A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being invited for lunch at a vey nice restaurant in Tbilisi called ‘Ferghana’. I’d never tried Uzbek cuisine before, and even though I had passed the restaurant everyday since it had opened, I was still a little nervous about popping in and trying something new.
I guess I understand now why other nationalities are shy to try foods which are so common to me as a westerner, like Indian, Thai, Chinese food, or even Italian food. Because coming from a nation like Britain, an island nation, with so many different invaders over the centuries, from Anglo Saxons, Norse, Romans, and so on, and living in such a diverse population from Britain’s colonial history and trading of spices and such, I’ve come to take these things as part of my own culture and heritage, and its often difficult when people ask me what my national dish is…..fish and chips I guess, or jellied eels……but actually my national dish is probably just as much, the chicken korma. I’d be interested to know the stats of which dishes sell the most in Britain and who consumes them! Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot more British dishes than that, just that we perhaps don’t grow up calling them our ‘National Dishes’ and so they get included in our concept of ‘normal’ and ‘daily’ rather than something ‘special’ or specific to Britain.
Its also true, that many things are so engrained in my diet over the seasons, that I often come to the conclusion that everybody around the world has exactly the same thing. As a five year old doing nativity play, you somehow grow up to think that everyone around the world celebrates Christmas on the 25th December and Easter exactly the same too. Since they are stories about things that happened in other countries, not in Britain, and they happened a long time ago, and there are millions of people who read the bible, believe in God or go to church, all around the world. I grew up knowing of different religions, but the majority were catholics and christians, and then there were a smaller group who were Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Muslim, Jedi Warriors, and so on. It never occurred to me that there was an another group called ‘Orthodox Christians’ or that they also celebrated Christmas and Easter, but in very different ways and even on different dates.
It was only when I started to travel and meet with foreigners, that I started to understand more of other religions. When I was in hospital with Guillain Barre in India, I got to know a lot from the doctors, nurses, and people looking after me, about Hindus, and there was even a little offering to Ganesha when I was released from the hospital for the first time after being paralysed and bed bound for so long, and it was an incredible experience to be pushed in my wheelchair through the corridors and into a ceremony before being wheeled out into the fresh air and now monsoon weather, and all its newness and smells of the outdoors and jasmine flowers.
The ceremony was really special, with my doctors and nurses presenting flowers and offerings to Ganesha, and I was also given a little icon of Ganesha (a man with the head of an elephant, sometimes 5 heads) as a trinket, and a string of jasmine was tied in my hair. I perhaps didn’t understand this so much at the time, as I was still pretty sick and this was my first ever experience as an in-patient (aside from knee surgeries), and being so sick, and in India was an altogether different experience. I was very glad that I was sick in India though, and I think I would have had a very different time had I been in hospital in the UK. It was a major event in my life, completely changed me, not just physically, but also psychologically, especially after the work we had been doing in the rural slums and working with tribe elders and so on.
Ganesha is very important to Indians, because he is the remover of obstacles in a person’s life, but he is also capable of adding them should a person require them. I suppose that is also something I have come to understand more about as I have become older. That sometimes, things just feel right, like they are meant to be, and things just naturally happen, pretty much how my coming to Georgia has felt ever since I arrived, and how OPG feels all the time. the same as people talk about their gut feelings, or knowing in their heart that something is right. Yet sometimes when you follow another course, you face nothing but obstacles no matter how hard you try, when probably they are either not meant to be, or you need to overcome those obstacles as training for something more meaningful. Pretty much how medicine was for me. Taking me 4 years just to get a place at medical school, and facing obstacle after obstacle from the first moment, especially financial. It was something I was determined to do, no matter what obstacle I faced, but actually when it came to it, it just wasn’t my calling. It wasn’t meant to be, and in hindsight, it feels as if my path was always laid out for me, I just didn’t realise it at the time. I suppose I understand now, what people mean when they talk about their ‘calling’ in life. I always thought this was a lame excuse not to do something, but now I feel like it is something much more than that, even though I am not religious and I don’t go to church, and God didn’t speak in my ear and tell me I must do it. But I understand more now, about why icons are so important to people and the role of religion in one’s day to day life.
But those cultural behaviours in relation to food, which I had never questioned until more recently, only became evident when I started to live within another culture. I always took things like chocolate easter eggs, colourful eggs, and hot cross buns for granted before that. They are things Brits enjoy, regardless of whether we follow the deeper meaning of Easter. And just like I always forget to offer people sugar in their tea, and assume that they would take milk in their tea (because that is the normal way for me), I suppose I just took it for granted that everyone who celebrated Easter, did so in exactly the same way, especially since it historically comes from the same root or story about Jesus. And like many Brits, I don’t really have a passionate interest in the reasoning behind it or an understanding of the stories or importance (those are things forced on you in school year after year, but which never really have a meaning to them, other than you should be a good person, love your neighbour, not steal, yada, yada), but like many Brits I am still more than happy to be given time off from school for holidays and to have an excuse to eat lots of chocolate easter eggs and to look for the easter bunny. Same with Christmas, give me the presents, even though I don’t go to church or prey, or whatever. These things are more about the commercial side and having an excuse to indulge, than they are about it being a cultural or religious thing, or a reflection on one’s own behaviour in life. But in Georgia, and many other countries, it is really quite different, and is about the meaning more than the purchasing of items or a pressure to participate and run up credit card bill sor to over indulge.
Easter in Georgia is more akin to the excitement that we in Britain have for Christmas, and the preparations are also more akin to British Christmas. But Georgians dye their eggs red with special roots from the ground, they grow green grass in a tub on the windowsill, and they eat panettone, a sweet bread loaf, which until now, I had always associated with a Christmas speciality from Milan, Italy and which is also very popular at Christmas in South America and Switzerland due to the migration of Italians in the 1900s. So I was very surprised to find that this is something Georgians include in their Easter traditions, the only time when you will see it on their menu. I still have a suspicion that the introduction of penettone in Georgia for Easter is just the clever ploy of some Italian, out to sell as many of the old Christmas stocks as possible to unsuspecting Georgians!! And I’d certainly be interested to know more about how panettone came to be incorporated into Georgian customs for Easter. And why many Georgians seem to think that panettone was invented by Georgians, even though the packaging clearly states that it is from Italy.
However, I’ve definitely digressed today, as my intention was to write about Uzbek cuisine and this new restaurant called Ferghana!!
So, I finally got to have lunch there, and I have to say, that I was massively impressed in just about every way. The decor is beautiful and they really have done a nice job, and for a moment I felt like I was back on my travels in Lebanon or Jordan, and that I had left Georgia. A feeling which I love from time to time. The decor is great, clean, and energising, and there is a total feeling of peace, that you can’t help but let melt over you. When I left, it was like I had been in a meditation zone for hours and been in some kind of a time warp.
I liked the layout too, because it had many functions and spaces, and flowed really well. And you would be as comfy there as an individual, drinking tea, eating cake, and using your laptop and their free wifi, as you would be hosting a large and loud supra, or taking kids, or having a business meeting with important guests. The reason for this, is the use of the space and quiet and social corners, and it would easily be a place to host a conference or large buffet or wedding. Out the back, is a large area, which I hope they will use in the summer as a little retreat, with rugs and tables that you can sit on and enjoy being outside, as it looks to be a great area for it.
The only thing which was a little odd to me as a Brit, just because I wasn’t used to it, was that the waiters have to carry the food from the kitchen, through a corridor past the toilets and then into the restaurant. Its not a big deal, and its not unusual in Georgian and everything was super clean, functioning, and new, so it really wasn’t an issue. But it was just a little unusual for me as a Brit, having grown up with so many rules and regulations. That really was the only slightly negative thing I could find. And that was pushing at it and being highly critical.
I loe the restaurant because of its atmosphere, and they also have lots of regular events, which make this so much more than a restaurant, but also something of a community. They have quiz evenings, and guest musicians, and I’m sure that as they get more established, they will start to do a lot more things too. They have a facebook group which I would highly recommend people join, though it is mainly in Georgian, and if you are like me, then you will miss out on a lot of the postings: http://www.facebook.com/ferghana.biz but I feel sure that if this was mentioned to them, they would soon start to post in English and Russian too.
The owner of the restaurant Igor/Egor is a super nice guy, who clearly takes pride in his restaurant and also makes a point of knowing his customers names and making them feel like they are home from home, without being overbearing or in your face. He’s a really peaceful guy with a nice air about him and pays a lot of attention to good customer service. I have to say, that this was one of the things I really loved about the restaurant, and is probably why I did really feel like I had left Georgia, because the service and customer care was very western and second to none. The staff are from Uzbekestan and the waitress is Georgian, so the languages are mainly Russian and English, though they are also learning Georgian too. But you shouldn’t be put off no matter what language you speak, as they will really accommodate your needs, great if you are a foreigner like me and your Russian and Georgian are still pretty basic. In all the time I have been in Georgia, the one thing I have missed the most has been an understanding of customer service and hospitality in this way. Even visiting the Mariott Hotels recently, I was immediately put off by the Marriott Courtyard Hotel because of the lack of customer service from the receptionists there, something I have only experienced at the Sheraton Hotel and to a lesser extent the Marriott Tbilisi Hotel. But none of them come up to the standard of the Ferghana. That in itself, is a great reason to visit this restaurant.
The next thing which super impressed me, was the price. It looks like it could be a really expensive place to eat, and has the air of a fancy restaurant, and whilst it is fancy and a special place to go, it is also very down to earth and not pretentious in any shape or form, and the prices are amazing. Especially given the quality and portion of the food. The meal we had, which was three courses, came to a total of 30gel, and we were totally stuffed.
I’ve never eaten Uzbek cuisine before, so I can’t comment on how it compares to Uzbek food elsewhere, but I personally really enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to visiting again. We had green tea, which comes in a lovely china pot, was hot and plenty enough for several cups of tea each, and a nice accompaniment to our meal. The menus were easy and simple to follow, with explanations of dishes, and again, unlike many places I have eaten in Georgia, the food was exactly as stated. None of this, ordering one thing and getting another and it being just tough luck, it was exactly as if Trading Standards had been involved. What we ordered was exactly what we got, and exactly as described in the menus! And the waitress was great and suggesting things if we asked her, and wasn’t just there for the hard sell or to tell us that ‘its delicious’, something that is very typical in Georgian restaurants as a response to whatever question you ask of them. Telling me it is delicious means nothing, if I don’t like a particular ingredient and just want to know whether it has been used in the dish! And what is delicious to you might not be delicious to me, so a little more specific information is always great.
I also really liked that the waitress clearly knew what she was talking about in terms of the food, obviously enjoyed her job, and believed in what they were serving, and because of that, it was easy to trust her to guide us in helping us choose dishes and combinations, and the suggestions were perfect, taking into our account the kinds of things we liked or disliked and she understood that this was new food for us and so we didn’t quite know what to pick. There was no sales pitch, just honesty and great service….very refreshing!
We had two different main dishes, essentially the same thing, but one with beef and one with lamb, since I hate the taste of lamb. It was basically meat, rice, and special spices, and was really delicious and in nice proportions. We had this a tomato and onion salad which broke up the oil of the meat perfectly and was a perfect combination, and we also had Uzbek bread, which again, was beautifully presented, all the food came at the same time, something else which seems to be unusual in Georgia, and it was all fresh and hot, and really delicious.
Then came desert……orange cheese cake! Perfectly balanced, really tasty, and such a nice combination between sweet, creamy, biscuity, and citrus. This was made by an American chef I believe, isn’t a Uzbek dish, but was the first time I had come across cheese cake since arriving in Georgian, and again, it was exactly what I expected, something which I really miss when eating out in Georgia. They also had a lot of other sweets and deserts and pastries to choose from, including an Uzbek traditional sweet with honey and dough, which I didn’t try, but hope to try in the future. But at the really good prices they had, I’m looking forward to eating there in the future, and also hoping to have OPG meetings with the kids there when we meet for smaller group sessions for our film work, with my own students for the International Award, to prepare our outreach work with schools or whatever.
If you haven’t been there yet, then you really should, even if it is just for a cup of green tea or space to hang out and use the internet, and if you have kids then its a great place to go and not be worried about them disturbing the atmosphere. They do have a blog page too, but I don’t think they update it very often: http://ferghana.biz/ so the facebook group is probably the most up to date. I know they another restaurant in Sololaki district, but that one is closed in order to run this one, which is really in a great location in Vera, just off the main street, and in new premises.
I’d be really interested to hear what others think of the restaurant too, so please do leave a comment if you have been there.
Happy eating:) I’m going to upload some photos too, but these are not mine, I took them from their facebook group.