Kindness, Hospitality, and Why I always Feel so Bad
As I write this, I am stuffing my face with khajapuri, and its actually really delicious, probably because its home made. When I first arrived in Georgia, I got really tired and fed up of people asking me what my favourite Georgian food was and what things had I tried. At first, I would be polite and say that I liked it, then I got completely fed up and just told the truth, because that way people would stop forcing me to eat it. Now the message has finally got through, but the irony is, that I am now trying good quality food, which actually is tasty, and I don’t have so many issues with it now. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t LOVE Georgian food, and I certainly couldn’t tolerate eating the same things day in and day out, but I am slowly starting to find that I enjoy it and it is becoming more pleasurable to eat, and sometimes I have started thinking to myself ‘ooh, I’m a bit peckish, maybe I will buy some khajapurit’, but I haven’t actually done it yet!! The same dish can be so variable in quality, and if like me, you dislike the food, then my advice to you is to not write it off completely, and not to put pressure on yourself or force yourself to eat it. Just try it from different places, in small amounts, and you will probably see for yourself how different it can be, from the village, at home, in restaurants, from the little jiosks, to the posh restaurants, and supras.
Khajapuri is basically a kind of cheese pie, but isn’t anything like pie in my opinion. I have heard some Georgians refer to it as ‘Georgian Pizza’, but I think this is an insult to both Georgians and to Italian Pizza makers. It is really more like a flattened bread with cheese inside (Khajapuri Imeruli), or my favourite when its made well, with cheese on top and inside (khajapuri Megruli). There are many other types of Khajapuri too, but they are all at their best when they are hot and freshly made. One of the reasons that I didn’t like it when I first arrived is because we would make it, and then eat the left overs at every single meal for the next week, so it was always cold and stale, but was initially cooked in vast amounts of vegetable oil, and I always had problems with my gall bladder (immense shoulder tip pain) because of the oil content and constipation and nausea because I just wasn’t able to digest it, so it would just sit there and make me feel bad.
But, in the capital and with a better income, my diet has vastly improved which I am extremely greatful for, and means that I now have access to more fruit and vegetables, and also to a variety of different flavours. Food is expensive here if you are not able to eat the Georgian diet, but everything is also dependent on the season. I arrived in October and was here over winter, so we had abundant amounts of walnuts and other nuts, that I loved but could never afford to buy in England, but there was little in the way of fresh vegetables, or vegetables that were normal to me before, like brocolli or avocados. When I lived in the Caribbean, I was definitely spoiled, because I had everything growing in my garden….bananas, plantanes, papaya, avocado, mangoes, coco beans. And in England, I always grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, courgettes, aubagines, herbs, lettuce, leeks, broccoli, and so on. But, I think summer will be much richer with colourful food and tastes, and I am really looking forward to strawberrys, because they are my favourite fruit, but are really expensive in the UK. In Georgia they are supposed to be really cheap and available, so hopefully I can freeze some for the winter period, and then I can make fruit smoothies as I have done in every other country I have lived in.
I have been amazed at the amount of effort that my Georgian friends have gone to in order for me to eat well here, and to make me feel more at home. Food has often been stressful and one of the biggest issues for me in Georgia, even though I previously thought I was not particularly fussy and have no real preferences. Its not a question of liking or disliking food here, but more of a physical adaptation , especially after being brought up with no fat and no sugar in my diet. I have had some amazing meals recently, and this has made the transition much smoother, and I also now know that my salary is not enough to sustain the kind of food that I need in order to live a fairly healthy life. If I had been born in Georgia and brought up on the diet, it would not be such an issue, but I know for myself and for other volunteers, food is one of the most difficult adaptations to make.
It is not the food itself that makes life hard, but the emotional and social implications that go along with food, and with supra. As a guest, there is a huge pressure to eat and drink, and it’s a shame for hosts if their guest does not eat or drink. Yet, sometimes, Georgians, without realising, can become the most inhospitable people, because they often don’t realise how hard it is for us to be entertained and pressured into eating or drinking things which we don’t like or which make us sick. They would be really upset if they realised this, as its not the Georgian way, and Georgian on the whole are the warmest and most caring people I have ever met. And as a Brit, I am brought up to be polite and not to speak my mind, but to say that everything is delicious, even if I don’t like it.
For example, on my first visit to Batumi, I was invited to not just one, but five supras in one day, one after the other. The Georgians at the table barely ate anything, but the whole focus of the supra was on me because it was my first time in their house and first time meeting them. I tried to be polite and to try a little bit of everything as a compromise, but I had to do this at five different supras. The problem for me, is that I am not able to process oil, and Georgian food is very oily. I had a little khajapuri at supra number one, and was not too bad, but at my second supra my gall bladder was struggling and I started getting incredible pain in my shoulder blade (referred pain from my gall bladder). No pain killers would touch it, and I really wanted to be sick. Long term, this has big health implications, and you can develop pancreatitis and gall stones which you need surgery to remove. My family has a history of this problem (which is not unusual), and so we always had a low cholesterol diet, and I had never had problems until I came to Georgia. In December when I was sick, I had shoulder pain, and everytime I tried to take a breath, it was like my breathe was caught or taken away, because breathing in was excrutiating pain. When I had an ultrasound done, my gallbladder was inflamed, and I had spent most of the past two months vomiting because I could not digest the oil.
So, for me, supra was becoming psychologically stressful, and because I would only eat a little bit of food, people were worried and wanted me to eat more, and so the cycle goes! But now, life is good, and I eat a more western diet, and slowly my body is adapting to the Georgian diet. But I feel really guilty when people buy me special foods, because I know that food is really expensive in Georgia, especially the things that I like. In England, I was pretty poor and couldn’t afford meat, but I had a really healthy diet, and would eat avocado almost every day because its full of vitamins. I have only seen avocados twice in Georgia, but they are 5GEL each! So they really are a luxury item. But Georgian people often want to pay for things, even when they don’t have much money, and this is sometimes a cultural clash, because in England we always have to argue about who will pay the bill, because both parties want to pay, even if secretly they do not. Georgians are the most stubborn people, but the most caring and hospitable, so its difficult to negotiate with them, even if you know that they will have financial issues at the end of the month because they wanted to treat you. The funny thing is, I would do exactly the same thing for them, and can also be stubborn, so it usually ends in check mate until one or the other finally backs down! But the general philosophy is that, when I have money I will treat you, and when I don’t, then I will allow you to treat me, and this seems to be an unspoken etiquette as far as I can see, and certainly makes negotiating a lot easier process.