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There’s a mini revolution going on in the kitchens of the Caucasus. A nation’s food is being radically transformed, and its culinary culture is undergoing a renaissance. The country is Georgia, huddling between the giants of Russia and Turkey at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. And the chef that’s shaking it all up is a petite blonde lady with an innocent smile like butter wouldn’t melt.
Her name is Tekuna Gachechiladze and she’s putting a new twist on one of the oldest and constantly evolving cuisines in the world. Yet while some of her Vietnamese and Japanese inspired creations are causing ripples in the recently calm waters of Georgian food, her ideas are just the latest wave of an ongoing saga.
To the uninitiated, Georgian food may seem staid and stuck in its ways. But it’s a cuisine that has been influenced by every conquering force in its turbulent history.
The Mongols marauded into Georgia in the thirteenth century, leaving in their wake a taste for dumplings. Out of it was born Georgian khinkali, a thick and heavy dumpling stuffed with ground meat, onions and herbs. The Ottoman empire left dolma, or stuffed vine leaves. The Persians gave Georgia a taste for pomegranate, which can be found alongside aubergine and ground walnuts in badrijani nigvzit. And the Russians left their mark, not only with their salads and sour cream dressings, but also with the French-influenced food beloved of Russian statesmen.
Fusion here is nothing new. Georgian food is a work in progress, and Gachechiladze is merely managing the latest shift. The food at her Vong Restaurant in Tbilisi (29 I. Abashidze St.) is challenging perceptions with Asian-inspired takes on traditional Georgian dishes. And her newly opened restaurant aptly called Georgian Fusion, also in Tbilisi, is reinventing the local menu. Her khinkali, for instance, bares more resemblance to Japanesegyoza than the heavy Georgian staple.
«It’s a mix,» she says. «Outside the dough is gyoza, and inside it’s khinkalimix - traditional, from my grandmother. It’s real traditional khinkali from the people of the mountains, where my grandmother was from. But now people have new lifestyles, they want lighter cuisine.»
Gachechiladze studied psychology in Germany, and went on an exchange programme in New York. «I fell in love with New York,» she says. «I gave up everything and stayed there. I decided to change job and become a chef. I finished in the culinary academy of New York and then worked a couple of years in different restaurants before coming back to Georgia.»
It was a bold move. Being a psychologist was a reputable occupation in Georgia. Being a chef wasn’t. Chefs were looked down upon by most in Georgian society, not least Gachechiladze’s own father. «When I called him from New York, I said I wanted to continue my studies - as a chef,» she recalls. «He hung up. He wouldn’t speak with me for like two months or send me money. For him it was embarrassing that his doctor daughter in New York wanted to become a chef.»
He was soon won over when Gachechiladze opened her first restaurant in Tbilisi - followed by two more. Her recipes broadened the spectrum of Georgian food, retaining traditional flavours, yet presenting them in a new, light and sophisticated way.
Her take on Georgian dolma involves tender prawns instead of meat and rice. It is served alongside a yoghurt dipping sauce with chopped mint and ginger similar to Indian raita. «They’re a bit like Vietnamese summer rolls,» says Gachechiladze. «I travel a lot. I was in Vietnam for two months last year, and spent a month in Thailand. Then I brought it all here and tried to adapt to Georgian ingredients and culture.»
Another old Georgian favourite gets a distinctly French twist. The badrijani nigvzit is served with beautifully seared lobes of foie gras, but the smokey flavours and soft texture of the fatty goose liver goes perfectly with the mushy aubergine and walnut paste. It’s a brave combination that works, but Georgians might still need some convincing that the old recipes are fair game for experimentation. «Georgians are very conservative,» adds Gachechiladze. «They don’t really like fusion food, or even Asian style food.»
Changing local perceptions about food is only part of the challenge. Gachechiladze hopes to elevate the social status of chefs and restaurateurs, so that more young people are encouraged to enter the profession. «The biggest compliment came a year ago,» she says. «My friend’s daughter is six. She told me, when I grow up I want to become you! It was the biggest compliment, the young generation growing up with the idea that it’s a good thing to be a chef.»