March 17, 2019

When Russian Cuisine Turns Georgian


When Russian Cuisine Turns Georgian
Sizzling khachapuri. Cafe Suliko

When I was in St. Petersburg last September, my favorite cuisine was not Russian but Georgian. Georgian restaurants were everywhere. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought the national food was not salat olivye and mushroom soup but khachapuri.

Why is Georgian food so popular in Russia? (Apart from its deliciousness, which is a legitimate reason in itself.) Part of it has to do with Russia’s colonial history. As the tsarist Empire conquered faraway lands, it incorporated those regions’ foods into Russian haute cuisine. But Georgian cuisine didn’t really take off until later. As with many things in Russia, it is much easier to understand the ubiquity of Georgian cuisine once you understand the history.

Khinkali
Khinkali. / Ethnos Cafe

Back in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin expressed great fondness for the food of his native Georgia. One day, while not drawing up lists of Bolsheviks to purge, he concocted a Georgian-inspired eggplant and lamb dish and named it after a river in Georgia.1 It wasn’t just Stalin who liked Georgian cuisine. As historian Erik Scott relates in his seminal article on Georgian cuisine in Russia, many of Stalin’s compatriots had spent their formative years in the Caucasus and deeply appreciated its wines and flavors, even if they themselves were not Georgian. And so, if you wanted to curry favor with the Soviet crème de la crème, you ate and drank like them.

These influential Bolsheviks didn't force Georgian cuisine on others. But they did give their suppliers special privileges. For instance, Stalin created an entire subagency to ship Georgian grapes to Moscow for wine production. He brought Georgians to the capital to oversee greenhouses for Caucasian herbs and spices.2 Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, recalled that the Kremlin was constantly hiring Georgian cooks to prepare authentic dinners for the higher-ups.3 Elite patronage of Georgian food culminated in the construction of the Soviet Union’s most high-profile Georgian restaurant. Opened in 1940 and named Aragvi (the river that had inspired Stalin’s dish), its directors boasted of personal connections to Stalin, and its suppliers specially imported beverages and spices from the Georgian SSR.4

Georgian food was not yet a mass phenomenon. But the foundations were laid for it to “go viral,” or as viral as things could go in the Soviet Union. Because the Soviet elite loved Georgian cuisine so much, they made sure the infrastructure was secure for Georgian cuisine to thrive in Russia for a long time. All that threatened to change when Khrushchev took the reins and embarked on de-Stalinization. Or did it?

Chicken chakhokhbili
Chicken chakhokhbili. / Cafe Suliko

If you didn’t think the Soviet Union had celebrity chefs, you don’t know about Nikolai Kiknadze. As head chef of Aragvi, he devised a less spicy but just as savory variant of the Georgian dish chicken tabaka.5 Chicken tabaka soon became Aragvi’s signature dish. One visitor commented that, if you had not had chicken tabaka at Aragvi, then “you considered yourself as not yet born, with your whole life ahead of you.”6 In the years to follow, Kiknadze’s recipes appeared in popular Soviet cookbooks. And those who didn’t feel like reading a cookbook could go to the grocery and buy a jar of tkemali, or plum sauce, mass-produced from Kiknadze’s recipe. Thanks to Kiknadze, it was easier than ever to enjoy Georgian food from the comfort of one’s home.

This was during the height of de-Stalinization, when Stalin and his compatriots were being politically disowned en masse. So how did Georgian cuisine retain its prestige? It turned out that Khrushchev’s government had a lot of priorities, all of which could be achieved by supporting Georgian cuisine.

First, the current food situation left much to be desired. Cafeteria food and grocery products were bland and lacked variety, which threatened to decrease morale.7 Since the state controlled the supply of food, it also felt a duty to make food tastier. Thus the accessible recipes, and thus the mass-production of sauces new to Russian palates.

Second, the Soviet Union wanted to project its prestige abroad using not just military might, but also soft power. Part of that meant molding Soviet citizens into cosmopolitan, open-minded tourists. As historian Diane Koenker wrote, “Soviet citizens in the post-Stalin Cold War years needed to be knowledgeable about the world beyond their borders if they hoped to exercise leadership in world affairs.”8

Finally, according to the Soviet nationalities policy, the state should recognize its multiethnic nature. Of course, Georgians were not the only non-Russian nationality in the Soviet Union. But, thanks to Stalin and his compatriots’ patronage, Georgians were the most prominent non-Russians in the culinary world.

Broadening horizons and making food tastier, all while acting in line with the nationalities policy? It was as easy as spotlighting one of Moscow’s best Georgian chefs.

Pkhali
Pkhali at Aragvi. In an ironic coincidence, the restaurant closed during the writing of this article, on March 15, 2019. / afisha.ru

Georgian cuisine experienced a popular explosion in Russia after the Soviet Union ended. The reasons have to do with unique post-Soviet circumstances as much as deliciousness. After 1991, an influx of Georgians migrated to Russia just as the free market took shape. Georgian food, which the Russian culinary subconscious had admired for decades, could finally become a consumer trend.

Aragvi vs. Suliko
Georgian restaurants get creative with marketing. While Aragvi lays into the KGB mystique, Suliko brands itself as a hip, modern café. / Aragvi, Cafe Suliko.

The next time you order a bubbling chicken chakhokhbili with lavash on the side, think about the fact that in a way, you owe this moment to Stalin. But then again, Georgian cuisine transcends politics. It survived de-Stalinization and even the Russo-Georgian War. So don’t forget to also think to yourself: Man, this food is good!


Further Reading

Diane P. Koenker. “The Taste of Others: Soviet Adventures in Cosmopolitan Cuisines.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 19, no. 2 (2018): 243-272.

Erik R. Scott. “Edible Ethnicity: How Georgian Cuisine Conquered the Soviet Table.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 13, no. 4 (2012): 831-858.


Citations

1: Scott, 839.

2: Scott, 838.

3: Scott, 839.

4: Scott, 841.

5: Scott, 843.

6: Quoted in Koenker, 252.

7: Scott, 846.

8: Koenker, 244.

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