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We had heard about Kiwi Vegan Café even before a dozen thuggish carnivores raided the little vegan restaurant back in 2016, munching grilled meat, smoking cigarettes, throwing sausages and fish at customers and starting a brawl that spilled out onto the street. The incident grabbed international headlines, setting the café as a battleground of Western liberalism versus Georgian nationalist extremism.

Indeed, many Georgians fear their identity is threatened by “non-traditional” values, such as homosexuality, non-Orthodox religions and electronic music culture. In a land that boasts of its longstanding virtue of tolerance we are seeing a rise in neo-fascist groups and xenophobia.

In May 2018, several dozen neo-Nazis sieg-heiled down Tbilisi’s main drag on Family Purity Day, a holiday the Georgian Church established to counter International Day Against Homophobia. In 2013, priests led thousands of homophobic men to attack a few dozen gay rights activists commemorating the day.

The rogues who attacked Kiwi were nationalists, for sure, but their assault was not as much a clash of ideals as it was a beef between them and a patron of the café. But having a staff and clientele of locals and Westerners whose hairstyles, piercings, tattoos and fashion choices are clearly not of this world did not endear them to the conservative community. The landlord booted them out of their space shortly after the altercation, supposedly for being troublemakers.

Kiwi has found a new spot and stayed out of the headlines and the crosshairs of angry meatheads.

Of course, rabble-rousing is not part of Kiwi’s manifesto. In 2015, a small group of like-minded individuals established the café as a not-for-profit organization, which served as a community center for animal and environmental rights activists, as well as a café. They crowd-sourced funds to pay for starting costs and donated their profits to various animal rights organizations.

Today, Kiwi has found a new spot in a Sololaki apartment and has stayed out of the headlines and the crosshairs of angry meatheads. Co-founder and Iranian native, Soroush Negahdari, explains that much of the original team has moved on and that he quit his job and invested his savings into Kiwi to keep it operating. It is now a for-profit business that hasn’t lost sight of its original vision.

The three-room flat is literally a homey joint that smells of buckwheat and chickpeas, a nutty fragrance reminiscent of 1970s Santa Cruz health food restaurants – minus the patchouli oil. The staff is Georgian, although not strictly vegan. Kiwi does not discriminate.

Just because we are of the Anthony Bourdain school, where the body is not a temple but a playground, does not make us unsympathetic to veganism. Moreover, even though the word “vegan” is probably foreign to most Georgians, the concept certainly isn’t: devout Georgian Orthodox Christians observe fasting periods throughout the year, during which they abstain from eating animal products. Georgian fare is a diverse cornucopia of earthly victuals; falafel and tofu are just not part of it.

It is with this difference in mind that Soroush and his friends developed a menu with Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian and Mexican inspirations. The vegan salads like the Caesar with tofu and the Greek with chickpeas are a pleasant respite from the standard (but delicious) tomato and cucumber served everywhere else.

Kiwi sources its produce from local organic farmers, such as Jammy Greens, and they have found a local tofu maker who makes a high-quality, natural product, Soroush maintains.

While we have yet to explore some of the newer Middle Eastern hole in the walls in town, our falafel experience in Tbilisi has so far been rather soggy, while the only tofu we have found is in some of the good Chinese restaurants. For a mere 7 lari (about $3) Kiwi dishes up a texture-rich sandwich wrapped in Armenian lavash and light on the tahini sauce, providing a simple, well-balanced pack of flavors. You can alternately try the falafel burger.

Unlike those who attacked the café’s original location, the vegans of Kiwi are open-minded, not extremists. There is something for everyone on the menu. The wine is non-organic (natural wines are too costly). And they serve Pepsi.

“We have and we will keep our values and we will be the same place no matter what,” Soroush insists.

This article was originally published on July 13, 2018.

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Paul Rimple

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