For our most recent – and unknowingly as it turns out – final trip before the Covid-19 global crisis hit, we decided that embarking on a journey across 9,000 km, 22 hours, and one layover wasn’t too far for a good meal.
Before departing on our trip to Georgia, the small under-rated country in the even more unknown and under-rated Caucasus region, a colleague asked me incredulously, “Are you really going all the way to Georgia just for food?” My answer was simple. “Yes”.
In picking a travel destination amongst over 200 countries in the world, how does one start to narrow it down? Traveling for a delicious and exotic meal you can’t get at home is just as good of a reason as any, and in our opinion, certainly more satisfying than traveling for the sole purpose of snapping a photo of a famous museum or monument.
It was on a previous adventure to Kyrgyzstan that we stumbled across authentic Georgian food. While these two countries are not neighbours, their shared history as part of the Soviet Union and the Silk Road brought authentic Georgian restaurants scattered across the Stans. It was in Bishkek, the laid-back capital of Kyrgyzstan, where we had our first tastes of Georgia. We stumbled across a cozy Georgian restaurant tucked away in a small alley far from the city centre, and it was there where we first tasted Georgia’s famous traditional qvervi wine for a price less than what it costs to buy a chocolate bar in Canada. It was there we ate Georgia’s famous soup meat dumplings with our hands, called Khinkali, a cousin to the smaller more famous Chinese soup dumpling (xiao long bao). And it was there where we tasted for the first time the exquisite taste of Khachapuri, the delectable oven-baked boat-shaped bread with melted cheese, topped perfectly with a raw egg. Georgia’s prize dish.
As experienced travellers, most of our greatest cultural experiences around the world have centred around food. And certainly, our most memorable travel moments when we were fortunate enough to meet local people in a foreign country, food was most often the centre of the occasion. In most cultures around the world, it is almost impossible to separate hospitality from food, and Georgia is no exception.
In Georgia, food and hospitality are top notch. The combination of the two is what bring travellers to this small country and it is what keeps them coming back. Upon entering the country, we were shockingly handed a bottle of local red wine as the customs officer stamped our passport and welcomed us to his country with a smile. He was probably already accustomed to the incredulous expressions of each tourist who never thought a country would give a gift just for visiting, never mind a bottle of wine. Upon arriving at our guesthouse we were warmly greeted to our family of hosts who within the first days offered us homemade wine, chacha (local brandy made from grapes) and Churchkhela (the famous snack of Georgia made of walnuts covered with grape juice). And they introduced our first meal at a restaurant across the street, to tired travellers who had just arrived late in the night. Our favourite Georgian staples were all there waiting for us: Khachapuri, khinkali, walnut salad, and of course, traditional amber wine.
But in the end, no matter how delectable the food is in any country, food is merely a gateway to discovering a fascinating new culture. The real reason we chose Georgia is culture, and food was what opened up the Caucasus region’s culture to us. A country that has been through a lot over the decades from Soviet occupation to Russian bombings merely a decade ago, somehow managed to raise warm, friendly, people who welcome you on the streets of its capital city and into their houses not just as customers but as friends. One of our most memorable experiences of the visit was having the unique opportunity to experience a casual version of the traditional Georgian Supra (or feast) – a social gathering of meaningful toasts and karaoke around the table all centred around good food and good wine, and of course, good company. But it was also through our quest for good food that we discovered a beautiful country with thousand year old monasteries, ancient cave cities, incredible wineries in the birthplace of wine, and a mix of Russian, Turkish and Silk Road influences in all aspects of daily life. Georgia, a country that physically sits between east and west, somehow manages to feel like both Asia and Europe, and at times, like none of the above.
Anthony Bourdain said it best: “Food may not be the answer to world peace but it’s a start” Georgia is still recovering from political turmoil and recent war going back only a decade ago. It is still fresh in people’s minds. Talking to the locals we met at our guesthouses, they have hope for a stronger future. We believe Georgia’s famous food will be what opens it to the world, a country strongly relying on tourism.
We went to Georgia for food. We chose it amongst over 200 countries in the world because we identified something unique it could offer us that we couldn’t find at home. But when we arrived we didn’t just experience good food. Over some of our most memorable meals of our lives, we met the friendliest locals, and discovered first hand a unique culture.
When you can travel again, where do you want to go, and how will you choose that country amongst a world of possibilities? That photo to show you’ve visited the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Colosseum of Rome may very well be for others to awe at. But a delicious once-in-a-lifetime meal is just for you and you alone, and there is something very special and irreplaceable about that.