GEORGIA ONA PLATTER
Successful London restaurateur, Tiko Tuskadze recreates flavours of her homeland
Ifirst came across Tiko Tuskadze, and Georgian food, many years ago, thanks to Nigella Lawson, in her 2004 book in which she takes the reader around the world of celebratory meals – Christmas, Eid, American Thanksgiving. As with all of Nigella’s books, the recipes, and their accompanying stories, are as soothing read in bed as they are prepared in a kitchen. One section stuck with me – her tale of discovering Georgian feasting, called supra, in St Petersburg, and her subsequent quest to find a recipe for khachapuri, or cheese bread. She eventually found it in a London restaurant, watching a lady called Nana prepare it from memory, her hands deftly twisting and filling dough. The owner of that restaurant, which was so evocative to both Nigella and me, is a woman called Tiko Tuskadze, and this year, she finally tells her own tales of Georgian food, in a book called Supra.
The richly illustrated book (the drawings are by Tiko’s sister-in-law, who recreated Tiko’s memories of photos that she could no longer access) came out this summer, and is as much a memoir of her bountiful family life in Soviet way we do food, because everybody has their own signature. Plus, for me it’s a very personal subject; I wanted to do it in a way that each dish has a life. A book where you can lie down in bed and read a story; not just a cookbook. Hopefully I accomplished what I wanted.’
In it, you’ll find half a dozen variations on khachapuri, including the Imerulian kind that so enchanted Nigella; and dishes redolent with the unique yet familiar blend of flavours that define Georgia: Dried marigold, walnuts (lots of walnuts), yogurt, chillies, aubergines and beans, dumplings and tarragon (lots of tarragon). Feast, T iko moved to the UK in the 1990s, not as a restaurateur, but as a student, and began working in Little Georgia, partly to make some money, partly to heal her homesickness. It was failing, and the owner asked her to take over and give it a go; she had no background in running a restaurant, but bringing her version of her homeland to life in London was met with a problematic kind of success.
‘I took over and changed everything there, absolutely everything. It really helped me to
‘Sometimes people come [to the restaurants] and they don’t want to leave they feel they are eating at somebody’s home’
recreate my family and cultural atmosphere, which was like therapy for being homesick. I brought my family here and I decided to introduce the way we were cooking at home.
‘Sometimes people come [to the restaurants] and they don’t want to leave because they are very comfortable; they get a kind of feeling that they are eating at somebody’s home,’ Tiko says, in her still heavily accented English. ‘That was my aim. This helped me survive those years – every time I was in the Georgia as it is a guide to cooking up the dishes of the nation that is geographically and culturally perched between Russia and the Middle East.
When she was approached by a publisher to write a book, ‘I explained to them I can’t just do a Georgian cookbook,’ Tiko tells me from London, where she has two outlets of her popular restaurant, Little Georgia. ‘I told them, if you want to do a Georgian cookbook, it’s very easy – you can Google and find everything you want. It has to be a Little Georgia cookbook, the restaurant, I felt like I was a child again. And that each guest was my personal guest.’
Nostalgia is as prevalent a seasoning in Supra as the aforementioned spices, and travelling back in time is a daily activity for Tiko, as she relives her childhood through the running of her restaurant. Nana – Tiko’s aunt – is famous for her role in Feast; Tiko’s grandmother, Tina, was famous in her homeland for all her food, frequently called on by friends and neighbours to cook for their supras, a mainstay of the social scene, when celebrations were done at home with endless dishes, toasting and music.
Tina took cooking very seriously, ‘like her second job. She divided her daily life into parts, one where she was working, and after 5pm, working at home presenting amazing dishes. It was part of my life, watching them cooking and entertaining people. If you grow up in a family like this, you inherit cooking.’
When I ask about the must-try dishes from Supra, yes, we talk about khachapuri (pronounced hatch-a-puri), but seen through the hands of a dozen women, kneading dough. ‘I realised yesterday,’ says Tiko, ‘how much I love to watch people baking. Watching this lady’s hands when she is making the cheese bread took me back to my childhood. The movement of their hands, reminds me of people, how they were baking, how they were playing with the flour. Yesterday, I remembered dozens of women by [their] hands, the way they were making the cheese bread; it was great.’