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.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955