Jan 23, 2015

Грузинская рулетка (On dining out in Moscow, pt. 2)


These are the stunning mountains of the Svaneti region of Georgia. I'm not there.  


I'm in Moscow.  That's the thin end of a hammer, the first tool I found to pry open a stuck elevator door at 2 a.m. a few nights ago.  The hammer, it seemed, didn't provide enough leverage.



This is Georgia's ancient capital Tbilisi, pride of the Caucasus.  Its winding alleyways, stone turrets and ancient church domes speak to over 1500 years of history, all preserved to a degree rarely seen in either Europe or the Middle East.  Again, I didn't take this picture, I'm not there.



These are two curtain rods and a broomstick.  Our thinking was that, though each of those things would be too weak on its own, maybe all three at once would free the six people trapped inside the elevator.






And finally, these are the Russian mechanics that eventually showed up, two hours later, with purpose-made tools.  We all celebrated together afterwards.

Though I've never been to Georgia, my impressions of the country and its people are quite positive. Russians seem to think otherwise - at the risk of stereotyping two nations at once, all Russians think that all Georgians are singing, dancing, wine-drunk, language-poor melon peddlers who just happen to have a delicious national cuisine.


I, for one, don't care for stereotypes; all I hear is "delicious national cuisine".  And Russians do respect and enjoy Georgian food, even while they consider the Georgian people unsavory. At least in Moscow, Georgian is by far the most popular of the "Soviet ethnic" cuisines. It's a sunny valley of this:


 tucked away in mountains of this:



As I noted in my last post, "Soviet ethnic" food seems to have fared much better in capitalist Russia than the trendy Western import-cuisines.  This can be explained by simple economics - the free market only improves quality when people know what they want.  In the case of "trendy" foods, the sushi trusts smothered their competition in the cradle, so unassuming Russians are stuck buying mutton dressed as tuna.  But because the Soviet Union already had Georgian and Uzbek food, the market ran its natural course - bad restaurants folded; the better restaurants competed for discerning customers by cutting prices; and the profit motive gave me E. coli twice in two weeks.

Georgian wine

Recall the golden rule from my last post - in Russia, cheap food is worse, but expensive food isn't better.  So imagine my delight when I found a dirt-cheap Georgian cafe right next to my metro stop! I'd had my first (delicious) Georgian meal the week before, and already had the figurative Georgian bug.  So I strolled in, confident that expensive food is not better.

Khinkali

These are khinkali, the signature Georgian dish.  They are a particularly tasty variant of meat dumplings - in their ideal form, they're stuffed with raw ground lamb, herbs, and bullion, then steamed and served with a tangy plum (tkemali) or spicy tomato (satsebeli) sauce.  Because they are sealed before steaming, the meat juice and bullion cook into a soup inside, which you drink from the dumpling before eating it.

What happened next - really, later that evening - was so awful that I can only describe it by italicized allusion.  What matters most is that it happened very quickly - in my panic that night, I was forced to make some seat-of-the-pants decisions.


Lamb shashlyk

A week later I was back at it - if you read this blog, you know why.  This time though, I corrected my mistake - I went to a more upscale Georgian cafe called Saperavi in a swankier neighborhood.  That first time, see, I'd simply misinterpreted the golden rule.  Cheaper food is worse, I reassured myself.

Walnut paste and herbs in eggplant rolls

What happened next - really, later that evening - was different only in the fine details. Rather than horror, this time I met it with grim resignation.  I'd made my bed.  And now I couldn't sleep in it.

Khachapuri po adzharski

If two times seems like too many, I would only say the following.  First of all, it's actually three times, if we count an identical disaster that befell me in a hotel in Buryatia in 2008, after I ate the exact same dish, only there they're called pozy.

Buryat Pozy

And second, don't lecture me.  Sure, one could argue that if this were a khinkali exam, 1/3 would be an F.  But as I see it, if this were the khinkali World Series, I'd be batting at least .333, which (for the nerds and foreigners among you) is nothing to sneer at.  I say "at least .333," because every time you eat khinkali, it's at least 5 individual dumplings, and there's no reason to believe that all five had E. coli each time I got sick.  I may be batting as high as .900, and with an average like that I'd be an idiot not to swing.

Lobio

But really, neither of those metaphors is apt.  If we consider all I've written about food in this blog - and I swear this is the last time - it's obvious that circumstances have driven me to play khinkali roulette. And in that light, losing and surviving twice is an amazing feat!