Sometime in early 2008, my sister (my beloved, older and only sister) announced that she’s be moving to Georgia for 6 months to work for an NGO. Georgia the Country, not Georgia the US State. I’m not particularly proud to say that up until that point, I’d never heard of the place, although I’m hoping that admitting this will shed more light on the lack of international prominence of this small land wedged between Europe and Asia, rather than the state of my geographical knowledge (which, incidentally, I always found to be
good above average). Anyway, my sister was studying international cooperation and development in Brussels at the time, and a semester on a work experience abroad was part of the curriculum, so it wasn’t a complete shock to us. What was somewhat less expected, though, was hearing the first reports of a conflict developing only months before she was due to fly out there. That summer must have been the last one we spent living at home at the same time; we were both university students at the time, so on a lot of days we would wake up early, drive to the closest seaside town and spend the day together at the beach. Throughout that August, we would buy La Repubblica and Il Corriere (two of the main Italian broadsheets) and read the reports of how the war was developing. Would flight connections to and from Tbilisi be reinstated in time for her to go? Would it even be safe to? If nothing else, she said, at least a war would generate more attention from the international media and spark a rise in funding towards charitable causes.
Tbilisi airport did re-open in time. Fast forward seven years, and my sister is still living and working in Tbilisi. She also married a local and now I have an Italo-Russian, caviar-for-breakfast niece that will turn three this November! I visited twice, once for the wedding, once for my niece’s first birthday. The photos above were taken either in July 2011 or in November 2013; you can probably tell most of them apart by the look of the weather and by how green nature is. I love letting someone local guide me through a place I’ve never visited before: you get to experience the best and less known, they tell you whether a tourist destination is actually worth visiting or whether it’s just TripAdvisor hype, and you may even get free accommodation. In my case, I got so much more. I spent time with my sister and her family. I enjoyed Tbilisi like a local (marshrutkas! Market stalls for those in the know! The famous local hospitality at my brother-in-law’s parents! Some of the best kinkhali in town to take away and cook at home! The (terrifying) thrills of local driving! Georgian toasts (the drinking rather than the eating kind)!), but without the hassle of a local (go to work! Clean the house! Pay the bills!). I even had a private tour of the capital’s city centre, because one of my brother-in-law’s best friends is a tourist guide (and sommelier, too).
Over the couple of years or so, Georgian food has started to pop up here and there across the internet. The Country’s most popular dishes, from kinkhali (juicy and sloppy-looking dumplings) to tkemali (a sour plum sauce, excellent with barbecued meat), from khachapuri (acharuli or otherwise) to garlic-heavy chicken dish chkmeruli have been featured in some of the world’s top food websites and blogs. I’m convinced Georgian cuisine is the next big thing in the foodie world. The publication of Olia Hercules‘ cookbook Mamushka, dedicated to Ukranian and neighbouring cuisines, demonstrates the rising interest in the previously snubbed cuisines of these areas. The recipe I’m presenting here is a popular, simple, vegetarian, if a bit time consuming (for the time it takes to salt and cook the aubergines), starter or side dish. These are delicious, moreish little aubergine rolls filled with a paste of walnuts, garlic and spices. Walnuts feature in many Georgian dishes, as do aubergines, pomegranates and garlic, so this recipe ticks a lot of boxes as far as showcasing local ingredients goes. It does include ground marigold petals, which I had to especially request my sister brought me a small packet of last time I saw her; the rest are pretty common ingredients and spices you can easily find (at least in the UK).
First, wash and top the aubergines, then slice them lengthwise. You want the slices to be about 5mm thick (or thin!). Layer them on a chopping board, salting well between each layer and with a final sprinkling of salt on top. Top with another chopping board, then place a small object underneath one side of the chopping board you’re using as the base. The whole structure should be slightly tilted to one side. Now place a heavy object on top, such as a stockpot or a dictionary (my Italian-German dictionary finally gets some use…). The logic behind this being that salt draws moisture out of the aubergine, and that water will trickle off the chopping board. You can also place your aubergine structure next to your sink, for easy draining. Leave for at least 30 minutes, and no longer than 1 hour. Now prepare the filling. Place coriander, fenugreek, chili, salt and marigold petals (if using) in a pestle and mortar and grind well. Add the garlic cloves and mash until a paste forms. Add the vinegar and water and stir until evenly mixed. Lastly, add the walnut kernels (in batches if your pestle and mortar isn’t big enough) and mash until you have a smooth paste. It’s perfectly fine to leave some crunchier bits of walnuts in. Transfer to a bowl, cover with clingfilm and store in the fridge. if you were preparing this in advance, you could store the filling for a couple of days in the fridge. Go back to your aubergines. Heat up a griddle pan on medium heat. Pat each slice dry with a tea towel or kitchen roll. Brush the slices and cook on each side until lightly charred. Work in batches until you have cooked all the aubergines. Store the cooked slices on a plate, which you may want to cover to avoid the more charred areas from drying out and becoming harder to bend later on. Assemble your rolls. Spread a thin layer of filling on one side of the aubergine slices and roll up or fold to form a rectangle if you prefer. Arrange on a plate, sprinkle with parsley or coriander leaves and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.