Taste Test

Fu­elled by an ap­petite for the un­known, Chris Dwyer ven­tures to Ge­or­gia and Kaza­khstan—un­der-ex­plored des­ti­na­tions with a whole world of culi­nary riches to of­fer

T. Dining by Singapore Tatler - - Contents -

We ex­plore the culi­nary tra­di­tions of Ge­or­gia and Kaza­khstan, lesser-known re­gions on the cusp of pop­u­lar­ity

As our planet gets smaller and more ac­ces­si­ble, so grows our knowl­edge and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the world’s in­gre­di­ents and cuisines. Ten years ago, kim­chi, dukkah or leche de ti­gre would only have been known by se­ri­ous culi­nary nerds out­side their coun­tries of ori­gin. But even to­day’s most ex­pe­ri­enced global gour­mands would be hard-pushed to pro­nounce—let alone recog­nise—khacha­puri, besh­bar­mak or pkhali. Wel­come to two coun­tries at the last culi­nary fron­tiers: Ge­or­gia and Kaza­khstan.

Both des­ti­na­tions are cul­tur­ally and ge­o­graph­i­cally very dis­tinct, but they work to­gether beau­ti­fully as part of a week­long trip from South­east Asia. Air As­tana, win­ner of the Sky­trax award for best air­line in Cen­tral Asia and In­dia for six years run­ning, of­fers a very com­fort­able busi­ness-class prod­uct to con­nect with Kaza­khstan’s for­mer cap­i­tal of Al­maty or its cur­rent cap­i­tal of As­tana, be­fore head­ing on to the be­guil­ing Ge­or­gian cap­i­tal of Tbil­isi. What’s more, flights to get there take un­der five hours, while the time dif­fer­ence is just two hours, mean­ing that there’s lit­tle or no ad­just­ment needed.

Ar­riv­ing in Al­maty, one is struck first by the beau­ti­ful snow-capped moun­tains fram­ing any shot of the city, then by the mix of faces and eth­nic­i­ties that make up the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion—a total of 18 mil­lion spread across the vast na­tion, the world’s ninth-largest in terms of ge­o­graph­i­cal size. The oc­ca­sional clapped-out Lada re­minds vis­i­tors that this was for­merly part of Rus­sia, as does the ubiq­uity of some ter­ri­fy­in­glook­ing vodka. The food, how­ever, largely re­flects tra­di­tional Kazakh no­mad cuisine, eaten by those liv­ing in the of­ten-harsh en­vi­ron­ment of the steppes.

Besh­bar­mak is the coun­try’s na­tional dish and trans­lates as “five fin­gers” as it’s tra­di­tion­ally eaten by hand. Braised meat (usu­ally horse or lamb) is steeped in onion broth and ac­com­pa­nied by large noo­dle sheets. While eat­ing horse may be dif­fi­cult for some for­eign vis­i­tors to swal­low, in Kaza­khstan and a num­ber of neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, it has long been pop­u­lar. The lives of no­madic peo­ple have been en­twined with horses for mil­len­nia—an an­i­mal they re­vere, but still see as live­stock. A visit to the Green Bazaar, Al­maty’s fas­ci­nat­ing main food mar­ket, shows the mul­ti­ple ways in which it can be pre­pared.

There are few greater hon­ours than be­ing in­vited to some­one’s house for besh­bar­mak, though it’s more likely to be seen on restau­rant menus along­side thick coils of kazy sausage. A spe­cial men­tion should go to the steamed dumplings, known as manti or pel­meni, where lamb is worked into dough and served with herbed sour cream.

In Kaza­khstan’s extraordin­ary new cap­i­tal of As­tana, with mind-blow­ingly bizarre ar­chi­tec­ture at ev­ery turn, the din­ing op­tions are more var­ied than Al­maty. The Shored­itch Burger & Wok is clearly global in as­pi­ra­tions, while Ital­ian and Ja­panese restau­rants of vary­ing de­grees of au­then­tic­ity abound, but for Kazakh dishes, Ar­nau is one of the city’s most re­li­able bets.

While its web­site copy is oc­ca­sion­ally hi­lar­i­ous (“Fash­ion­able in­te­rior of na­tional style con­quer with its cosi­ness and mag­nif­i­cence”), its plates are con­sis­tently good. A true show-stop­per is the boiled mut­ton’s head—not for the faint of heart. Per­fect pi­laf rice ac­com­pa­nies it, be­fore golden-brown baur­saks (deep-fried tri­an­gu­lar pas­tries) ar­rive, cov­ered in honey and served with cof­fee.

In truth, how­ever, there’s no doubt as to the real culi­nary star of this week­long ad­ven­ture. Ge­or­gia is one of the most ex­cit­ing and sur­pris­ing food des­ti­na­tions around, thanks to its extraordin­ary tapestry of dishes, ably sup­ported by the world’s old­est tra­di­tion of wine­mak­ing.

As the coun­try once stood on the old Silk Road, its cul­ture and cuisine re­flects Asian, Per­sian, Arab, Euro­pean and myr­iad other in­flu­ences. When you add the fact that guests are the most re­spected peo­ple in Ge­or­gia, you’ve set the scene for a re­mark­able food jour­ney. There are 97 na­tion­al­i­ties that can en­ter Ge­or­gia visafree and al­most all vis­i­tors start through the charm­ing cap­i­tal, Tbil­isi. Din­ing is al­ways re­laxed and the coun­try’s iconic feast, known as a supra, is the epit­ome of shared plates.

A restau­rant called Tsiskvili over­looks Tbil­isi’s river and boasts a se­lec­tion of din­ing rooms, open-air grills and a minia­ture waterfall. As you en­ter, the ta­ble is al­ready groan­ing un­der the weight of an amaz­ing ar­ray of mezze-style dishes that just keep com­ing. There are count­less fresh sal­ads, many fea­tur­ing herbs in­clud­ing the vastly un­der­rated tar­ragon, or per­fect lo­cal toma­toes lightly dressed with vine­gar and spices. Pep­pers are roasted or stuffed, while cu­cum­ber, chilli and gar­lic are pick­led to pro­vide a sharp snap.

Dips are ev­ery­where—some are smooth like a creamy pâté, while oth­ers are coarser, like the sen­sa­tional fkhali made from beet­root, wal­nuts, spices and yo­ghurt. Un­fa­mil­iar but de­li­cious cheeses also abound such as sul­guni, a brined cow’s milk cheese sim­i­lar to moz­zarella that has to be served on the day it’s made, and imeruli, a white curd cheese.

Of course, all these mezze need a plat­form and few coun­tries any­where make bet­ter bread than Ge­or­gia. In­deed, the coun­try’s na­tional dish is khacha­puri, a ridicu­lously tasty and sin­ful num­ber that is es­sen­tially cheese pizza. Hot, stringy cheeses—al­ways more than one type—are melted into the soft bread that is baked to a per­fect golden brown and served as a side dish.

We haven’t even reached the main cour­ses or desserts in our epic din­ner at Tsiskvili, but there are count­less other restau­rants to tempt vis­i­tors. One of the cap­i­tal’s most well-known is Fu­nic­u­lar, sit­ting on the Mtats­minda moun­tain that over­looks the golden domes, an­cient roofs and minarets of the city be­low. No prizes for guess­ing that the most pop­u­lar way to get there is via a fu­nic­u­lar tramway.

A supra feast is in­com­plete with­out the main event, usu­ally of chicken, pork, veal and other meats char­coal-grilled to per­fec­tion and served shash­lik-style on skew­ers. They’re fre­quently ac­com­pa­nied by tke­mali,a uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar sharp sauce made from plum, dill and gar­lic—so ubiq­ui­tous that it’s known by some as Ge­or­gian ketchup.

Fu­nic­u­lar also serves a bril­liant ver­sion of chaka­puli, a veal stew again livened by plums, but this time with mounds of tar­ragon. It’s a sen­sa­tional com­bi­na­tion—sweet, sharp and sour all at once. Other op­tions in­clude ground lamb served like a kofte and dusted in the cit­rus lift of sumac.

A spe­cial men­tion must also go to Bar­barestan, a restau­rant whose en­tire menu is based on a cook­book writ­ten in 1914 by a duchess, Bar­bar Jor­dadze. Bril­liant dishes demon­strate how Ge­or­gian cooking has stood the test of time with­out the need for forced in­no­va­tion or rein­ven­tion. Most no­tably, its menu fea­tures a sen­sa­tional aubergine, gar­lic and fresh pars­ley dip and a sour mush­room soup that could ri­val pho for its life-en­hanc­ing good­ness.

The truth is that pretty much wher­ever you choose to eat, you can’t go wrong. Gen­uine hos­pi­tal­ity runs in the blood of Ge­or­gians like few other des­ti­na­tions.

Ge­or­gia is one of the most ex­cit­ing and sur­pris­ing food des­ti­na­tions around, thanks to its extraordin­ary tapestry of dishes, ably sup­ported by the world’s old­est tra­di­tion of wine­mak­ing

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