Friday, March 18, 2011

Obligatory Food Blog

I think every travel blog or personal journal has to mention something about the food. It is such an important thing to every culture. After all, everybody's gotta eat. But because food is an important part of cultural pride, I am somewhat hesitant to write this blog. To insult Georgian food seems to insult the Georgian people as a whole. In fact the one time I mentioned that I didn't like a particular food my host gave a quick response, "That is actually a Ukrainian food, not Georgian." Whether this was true or not I can't say. The fact still remains, I did not like this food and they were quick to throw the blame onto some other culture. I'll try not to insult anyone, but I can't make any promises.

Also, I realize that some of my readers are either vegetarians or don't particularly like to contemplate their food. Some sections of this blog may be a bit gross for these people. I'll put some asterisks around the headings as a warning.

"Do You Like Khachapuri and Khinkali?"
This is the second most popular question I have been asked (the most popular question being, of course, "Are you married?"). Khachapuri is directly translated to "cheese bread." And who doesn't love cheese, bread, and butter?

When ordering khachapuri the main question one must ask themselves is, "In what form would I prefer my cheese, bread, and butter?" You can choose to have it fried or baked. But the choices don't stop there! There are then shapes to choose from. The fried version is usually in a circular shape with the cheese on the inside. I would say this is the most popular form of khachapuri. But the baked version is an entity onto itself. There is the envelop shape where they put cheese in the middle and wrap it up in the dough to make it look like an envelop. Or the triangle shape- sort of a less creative version of the envelop. Then there is the open circular kind with the cheese on top. And then, the pièce de résistance is the egg boat khachapuri. This is not its formal name; but I can't remember the formal name, so it always remains in my head as 'the egg boat.' And that is exactly what it looks like. Imagine a large glob of dough. Take that large glob of dough and shape it to look like a canoe. Then put cheese and butter inside of the canoe and bake it. Once the bread is all cooked and the cheese is nice and gooey they take it out of the oven, crack an egg, and put it in the middle of the hot, molten cheese. In theory the cheese is so hot that it will essentially cook the egg, but when they serve it to you it's not fully cooked through. There are still some uncooked white parts. I hate the uncooked white parts- they freak me out. I've never eaten this kind of khachapuri. It's way too heavy for me. Maybe I'll have it one day, with the help of a small army.

I think every country needs a form of meat wrapped in carbs. For the Italy it's ravioli. For Russia it's pelmeni. For Georgia it's khinkali. But it isn't just meat wrapped in carbs, it's meat intricately wrapped in carbs. They carefully fold and pinch the dough around the meat. It's really hard at first. I made such a mess when I tried making them. You have to get your hand motions just right and in synch with each other. But watching a Georgian do it is like watching a magic act. Zip, zip, zip. Done! Khinkali should be the shape of a teardrop with a very distinct top- the top will be the handle you hold onto while eating them. Once you have finished your wrapping and folding you then toss the whole lot into a pot of boiling water and wait about half an hour. The meat and the dough are both raw throughout this entire process, so the boiling is very important.

And of course the best part is eating these delicious dumplings. But it's not as simple as bite and chew. The inside of the khinkali becomes soupy with all of the juices from the meat. So when you bite into them they have a tendency to explode. You have to carefully bite and hold them upright. The sign of an experienced khinkali eater is to not have one drop of soup on your plate by the end of the meal.

Khachapuri and khinkali are the pride and joy of the Georgian people. To not like them is a grievous offense to the people of Georgia and the thousands of years of traditions that they hold dear. Thankfully I like both khinkali and khachapuri.

The White Diet
Georgia is a beautiful and lush country. However, like most countries, nothing grows in the winter. So what do people eat in winter? A pretty solid diet of potatoes, cabbage, pickled stuff, and a whole lot of white carbs. The nutrients in this assortment is next to nil. (I'm kissing myself for buying multivitamins before I left! Smartest buy ever.) It wasn't so bad at first. But potatoes, cabbage, and carbs get really old really fast. I could kill for a whole week of just raw veggies, fruit, and lots of water.

"Tchämé! Tchämé"
If you ever eat a meal in a Georgian household you will no doubt hear the word "Tchämé!" shouted at you repeatedly. It means "Eat!" And they do mean Eat! I don't know what it is about the Georgians but anyone over the age of thirty wants to see you with a mountain of food on your plate and stuffing your face.

Here are a few tips to avoided the dreaded "Tchämé!"
1. Eat slowly. I don't care how much you love that one particular tomato dish, TAKE YOUR TIME. Trust me, there will still be plenty left over.
2. Stay hydrated. You can eat slower if you alternate a sip of water, have a little food, pause, a sip of water, a little food. Also most of the food they are serving is packed with salt, so you'll really want some water handy anyway.
3. Always have some food on your plate. Just look like you're still eating and they usually leave you alone.
4. If you absolutely can't eat anymore and they keep offering you food just laugh. You might look like an idiot, but it sounds a lot better than shouting, "I don't want to eat anymore. Just leave me alone!"

Clean Plate Club
The Georgians, from what I have seen, are all members of the clean plate club. I notice this because I am somewhat of a picky eater. Onions and cilantro are the devil's foods. I have always picked off the fat from my meat. And I find it weird to eat the skin left on chicken. At the end of our meals I seem to be the only one with a small pile of gristle, fat, skin, onion, and/or small bits of cilantro shoved to the side of my plate. I take great pains to shove all of this together to make my pile of refuse appear as small as humanly possible. But the fact still remains- I will not be eating this.

I can't tell if they're insulted by this. I really hope not. And I'm sorry that I have more scruples about my eating habits than everyone else. But I just cannot bring myself to eat some things.

*Love Handles on a Plate*
And some of the reasons that I am not part of the Telavi Clean Plate Club are due to the fact that they eat some weird things in Georgia. Things that I do not consider to be real food. The one recurring "food" at the dinner table is fat. I don't mean fattening, unhealthy foods. I mean fat.

Once I was served what I can only describe as a very thick, very fatty prosciutto. Normally I absolutely love prosciutto. Add a little melon, put them on a platter and you've got yourself a lovely appetizer! But this stuff was thick and fatty. It was about 75% fat, 20% meat, and 5% spice around the edge. And there was not a melon in sight! The worst part was that this food was made by my host grandfather. He seemed very proud of it. I managed one bite- with a bread chaser- then hid it under the rest of the pile of food on my plate.

While in Georgia I have also had some of the fattiest fish. I didn't know that fish could have fat on them. Or at least, I assume this thing they keep serving is fish. They told me it was fish. But it was kind of hard to tell for myself because the thing was so overly salted I couldn't taste anything else.

I am proud to say that I have never thrown up because of the quality of the food. Although I did come close once. For the record, don't eat anything from an animal that is beige in color. I was presented a bowl of large beige and white things. I can't even begin to describe what it looked like. They had a layer of white and then a layer of beige and they were large and kind of... scribbly. I asked, "What is it?" and the response I received was simply, "Pig." I figured, What the hell! As I chewed, and chewed, and chewed I realized that what I was eating was pig fat and skin. That was why it layered. It was all sorts of epidermis and fat.

You know, I really don't need to see what my love handles will look like before I eat them.

This might not be the best time to mention this, but despite all of my varied food experiences I fully intend to make a big Georgian meal for people when I get back to the states. And don't worry, I will be kind and not prepare any of the weirder things. Besides, I really don't want to be stuck with those leftovers.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We're Off On the Road to Armenia

I went to Armenia for the long weekend, like you do. We had Mother's Day off on March 3 and International Women's Day off on March 8. So, along with 6 other teachers, I took off for Yerevan.
One the way down we took the overnight train. It was a 12 hour excursion. The really odd thing about the train ride was that our entire wagon was packed with fruit. All of the overhead spaces and even under some of the beds was all fruit. I guess that's what third class will get you. Thankfully we went got to the border within the first few hours, although actually getting past the border was a pain. Out of the entire 5 wagon train there were only 10 people who needed Armenian visas- the 7 of us, 2 other TLG teachers we met on the train, and a Japanese guy. I don't think they've ever had to process so many people at once. They crowded us all into this tiny room. Most of them did speak English, though, which was great. And I got another sticker for my passport. Yay!

We got to Yerevan eeeeeeearly in the morning. Well, it was 7, but that feels early after a somewhat cold, bumpy journey. We made it to Envoy Hostel after a long walk because we got off at the wrong metro stop. One of the nice things about traveling in former Soviet satellite states is that you can be in the most yokel of capitals and they'll still have a subway system. But don't let that mislead you- Yerevan is not a yokel capital. Yerevan was definitely farther ahead than Tbilisi. The roads were well paved. The sidewalks were flat and so clean. There were working pedestrian lights at all of the crosswalks.

And the best thing about Yerevan was the sun. Let me tell you about the sun. It was shining. It was bright. And it was warm. Oh God, was it warm. Please don't think I'm crazy for emphasizing that gloriously glowing globe in the sky. Before I went to Yerevan I hadn't seen the sun in two weeks. Two weeks. For two weeks it had been grey cloud-cover for me. While living without the sun I wasn't incredibly depressed like you'd think someone would be. I just got used to the constant grey. But as soon as I saw those bright yellow rays again I realized just how depressing grey can be.  I wanted to put the sun in a jar and take it home with me. All of us were happy to see it. In fact, on several occasions we opted to walk on the wrong side of the street just so we could walk in the sun. We were constantly crossing the street just for a chance to soak in those warm rays. It was glorious. Have I said that enough? Glorious.

But Yerevan doesn't just have the sun. It has other things, too. I was absolutely shocked at the difference between Yerevan and Tbilisi. They're only a couple hundred miles away, probably the distance between Boston and Washington, if not closer. But Yerevan has one glittering thing that Tbilisi seems to be in large demand for: Infrastructure. Yes, that's right, Infrastructure. And yes, I did capitalize it on purpose. Come on, who doesn't think about infrastructure when they're on vacation?

I will admit that I have not stayed an extended period of time in Tbilisi, but I have seen enough of the city to allow me to compare. Tbilisi has one road that is its shining gift to tourists, Rustaveli Street. It's a long boulevard with many shops and it's very well taken care of. However, if you go a block off of Rustaveli, you could be anywhere in Georgia. Well, okay, maybe not anywhere. But the streets immediately surrounding Rustaveli look like some of the slummier parts of Telavi, no question. But all of Yerevan looks like Rustaveli street. All of Yerevan is well maintained and kept clean. I'm talking sidewalks, roads, and even the buildings. Yerevan looks like it could be any city in Europe, not just it's one or two main streets, but the side streets as well. It just boggles the mind how different these two cities are.

Perhaps it isn't fair to compare these two cities. Honestly, I was expecting a city very similar to Tbilisi because their histories seem so similar, or at least, what I know of their two histories. But the primary difference between these two countries- and this is something we heard from more than one Armenian- is the Armenian diaspora all over the world. Every summer people of Armenian descent travel back to Armenia and just pour money into the country. And Georgia just does not have that source of income, which is really a shame.

As a result of this diaspora Aremian seems to be more worldly. I ate at an Irish pub, a Greek gyro fast food place, a baguette type of bistro, and had pad thai at a restaurant that didn't really have any type of "style" or "theme," just a whole lot of different kinds of food.

And it's probably good that Armenia has a lot of other cultures to choose from because Armenian food isn't very good. And Armenian is wine is foul. On a good day it tastes like Minute Maid and vodka. On a bad day it tastes like nail polish remover. And yes, I know this from personal experience. But don't worry, even though they can't do wine or food very well, they still have cognac and a very active nightlife scene.

Yerevan is definitely a young city. We to several bars and there are young people all over the place with different styles and looks. There are the people with leather jackets and sunglasses at night who go to clubs and stay out til 5am (because apparently Yerevan doesn't have a closing time). And then there are people with beards and dreds rockin' the plaid shirt look. I would call them hipsters, but I went to school in New York. I know what true hipsters look like and these people weren't them. I could totally see myself being an expat in Yerevan.

On one day we got out of Yerevan and saw some of the countryside. It was pretty. But also, pretty much like Georgia. Not gonna lie, for all of the differences between the two capitals, Georgia and Armenia look a lot alike when you step outside of the cities. We saw lots of monasteries and churches. In my opinion the best parts of the tour, out of the whole day were the last two places we went. One was a pagan temple in the Hellenic style. One of the kings of Armenia had been decided by the Emperor of the Roman Empire. So he went down to Rome to get crowned. While he was down there he was so impressed by Roman architecture that he wanted some for himself. He built a temple for his summer house and even put a Roman bath next to it. That was the last thing I was expecting to find in Armenia. And the last place we went to was truly awe inspiring. It was a monastery built into the side of a cliff. The acoustics were fantastic! The tour guide told us that sound waves reverberate for 48 seconds in this one room. I wish I knew some opera just so I could start belting out some tunes. It was really great. And in the surrounding cliffs were all sorts of caves. Big ones, small ones. All sorts! Very cool!

So that was Armenia. And here are some pictures for you:

A traditional salt holder, because women give life and salt gives food flavor  (I never got the connection either, but just go with it) 

Here's to acetone wine!! Cheers!

Very cool restaurant with very bad food

Republic Square. Yerevan was big on its public squares and parks.

I don't think I will ever be so depleted of energy to need "Spam Energy Drink"

Traditonal Armenian Dancing

The Armenians know how to do nuts.

Map of Yerevan

For the record, Lemon Rent-A-Car is out of business. I wonder why...

I'm not a car expert, but I know this is no Mustang.

Armenian Genocide Memorial

Lake Sevan

Pagan Temple

Roman Baths!

View from the Roman Baths!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Oh, Baby, I'm a Star... in Georgia

I was on the Georgian news! Okay, it was just the local Telavi news station, but hey, can you say you were on the local news in Telavi?

I'm sure it's a really great news story if you speak Georgian. Unfortunately, I don't. But I'm told that it's very good. Also, I've been dubbed. Words from my mouth had to be translated into another language so people could know what I was saying. How cool is that?!

So here's my big Georgian debut...

You like?