Darra Goldstein introduced a generation of cooks and readers to the cuisine and culture of Georgia with her seminal work, The Georgian Feast. Originally published in 1993, the book was awarded the IACP Julia Child Award for Cookbook of the Year.
A revised and expanded 25th anniversary edition, which features new photography, recipes, and an essay from celebrated wine writer Alice Feiring, was published in October 2018. We spoke with Darra, the founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and the author of five award-winning cookbooks, about this new edition.
Your book was first published 25 years ago, way ahead of a recent wave of Georgian cookbooks and at a time when Georgian cuisine was really not on the radar in most places. What inspired you to write your book?
I originally went to Georgia as part of my dissertation research on the Russian poet Nikolai Zabolotsky. Zabolotsky translated Georgian poetry into Russian, including Shota Rustaveli’s great epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Zabolotsky was sent to the labor camps under Stalin and rather miraculously was released after eight years, though he was completely broken in body and spirit. He wasn’t allowed to live in Moscow, so he went to Tbilisi, where he was warmly supported by the Georgian literary community. He found new life in Georgia and wrote some of his most beautiful poems there.
I wanted to understand Georgia’s allure and interview people who had known Zabolotsky – several writers, including Karlo Kaladze, were still alive [at the time]. Naturally I tasted Georgian food and was completely blown away, not only by the incredible flavors but also by the rich tradition of the supra – the Georgian feast – with its rituals and endless parade of dishes. I decided I needed to share this extraordinary culinary culture with American readers.
Do you think you faced any particular challenges in preparing your original book that today’s Georgian cookbook authors might not have faced?
There were a lot! For one thing, Georgians use a lot of cilantro, which was impossible to find in my small New England town. Each time I wanted to test a recipe that relies on cilantro, I had to drive 45 minutes to a store that carried it. It was also nearly impossible to find Georgian spices. Today you can easily order them online, but then I mainly had to rely on my own stash of spices, which I renewed whenever I visited Georgia. I remember buying dried marigold from a wonderful little spice shop called Aphrodisia on Bleecker Street in New York City, which is now closed.
Now that it’s 25 years later, what do you make of the increased attention being paid to Georgian cuisine and cooking? Does it surprise you in any way? Do you have a sense of what’s driving it?
I’m thrilled that Georgian cuisine is finally getting its due! I think a few things jumpstarted it. First, there is now a Georgian diaspora in the West. It used to be that Georgians rarely left their homeland, but the political and economic instability of the early 1990s led many young Georgians to leave. They began to open restaurants, and for the first time Americans could taste iconic Georgian foods like khachapuri, the famous cheese bread, which I always felt would be the next craze if only people could try it.
Another factor is the trendiness of natural wines. As the birthplace of Vitis vinifera, Georgia has an 8,000-year-old history of winemaking using traditional methods of fermentation and aging in the clay vessels known as qvevri. These unusual wines have brought new attention to Georgia, and where there’s wine, there’s food.
In your preface, you write about Georgians remaining partial to “real food,” wholesome food made by hand, which has certainly not been the case in many other places. Looking ahead, do you see this as something that will continue?
Like other major cities, Tbilisi has McDonald’s and Subway, and they’re certainly popular. But one of the distinctive things about Georgian culture is the way that even with the availability of fast food, people still like to gather around the table in traditional fashion and partake of homemade food. It’s an affirmation of their history and enduring sense of community.
Also, as elsewhere, there’s growing awareness of the perils of industrial agriculture. A number of start-up companies are producing organic spices and beverages, and there’s been a renaissance in local cheese making, not to mention a return to artisanal practices in winemaking. So I do think this will continue.
In the preface to the new edition, you point out in particular the involvement of women in Georgia’s “culinary renaissance.” Could you tell us a bit more about that development and its significance?
Women have traditionally been seen as strong in Georgia – think of the 12th-century Queen Tamar (whom the Georgians refer to as King Tamar). She presided over Georgia’s actual Renaissance, when there was a flowering of the arts under her rule. In the 19th century, Barbare Jorjadze was a progressive who advocated for women’s rights, and not incidentally she wrote the first Georgian cookbook, Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes. Now there’s a restaurant in Tbilisi called Barbarestan, named in her honor. During the chaos of the 1990s, women took on an increasingly important role in Georgian society, holding things together and becoming ever more visible. Many also traveled abroad to study or work and then returned to Georgia to put their experience to good use. Talented chefs like Meriko Gubeladze of the restaurant Shavi Lomi and Tekuna Gachechiladze of Café Littera are of this generation. They have infused traditional Georgian cuisine with new flavors and techniques, keeping its essence intact while giving it an exciting modern twist.
Is there a favorite recipe you can share with us? Is there a story of some kind associated with that recipe that you can share?
I love gadazelili khveli, which is warm sulguni cheese flavored with mint, though here in the States I use fresh mozzarella. It’s easy to prepare and really delicious. My most memorable taste of this dish was when I took a road trip in mid-January into the mountains of Tusheti with a Georgian friend. We were driving on winding roads along precipitous cliffs when a snowstorm suddenly came up and the pavement disappeared from view. Our car skidded off the road, though luckily not over a cliff. We had to turn around and inch our way back down the mountain. But my consolation prize turned out to be wonderful: a visit to the small village of Tsodoreti, in the foothills west of Tbilisi, where a cheesemaker named Shala lived, who was famous for his sulguni. After hearing our hair-raising story, he set about making fresh cheese for us, some of which he turned into gadazelili khveli. It never tasted better!
Recipe: Cooked cheese with mint (Gadazelili khveli)
One of my favorite Georgian foods is gadazelili khveli, warm sulguni cheese flavored with fresh mint. Gadazelili khveli is a fixture of the Georgian feast, usually presented straight from the kitchen near the beginning of the meal. Some cooks add twice as much milk as in the recipe below, serving the gadazelili khveli as a soup, but I like it best when the cheese is ascendant. To serve, the soft cheese is cut into portions and lifted from the milky broth. Here, whole-milk mozzarella substitutes well for the sulguni. Serves 6.
1 cup whole milk
1 pound whole-milk mozzarella, cut into chunks
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
In a saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Add the cheese and stir for about 2 minutes, until the cheese melts. With a slotted spoon transfer the cheese to a plate, keeping the milk at a simmer. Work the salt into the cheese with a wooden spoon. To mix in the mint, fold the cheese mass over and over until the mint is evenly distributed. Form the cheese into one large ball (or several smaller ones) and return it to the simmering milk. Heat gently a few minutes more, then turn out the cheese and the milk together into a bowl. Serve warm or at room temperature.