Fusion cuisine gets a lot of bad press these days. In some restaurants, the very word ‘fusion’ is about as welcome as the words ‘rat droppings’ and ‘AA Gill’. It is a little hackneyed, I suppose. After all, you have to go back to the 1970s - when chefs mixed French with Chinese and came up with twisted classics like bird’s nest bouillon and coq au rice wine (maybe) - to realise fusion cuisine’s potential for pretentiousness and horror.
Nevertheless, most countries go through their fusion phase, melding their traditional wares with ingredients and techniques from whichever foreign cuisine seems to be en vogue at the time - which usually means Japanese (*whisper* I’m convinced the only thing that prevented Nobu from giving his food a Japanese twist rather than a South American one was the fact that it was already Japanese).
Anyway, now it’s Georgia’s turn. That’s Georgia the country - in Europe - not the American home of Coca Cola and REM, and nowt to do with Ray Charles, either.
Traditional Georgian food is typified by the ‘supra’ or special feast, which is presided over by a tamada or toast master, and involves a huge table strewn with a multitude of brilliant dishes, from kachapuri breads and shashlik kebabs, to khinkali (heavy dumplings stuffed with ground meat) and nigvziani badrijani (aubergine stuffed with ground walnuts). As feasts go, it’s a real heavyweight.
A traditional supra: note the celebratory hats, and goat skin wine bag.
This is probably the bit where most hardened and cynical restaurant-goers will recoil in terror, recalling such fusion faux pas as ‘tandushi‘ (tandoori sushi, seen in Abu Dhabi) and ‘sashimikraut’, and foreseeing a culinary train full of cheap Taiwanese fireworks crashing into a nuclear power station. But you should keep on reading, because here is a rare example of fusion that really, really works.
It’s by a talented female chef called Tekuna Gachechiladze, and I was privileged enough to try it at Vong, an Asian restaurant in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. I say privileged, because not only were we dining with one or two distinguished members of the Georgian media and political establishment, but it was also the night that the Georgian football team beat Croatia 1-0 in a Euro 2012 qualifier. Oh, and some of the dishes were being served for the very first time. An historic occasion. The mood was buoyant.
The amuse bouche - a gazpacho of tkemali (a traditional and rather tart cherry plum sauce) with the sweetness of grape to balance it out - set the tone. It was followed by a triumphant tuna tartare with jonjoli (a kind of Georgian pickled flower with a flavour not unlike capers) and rainbow trout ceviche marinated in orange juice. Podgy king prawns in tarragon sauce came next, followed by the night’s first true revelation - the dolma.
Stuffed vine leaves are familiar all over the Middle East, Mediterranean and the Caucasus, but not vine leaves stuffed with shrimp, and served with a raita-style yoghurt sauce with mint and ginger - a combination as devastating as Smith & Wesson.
Ham-wrapped quail in pomegranate sauce.
This was followed by roasted quail wrapped in cured ham, slathered in a thick pomegranate sauce - a rich, smokey-sweet blast of gamey flavour and moist textures. I sucked on about four of these like Kojak after a lollipop shortage, and then things got even more interesting.
The khinkali arrived at the table like Katie Melua dressed in a kimono. Instead of the bulging, tumescent and hearty dumplings of the traditional Georgian supra table, they had been given a Japanese makeover; a twist on the gyoza dumpling, made lighter, more elegant and refined but no less delicious. The time-honoured Georgian flavours flooded the palate, but they didn’t have to fight their way through inches of dumpling dough to do it.
Badrijani and foie gras.
Let me assure you, if I’d dispatched as many traditional khinkali as I did the new gyoza-style version, I’d have needed two seats on the plane home. And probably a triple heart bypass. But home couldn’t have been further from my mind when the badrijani with foie gras turned up. I must confess to having one or two misgivings about the samey textures and smokey-sweet flavours of the walnut-stuffed aubergine and foie gras. They were unfounded. The combination worked like a dream - a dream with great lobes of perfection-seared enlarged goose liver in it. The only word I could muster at the time to describe its magnificence was “Waaarg.” It was that good.
Badrijani and foie gras - again.
I’d been taught a lesson about fusion cuisine. It may be a jaded concept in the trendy restaurants of New York or London, where nobody wants to gatecrash a party right at the end. But in Georgia, fusion is less of a fad and more of a process. Traditional Georgian food in itself is fusion food, after all - were it not for the Mongolians there might not be khinkali at all; and the Ottoman Empire may have something to do with Georgian dolma. Conversely, the rest of the world might have a debt to pay to ancient Georgian viticulture - thought to be over 7000 years old - for inventing wine as we know it.
Tekuna Gachechiladze plans to open a New Georgian restaurant in Tbilisi and, in the future, New York (personally, I think ‘Supra Nova’ would be a great name for it and I’m not asking for payment, just a shedload of badrijani with foie gras). There she might just mash up those stuffy preconceptions about fusion food and serve them back up with a nice ponzu sauce. But in the Georgian food story, her inspired ideas are merely the latest chapter. Just forgive me for revelling in the prose before I turn over the page.