran free and was exceptionally fit just before it got the chop. This stringy but dense meat is not unfamiliar in my personal food vocabulary. I remember my mother driving to a farm outside urban Toronto, returning with an icebox of freshly slaughtered chicken- and one time- a cardboard box of chirping chicks that grew into fearsome feathered pets who terrorized our neighbours’ gardens.
Without exception, the fruit and vegetables in Tbilisi are sourced from small family farms. Vina and I buy raspberries from the family run fresh produce stalls on the sidewalk and they rot in a day. Fresh figs, blackberries and blueberries are bursting with flavour, unadulterated and sold from the hands of the grower. We learn to cross the streets boldly with an authoritative arm extended, darting across Rustaveli, the grandest avenue in Tbilisi, when we spot local earthern ware sold by an old woman on the side of the road. Cars stop, even on the busiest streets.
Everything here tastes different, yet contains an echo of my childhood. We find a restaurant to sample tapas style Georgian delicacies with a contemporary twist at a place called G Vino on Erekle Street in the Old Town, a short walk over cobbled roads from our home. We pass buskers and a live music jam in Liberty Square, where visitors from the middle east rest on benches eating Turkish sweets. Everywhere I hear a pounding heartbeat. The sculptures are rain washed, the brutalist splendor of the original facades have fallen into disrepair, many buildings are locked and barred but it’s still so lovely. Tbilisi combines everything I love about human civilization. Spirit, decaying beauty and the will to rise. Again and again.
The girl who serves us at G. Vino Wine bar is patiently knowledgable when it comes to describing the Georgian gastronomy and their impressive collection of organic wine. ‘God, wine and food’ is the holy trinity in Georgia she informs us without irony. Soon I will discover this is a key feature of the Georgian psyche: the people are fiercely proud of their heritage while at the same time determinedly forward looking and willfully burying past travails. She recommends an amber wine produced by Nikalas Marani. This wine, produced using the ancient traditional Kvevri clay jars dating back 8000 years isn’t sold in shops. It makes me think; have the French and Italians been indulging in viticulture appropriation all this time?
But back to Nikalas Marani. He produces a small quantity, for his own pleasure. For his own pleasure. I take a sip. And I exhale. I had arrived in Tbilisi anxious and depleted, excited about the birth of my twins, while racing to deliver the manuscript of my memoir, Close to the Bone to my publisher before veering into motherhood and uncharted territories. I shot for a new project for Amazon Prime in India, begging production to condense my filming dates, but unable to share why. I understand instinctively this meal will restore me. But, no, it will do more than that. Seated in this centre of culinary bonhomie will spark once again my faith in food and its power to heal. The food is delicious and fresh and omnipotent. We try Khachapuri, the unleaved bread stuffed with a salty, intense Georgian cheese, and I feel I can never return to pizza. The texture is remiscent of the most supple naan I’ve tasted, oozing with the richness of the local Sulguni cheese. The traditional tomato and cucumber salad sprinkled with purple basil tastes of childhood; the juicy pieces of unadulterated goodness, evoke the stubbornness of soil on fresh-from-the-garden vegetables, tempered with toasty notes from the walnut oil. Soon my wandering fork syndrome gets the better of me as I lean over my husband’s plates of rich, piquant, sampling the ghomi (Georgian polenta) and kharcho a hearty meat soup and lobio (beans cooked in a clay pot)
The stews are redolent with khmeli suneli- the Georgian five spice blend. My mouth purses around the flavours of pkhali, a family of vegetable purees so surprising on my palate I pause, clock my confusion then surrender to an explosion of delight. In this deft intermingling of east and west on my plate, there is surprisingly little familiarity. It’s my first time tasting blue fenugreek seeds, crushed Berberis berries, dried and ground Marigold petals. It brings to mind something I once read: ‘Ambiguity is the salt of life and informs the best, most closely held recipes.’
Walking back, satiated and tipsy, we fan ourselves with stolen menus. Because it’s hot. The hottest summer in recent memory. Men carry infants in diapers up and down the streets. The streets are washed clean of dogma by recent travails and people smile and laugh in the sultry night. The street dogs are tagged and well fed, roadside romeos of willful charm. We walk slowly, glimpsing women gossiping on stools or shirtless old men in courtyards smelling of piss, coppery and flaking with age. On the sidewalks, Georgian hipsters smoke in front of luridly lit dive bars and couples lounge in small parkettes of historical value, sculptures scattered casually like acorns.
We pass an old man on the street, walking with measured steps, holding his recent purchase. What does it mean to lovingly buy a single peach and carry it home tenderly in a plastic bag? What pleasure was contained in his face as he anticipated the first, juicy bite.
When I looked up I saw the ocean in the sky, clouds like coral and the fine, ragged architecture holding it all up. I tip my head back tasting the lingering aroma of Pheasant’s tears in the back of my throat. I am in a culinary fever dream. Pinned to the reticent sky is pure enchantment. I exhale once again, ready to meet my daughters, who will enter the world tomorrow.
On Tabidze Street, we find an easy rhythm, going to Paul’s for coffee and the wifi. Armenians, arabs, Georgians mingle over croissant and pastries. Getting breakfast anywhere else in the city is challenging, due in large part to the decadence of it’s dinner culture, epitomized by the Supra. Supra is a traditional feast of biblical proportions where a tamada- the toastmaster- fines the guests who don’t drain their glasses through epic rounds of toasts. The punishment consists of drinking more: you are handed a ‘Khantsi’ the Georgian drinking horn derived from a ram, goat or bull, brimming with wine. I quickly learned the first three toasts are mandatory, to god, then the host of the dinner then one for the deceased. But the optional toasts are when the poetry and pain of the Georgian soul finds its fullest expression; to peace, to Defensive drinking isn’t even an option because the horn by design must be drained of its contents before laying it on its side. And the food is fantastic, plentiful and positively bacchanalian: khinkali…and the ubiquitous kachapuri. A month into my stay, I can write a field guide to kachapuri as well as khinkali, the soupy, indecently large Georgian dumplings…and I haven’t found a more delicate, flaky version than the one in my G Vino organic wine bar, oozing with Sulguni richness. After my singular Supra experience I stagger back through racuous streets, thrilling to the illusion of being a degenerate, Belle Epoque absinthe drinking artist, back to the apartment, contemplating the worn stairs through a webby gaze. I love places that are peeling around the corners and I wake the next morning slightly disappointed nothing metallic has come loose from a Juliet balcony to conk me on the head….baby cry… to the exquisite excruciating shrapnel …the ceilings are tall enough to induce vertigo.
I have friends now in Tbilisi and it feels like home. The city is still a cypher where the real and imagined tumble together, but I like to feel my way through it without guidebook or historical reference to overlay my impressions. But I am ready to be surprised now by a different spin on the traditional cuisine. Something lighter, a more playful spin on the hearty ingredients and spices I’ve come to love. Because it’s hot. The hottest summer in recent memory. Men carry infants in diapers up and down the streets. The streets are washed clean of dogma by recent travails and the street dogs are tagged and well fed. They are roadside romeos of willful charm. People feed them, pet them and they nap in the centre of cobble stone streets, barking indignantly when a car approaches. I understand the feeling. I wilt in the heat, fanning my babies during the day with the air-conditioning on full blast.
Friends from London come to visit, bearing news of an irresistible restaurant called Café Littera and run by the Queen of Georgian Fusion, chef Tekuna Gachechiladze.
Revolutionary food, writers, remarkable Euro-Georgian Art Nouveau architecture…what’s not to love? And as it turns out, this fine food establishment is one street over in my hood, known as Sololaki, housed in the lush, hidden courtyard garden of the Writer’s House of Georgia, the center of the capital’s cultural life for more than a century, one of many remarkable facades right behind our flat. We walk slowly, glimpsing women setting out laundry on the line or shirtless old men in courtyards smelling of piss, coppery and flaking with age. On the sidewalks, Georgian hipsters smoke in front of luridly lit dive bars and couples lounge in small parkettes of historical value, sculptures scattered casually like acorns. Wandering fork syndrome…we share plates of rich, piquant and surprising, stuffed zucchini I opt for Pheasants tears. The food is delicious and fresh and omnipotent sprinkled with those earthy tastes I’ve come to love
The vessel of tradition. I’m dangling on a half eaten cliff under a canopy of old growth pine when….
‘God, wine and food’ I’ve been told time and again is the holy trinity in Georgia…when I looked up I saw the ocean in the sky, clouds like coral and the fine, ragged architecture holding it all up. I tip my head back feeling the aroma of lavender in the wine run down my throat. I am in a culinary fever dream. Pinned to the reticent sky is pure enchantment. I exhale. The day before my babies entered the world, I submitted the manuscript for my memoir, ‘Close to the Bone’ and I was excited but depleted. now I was exhaling through this rather extraordinary moment of one great life event rubbing up against a new chapter, surrounded by pine and the smell of pomegranates and food….marking the magical growing edge of my life with Georgian warmth and custom. Given my personal history…. This coalescence of cultures on a plate. Tbilisi somehow manages to be different from anyplace I’ve travelled before…and yet envelopes me with a casual, happy, human warmth of hoping…believing in something better.
The flavours of Georgia will now forever be married to this moment of exhaling through one great life event, while rubbing up against a new chapter, surrounded by towering pine, a watchful tribe of stray cats and the smell of pomegranate and earthy treasures from the Georgian
Tbilisi is the most appropriate place for my babies to make their grand entrance into this turbulent but enchanted world…gaumarjos!
The food is fantastic, plentiful and this is the cradle of wine
But I have newborns… bring my newborn babies onto the patio. I
But I’m craving something different. Have you heard of Café Littera?
The street dogs fascinate me. They are tagged and well fed. They are juggernauts of wilful charm. People feed them, pet them and they sleep in the middle of side streets. When a car approaches they get up reluctantly and indignantly, barking.
Tatiana at the Chachava clinic…Since it was privatized…
Rustaveli…poet who wrote an epic poem with 12 vowels in each line- his book was part of traditional dowry
Cars stopped when you extended a hand- even on the busiest streets
Beggars- old people in wheelchairs and black head dresses
It was east and west…
Security guards at Goodwill, the supermarket
Police men in pairs roamed the streets- often stopping for long conversations, someone or the other talking on the phone animatedly
World cup is on…
Georgian artist gallery…it’s happy, its human
Akashi- pointing to the sky
G. Vino: Most of the wines you will find at our bar are made by unique and ancient Georgian traditional technology which counts over 8000 years and has been included in UNESCO as a world heritage.
‘god, wine and food’
Explored the back streets- luridly lit apartments.
The Vegan place…the Bar- the wine…the woman yelling at her dog…it’s hot and men carry infants in diapers up and down the street.
Fresh figs and blackberries on the street- a few beggars gathered around the ATM…small parkettes full of historical value.
Tabidze 3/5 Galaktion Tabidze street
Goga, Keti, Tamuna popular names
Our building was built in 1905. Architecture is mixed with elements of art nueveau’ (mostly in decoration and local architecture firms (mostly in balconies) Building was known as profitable house of mantashev (an armenian oil magnate, financier and philanthropist that built many famous buildings in Tbilisi. Our buidlign was built before the revolution year (1917)
Sculpture and architecture..getting breakfast was challenging- no one wakes before 11 am
The old baths, the river, the Georgian script, dentistry
Pheasants tears- favorite wine: tip my head back, looking at that ocean in the sky a feeling sliding down my throat like lavender honey
Places to eat:
Barbestan (field guide to kachapuri)
Stamba hotel- Rooms in Kazbegi
Café littera, writer’s house
BARBESTAN: DESCRIBE THE MEAL…THE HISTORY…THE CELEBRATION OF MY SOUFFLE
The modern architecture- the bridge and government building
Nicholas Marani- wine
Pheasants Tears- kakheti
Tabidze café – eggs with crusty bread
Rustaveli- Pushkin park
Garden of the first republic of Georgia
Skold- coffee shop on Rustaveli
The smell of piss in the air reminding me of Calcutta…museum of book
Watching women setting out laundry on the line, or the shirtless old men glimpsed through decrepit windom
The ceilings tall enough to induce vertigo
I like cities where you are in danger of getting hit by something metallic coming loose from a Juliet balcony and conking you on the head
I was exhaling through this rather extraordinary moment of one great accomplishment rubbing up against a major new chapter
Email to bron, June 21st: now that I think of it- given my personal history- Tbilisi is the most appropriate place for my kids to make their entrance. It’s endlessly fascinating, the culture balances somewhere between east and west, the people are fiercely proud of their heritage whiel at the same time forward looking- the food is fantastic, cheap and plentiful. Our apartment is in a building that dates back to 1905- was owned by an Armenian oild magnate and is beautifully decaying- what’s not to love/
Washed clean of dogma by recent travails and where even the police find time to share a cigarette on a street corner
The growing edge of my life
Tbilisi- the way the real and imagined tumble together and mess up your vision. Tbilisi a cypher and I try to feel my way through it without a guidebook or history to overlay my impressions
The embryologist who implanted our babies and thus has a stake in Souffle
Everyone smokes in Georgia
People are blunt but kind
Religious holiday – tamada- keeps track of the toasts…first three toasts are mandatory Keti tells me over the mandatory kachpapuri…first to god, then the host of the dinner, for the deceased…Melikipe- keeps track of the guests drinking- you get fined if you don’t finish your glass- the fine is the horn- finish the horn …Supra is the traditional table
She makes a face like she has bitten into some old tabbouleh.