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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Q&A With Jenny Holm

We recently caught up with local writer Jenny Holm to chat about all things Georgian food. Jenny blogs at The Georgian Table, teaches cooking classes, and hosts pop up dinners, among many other fascinating projects. Be sure to catch up with her on Facebook to stay up to date on her next Georgian cooking adventures!

Courtesy Jenny Holm
What got you interested in Georgian cooking? 

I was introduced to Georgian food by my Russian host mother while I was studying abroad in Moscow during college, and I ate a lot more of it while I was living in the southwestern part of the country for a year after graduation. I had a grant to study foodways in that region, where the culinary influence of the Caucasus is especially strong. Georgian food is ubiquitous in many parts of Russia, kind of like Mexican here. I loved how prevalent vegetables and fruits are in Georgian cuisine, the Silk Road influences I found in it (many food words in Georgian come from Hindi and Farsi), and how different the spices were from what I was used to in Russian dishes.

A few years later, I stumbled upon a program that would allow me to teach English in Georgia while living with a host family, which I took as a great opportunity to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my host mother and others, learning to cook all the dishes I loved to eat (and a few I didn't!)

What are a few of your favorite Georgian foods? 

Two of my favorite vegetable dishes are badrijani nigvzit, which is pan-fried slices of Asian eggplant wrapped around a tangy walnut-garlic paste flavored with coriander and blue fenugreek, and ispanakhis pkhali, which is spinach that has been boiled and lightly pureed with walnuts, cilantro, garlic, and spices to make a spreadable pate. There's a saucy beef and onion stew called iakhni that I've only ever seen in the Ajara region near Turkey, where I lived. And there's a kind of sauceless lasagna called achma--they make the noodles by hand and spread each layer with crumbly, salty cheese and butter and then bake it to a crisp on top. I could go on! 

I was surprised to learn that corn is popular in some parts of Georgia. What are a few typical uses of corn in Georgian cooking?

For a long time, corn was much more prevalent than wheat in western Georgia and that influence is still visible today. You might be served a thick cornmeal porridge called ghomi rather than bread to accompany your meal. I like it best when they stir smoked cheese into it. They also fry savory cornmeal cakes called mchadi, which can also be stuffed with cheese. These are often served with an herby kidney bean stew called lobio. There's even a rustic dessert called pelamushi that they make by stirring corn (and sometimes wheat) flour into simmering, sweetened grape juice to make a kind of pudding. 

Tell us a little about the spices used in Georgian cooking: 
  • What are the most commonly used spices?
  • How is blue fenugreek different from Indian Fenugreek?
  • What are some spices that are hard to track down outside of Georgia? 

The three that define Georgian cuisine for me are coriander, blue fenugreek, and ground marigold. Ground coriander seed is used alongside fresh cilantro leaves to give a fresh, herbal brightness to sauces, vegetable dishes, stews, everything. Fenugreek adds a slightly bitter depth to things that you notice when it's missing. Ground marigold adds color and a hint of nutty warmth. Georgians sometimes call marigold "saffron": it probably came into the cuisine as a much cheaper substitute for the real thing, which tastes nothing like it. There is also a common mix of dried herbs called khmeli-suneli. Everyone makes theirs a little differently, but it might include coriander seed, summer savory, flat-leaf parsley, dill, bay leaf, blue fenugreek, and opal basil. Dried barberries, red pepper (including a spice and herb mix called ajika), and caraway seed are all widely used as well.

They are two different species of the Trigonella plant. Blue fenugreek is not as bitter as Indian fenugreek. If I'm cooking from a Georgian recipe that includes fenugreek and I only have Indian fenugreek on hand, I'll use half of the amount called for. When you buy blue fenugreek, it doesn't look blue, because they grind up the leaves, the seeds, and the pods together.

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