Anthony Bourdain liked to say the body is a playground, a sentiment we couldn’t agree with more, especially when digging into the cholesterol-laden acharuli khachapuri or wiping a ketsi clean of its spicy pool of kupati – Georgian sausage – grease with a piece of bread.
Shots of chacha and glasses of wine make us swing, bounce, teeter-totter and sometimes fall, and in the morning when the fog and pain clears, we may remember that the body is also a fragile temple requiring more ministration than a sacrificial bowl of tripe soup can provide.
In Tbilisi’s Mtatsminda district there is a sanctuary providing both solace to devotees of healthy eating and penance to gluttonous sinners like us. No ordinary hummus bar, this affectionate “eating apartment” is called Mama Terra – Veggie Corner and offers a wide range of vegan and vegetarian recipes from around the world, with a particular focus on Mexico.
Mexican-style food is not new to Georgia. The first place to go heavy on the paprika and hang a sombrero on a wall was Santa Fe, in Lower Vera, which is said to have introduced “Mexican potatoes” to the Georgian diet in the late 1990s, a non-Mexican dish that has somehow made its way onto virtually every traditional Georgian menu in the country today.
Since then, “Mexican” places have opened up with all the right embellishments on the walls but not on the plates. Armenian lavash is great but it is no substitute for a tortilla. Most of these joints last a few months or more before disappearing. Some, however, have managed to bridge the continents successfully, like Shalva Mindorashvili’s Pancho Villa in Sighnaghi, Kakheti, which makes their own flour tortillas, and Tekuna Gachechiladze’s taqueria, Teko’s Tacos, in Tbilisi, which she admits is not Mexican, but her humble interpretation of the cuisine (the artichoke tacos are particularly drool-worthy).
Mama Terra has been in Tbilisi since 2018, after climatologist Carolina Cavazos Guerra, a native of Manzanillo, Mexico, arrived a year earlier and joined the ranks of the many expats who came to Georgia for a few weeks only to remain here indefinitely.
“I decided to stay and had to do something. Why not open a restaurant?” Carolina explains. Mexican cooking is her passion, which can pose some conflict to a vegetarian like herself: Traditional Mexican food is a carnivore’s delight, although she says a healthy-food trend is taking root in Mexico City.
“I decided not to be a 100 percent Mexican restaurant because you cannot get all the ingredients here,” Carolina says.
Mexican food lovers, however, find plenty of familiar flavors in Georgia, thanks to the inherent use of speckled beans, cilantro, spicy peppers and cornmeal in the local diet. But you can only simulate so much. Compared to Mexico with its vast, spicy varieties of indigenous peppers, local markets offer a very limited selection of mostly sivri (a type of cayenne), Aleppo, and Turkish snake. And nixtamalization, a traditional process in Mexico and Central America that unlocks the nutrients in and enhances the flavor of corn, is practically unheard of here.
Carolina nixtamalizes her corn, and her beans are so good you don’t miss the lard.
Carolina’s kitchen, though, is like an artist’s studio, where she takes what’s available in Georgia to create renditions of Moroccan tagine, fettuccine alfredo and pad thai. We are sure vegans will hum over her quinoa medleys and non-orthodox vegetarians will purr over her green shashuka with poached eggs, but we croon over her cheese tamales and chilaquiles. Carolina nixtamalizes her corn, and her beans are so good you don’t miss the lard.
To be clear, Mama Terra is not just Carolina’s little restaurant, but it is her home, too. The layout is funky with a makeshift loft (her living room) accommodating two tables and the drop-down section below (her dining room) fitting another two. The bar near the entrance offers a selection of organic teas, coffee, wine and homemade kombucha.
Mama Terra began delivering a few months before the first pandemic wave, so it wasn’t much of a leap to get into the groove when Covid-19 arrived. Carolina packs orders in foil and recycled jars to reduce plastic waste, and customers who bring their own containers for takeaway get a 10 percent discount.
Thanks to a low overhead – no employees or extra rent for space – Carolina says she has been able to survive, “barely.” Ever the Mexican fatalist, she smiles like a sugar-coated calavera on Day of The Dead and says, “When I die they will be able to say that I had a business that survived the great pandemic. That will be my epitaph.”
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