Over the last five years, Tbilisi, Georgia’s ancient capital, has undergone somewhat of a culinary renaissance.
There are now tens of ethnic restaurants that have sprouted-up within the city limits. While still a far cry from a ‘foodie’ haven, Tbilisi now has more options for food enthusiasts than at any time in recent memory. With options ranging from Indian to Thai, and Ukrainian to Chinese, slowly but surely, Tbilisi’s culinary landscape is becoming more diverse.
Not everyone is open to exploring new things, however. This is particularly true when it comes to sampling new cuisines. In the case of Georgia, a country which boasts a rich and delicious cuisine of its own, getting locals to leave their culinary comfort zone to explore foods foreign to their palate, is not always an easy sell.
Food for thought
“Why would I want to eat food from another country?” asked Davit, 57, a retired taxi driver. “There are plenty of Georgian dishes to choose from. Our national food has a famous tradition and is also quite delicious,” he said emphatically.
Irakli Asatiani, the Executive Chef for Holiday Inn Tbilisi, told Discover Georgia that this kind of mindset is a really big problem in Georgia. He hopes in the future this will change.
“Many people don’t like trying new foods. Georgians generally like what they know. For example, in our restaurant, we have a lot of interesting dishes to choose from, but the most popular dish is the Caesar salad. We’re just not open to new foods. We need more time,” he said.
Shota Machavariani, head of PR at Bank Republic Société Générale, and a self-professed food-lover agrees, but says that Georgians are now starting to become bolder when it comes to trying new things.
“I think Georgians are generally not very keen on trying new foods. We need a lot of time to get used to new tastes and flavours. I remember when they first opened Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants in Tbilisi, people were complaining, saying they didn’t like the taste. But now, people are starting to come around, and are beginning to really love trying new and interesting dishes.”
According to researchers, this tendency to eschew new cuisine is referred to as food neophobia. This condition is defined as the reluctance to eat or avoid novel foods, and is influenced by several socio-demographic factors, including culture, education, as well as the social and economic environments.
Traditionally, people used to choose food solely for existential reasons – hunger and basic nutrition for survival were powerful motivators. But as societies have evolved, and have become more diverse and complex, food selection choices have too. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that cultural influences have become a very important determinant in making food choices. In fact, research done in the United States found that as diversity increased, so did growth in the ethnic restaurant segment of the food service industry.
The fussy eater
Over the past several years, global migration patterns, and liberal visa policies have contributed to Georgia’s ethnic diversity – this is especially the case with Tbilisi, the country’s main urban centre. So naturally, more ethnic restaurants have popped-up around the city. This does not mean, however, that customers are queuing-up outside the door for a seat at the table. Opening a restaurant that serves unfamiliar ethnic cuisine in a country with a strong culinary tradition like Georgia’s requires a subtle, but definitive strategy.
To be successful in the highly competitive food sector, restaurants need to appeal to their customers’ tastes. One of the challenges for the owners of restaurants serving ethnic fare is knowing how to appeal to clients who have little or no experience with international cuisine. Discover Georgia spoke with Tamara Javakhadze, the PR and Marketing Manager of the Doors Group, which recently opened a new Chinese restaurant called Mandarin in Tbilisi’s swanky Vake district, to discuss some of the challenges of catering to the culinary specifications of local diners.
“First of all, in Georgia, we really like meat – you can’t just give a Georgian a ginger salad – they are never going to be happy with that,” Ms. Javakhadze says, laughing. “Georgians tend to eat greasier, unhealthy foods – heavy stuff, with lots of meat, and lots of salt.”
So, in an effort to accommodate their clients’ needs and tastes, Javakhadze said that they met with the restaurant’s chefs and made some minor adjustments to their menu.
“We asked our chefs to try and create some dishes that are closer to what Georgians like – dishes like chicken with sesame seeds, chopped beef in spices, fried mushrooms cooked in breadcrumbs and eggs, rice and noodles, as well as pork. All of these are in high demand at our restaurant,” she notes.
“It’s really tricky, you have to try and tailor the menu to everyone’s needs, all the while trying to retain the authenticity of the cuisine,” Javakhadze explained.
Illustrating the challenges ethnic restaurants face when introducing new foods to their customers, Javakhadze offered a humorous anecdote about Georgian food sensibilities, explaining that at first, there was quite a learning curve when they opened their first restaurant eight years ago.
“When we opened Buffet, an Italian restaurant, several years back, we brought in a Georgian chef who had previously spent many years in Italy honing her culinary skills. The first time she cooked pasta in Georgia, everyone was returning the dish, saying “this is raw, it needs to be boiled longer”. They didn’t know what al dente was. So after that, we kind went on a mission to introduce Italian cuisine to our customers.”
Echoing what Chef Asatiani had mentioned earlier, Javakhadze explains that many of their Georgian clients know beforehand exactly what they want on the menu.
“Nobody comes in the restaurant, sits down, opens the menu and chooses something they have not tried before. They want what they already know.”
A slow evolution
Though wider acceptance of ethnic cuisines in Tbilisi has been slow to come about, in some Georgian circles, dining at ethnic restaurants has already started to become fashionable – especially for young professionals who can afford it.
“I love ethnic food,” explains Ruska Jandieri, 27, a grants assistant for the Eurasian Partnership Foundation in Tbilisi. “I really like Indian cuisine, but I think my favourite has to be French cuisine. It’s like a masterpiece to me. It seems like someone has worked very hard on the tiny details, and put great effort into preparing it, and this really comes out in the taste,” she says.
Looking to the future, it is still too difficult to gauge how attitudes towards ethnic cuisines will evolve in Georgia. With such a highly regarded culinary tradition that features dishes like xachapuri (Georgia’s famous cheese bread),khinkhali, (artfully prepared dumplings with seasoned meat), and other more sophisticated dishes like chakapuli (lamb served with onion, tarragon leaves and cherry plums) and ajapsandali (a popular dish consisting of eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, and cilantro), Georgians are certainly not gastronomically deprived.
As such, Georgia’s revered culinary tradition represents a formidable foe for those opening new ethic restaurants who have hopes of attracting new local customers. However, as more ethnic restaurants become part of the urban landscape of Tbilisi, more people are bound to become curious of the tastes that await them.