Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Eat (and Drink) in Georgia, part 1

Foodies rejoice, I'll be doing a (hopefully) multi-part series on the joys, trials, ethics, and technique of eating and drinking while I spend a year in the Republic of Georgia. Today: a note on some of the drinks you may encounter and how to drink them when you are invited into someone's home.

First thing’s first: sorry mom and dad. Drinking alcohol here is the only way to truly experience the culture.

I’m not talking about getting drunk or treating Georgia like a giant PiKa house. What I am talking about is immersing yourself in a rich culture of wine, beer, and something called “cha-cha” which, okay, you have to be a little careful with.

You’ll hear “daleba” – “DRINK!” – a lot. It’s an imperative verb for a reason. In fact, I’m not even sure there is a word that just means “oh, I drink,” because these incredibly inviting people are always shoving something liquid into your face to complement the vast quantities of food that seem to always crowd around your plate should you be a guest in their home. TLG teachers are always guests in a home, by the way, and every volunteer I’ve talked to has expressed concern about gaining weight. But we’ll get to food later. For now, the drink.

I lucked out. I love drinking water, and since I’m fairly active – walking, running, hiking – I need to keep hydrated. Dehydration is not something I want to experience in this part of the country. Thankfully, my family loves water – t’skali – and derive as much pleasure from making me drink their well water as they do from the ghvino (pretty sure I don’t need to translate that one). And you have not experienced water until you come drink it from this very village, from this exact well. I’m telling you, I have had every type of bottled water, been all over the U.S, had that stuff they purify in Mexico and Guatemala. I have put every type of flavoring, carbonation, and stimulant possible in my water since I was born. I have drunk straight from a glacier in Alaska. And never, NEVER have I had water that was this good. Before now, I was unaware that water could have a subtle and complex palette. Before now, apparently, I was ignorant.

And that’s just something that comes out of the ground. My family, much like most others even in the city, makes their own wine from the grapes that are around back. Unlike in the US, where wine is considered cultured and perhaps a tad feminine and men opt for a Bud Lite (cue Brad Paisley and Monday Night Football), wine is a matter of pride amongst all Georgians but particularly the men. And this is mainly what they will try to make you drink copious amounts of. I have heard rumors that Georgian men can down liters of the stuff, challenging themselves and each other not to show signs of drunkenness. Needless to say, I won’t be challenging anybody to anything.

They also have liquor, which comes in many forms. As far as I can tell, it’s fermented from peaches and is sludgy and incredibly sweet. It’s also highly alcoholic, so if you find yourself at a supra – a Georgian feast – don’t be afraid to turn down that second or third shot. Other liquor is common as well, particularly "cha-cha" which is a Georgian vodka. And you should never be afraid to ask about something on the table. Anyone present with a little English competence will be delighted to tell you exactly what you’re pointing to. And then they will insist you drink.

So what’s the etiquette here? There are a few ground rules, but the most important thing to remember is that in their country, you are an ignorant foreigner who needs to be educated about their rich and ancient culture.

1) Try everything. You’re probably American and thus halfway around the world. It’s time to give up that xenophobic fear and dive in. Nothing here will kill you, and you can drink water in most areas right out of the tap – they know how to prepare their food without killing you or themselves.

2) Don’t be afraid to refuse alcohol. Explain to them as best you can that you don’t drink. More than likely, they’ll have met someone before you that doesn’t drink, or someone in the home won’t either. Here’s the key though: if you tell them you don’t drink – really DON’T DRINK. I would highly advise that you not use a teetotaler excuse because you’re afraid about getting too drunk and offending someone. Instead, be cautious at first, learn how strong the alcohol is (very), and go from there. If you’re staying with someone, get comfortable fast.

3) Don’t feel challenged. No one expects you to drink or eat more than a Georgian.

4) Have fun! It’s really exciting to be a guest in a home, constantly watched and always a source of entertainment. Refuse what you need to be enjoy yourself!

My next “How to Eat in Georgia” will be about the food – the amazing, spoil-you-forever food. My mouth is watering as I type this, and I just ate. That’s a little hint.


  1. Hi Adam - I'm applying to come to Georgia in January, hope you don't mind if I follow your posts! It seems like such an adventure, hope all is well.

  2. Hi Adam, I am Carla Canham's uncle Rich. I am really glad you guys are having such a great new experience, and can share it with the world!