Good Food and Games

Mother Georgia Holds
Sword and Goblet
TBILISI, Georgia
May 8, 2011

Two benefits to this detour into Georgia: good food and games.

I've been eagerly partaking of so much of the food and drink that was either rare or forbidden in the countries I crossed before here. I mentioned in an entry a couple weeks ago how inordinately happy I was to find pork and red wine. Traveling in Muslim countries over the previous six months I never found those items on any menu.

But, beyond what ingredients are available, the cuisine in this country is unique. Now that I've spent longer in Georgia, I've found even more food on offer that I enjoy.

There's a dish served everywhere which I liked immediately: khinkali. Those are dumplings boiled up in a thick, doughy skin. Before boiling, the end is tied off into a thick stem that doubles as a handle to hold onto the dumpling while eating it. (When eating khinkali, be careful to first pierce a small hole and suck the hot broth out before biting down.)

In a couple of the countries that I recently came through, Turkey and Iran, I did find a simple variety of cheese. But it was soft and bland. It's only since coming to Georgia I've found cheese made in a way I prefer: solid and saltier. It's not yet Emmenthaler or Gruyere, but it's getting better. Khachapuri, probably the best-known dish of Georgian cuisine, is a kind of pastry baked with such cheese inside.

Stalls every few paces along every street sell khachapuri as well as all manner of other pastries with various fillings. Walking down the street yesterday I couldn't resist something I saw behind a window. Without knowing just what it was, I could tell it would be something sticky and sweet, flaky and light. It turned out to be something baked up with honey, raisin, and nuts inside: delicious. Right now, I'm at a cafe across from the Armenian cathedral in the Old Town. Today, their offerings include a sweet pastry with sour cream baked inside and savory pastries with either a mushroom-and-rice fillling or one made of tarragon. I'm quite happy to be exploring somewhere with such a different selection of flavors.

I'm staying just across the river from the Old Town in Dion's former home, a large place in the Marjanishvili neighborhood. Her ex-roommates are fun and welcoming. Dion herself has come back to Tbilisi for the holiday weekend (the third long weekend in a row!) Her main reason for this visit is to bid farewell to Ian, her boyfriend of recent years. They've both moved on, literally. Dion has moved on to her NGO in Abkhazia. Ian is about to pursue work in Bulgaria. They've been taking these final days sharing what remaining time they can spend together.

Dion and Ian Calculate Numbers
So, along with the others who still live on in the home, we've been playing lots of games. They've taught me a couple good card games. The first was Napoleon, a game similar to many others in which a trump suit is declared and tricks are bid upon. (E.g., Spades, Bridge.) The twist in Napoleon is that in each hand the person trying to take the most tricks plays with a silent partner whose identity is known to only that player, themselves.

There was another game called Durak, the Russian word for "fool". Durak also involved trumps and players following suit with higher cards, but is fast-paced, each hand requiring "attacks" on a particular player, using more and higher-valued cards.

Even better than learning these new card games was when Ian and Dion gave me an introduction to some of the game shows broadcast on British television. I had never heard of two long-running programs: "Countdown" and "University Challenge". The latter was arcane trivia questions delivered in rapid-fire, akin to the most anglo-centric pub quiz I could imagine. The formula for Countdown was simple, but compelling: players competed with one another, re-arranging a jumble of letters to be the one to spell the longer word, or inserting operators between a selection of numbers to derive an exact amount. Ian quickly scripted out a computer program to generate numbers for our own miniature rounds of Countdown.

I'll have to remember how all these games are played in order to share them with the nephlings back in Seattle. Though, knowing how clever they are, I'll likely get trounced whenever we first play.

My contribution to game time every night has, naturally, been SET. By our final round of SET this evening, the cards were flying off the table. Everybody in the house has become adept and, I hope, addicted.

Tomorrow, I leave on the overnight train departing at 22:55. Next stop, Batumi, near the Turkish border.