DINING ON THE EDGE
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
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.
UNCHARTED TERRITORY Stunning landscapes aside, Georgia stands out in the eyes of the travelling gourmet by offering wines made using the oldest of traditions; wine, cognac and chacha tasting can be done in an ancient wine cellar in Kakheti in eastern Georgia