This past April it dawned on me that I hadn’t even thought of creating a chapter on Georgian Jews for my Passover cookbook. Why? For some reason I thought that both historically and culturally Georgia would be more like Eastern Europe, and that the Jewish community, therefore, would be predominantly Ashkenazi. But in doing a little bit of reading about the country in general and the Jewish community in particular, I learned that they were among the oldest communities in the Jewish diaspora that many believe goes back to the days of the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. While in fact Russia does border Georgia to the north, upon closer look I observed that to the south were Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, three countries that one could categorize into the Near East, Eurasia, or Central Asia, depending upon your perspective.
I decided to email a Milena Kozhin, a young Georgian-American woman I had met back in 2009 to ask her what she considered herself to be, and she confirmed that not only did they (the Georgian Jews) not consider themselves to be Ashkenazi, neither were they truly Sephardic. “We are our own thing,” expressed Milena’s aunt Irina, “and my husband will get upset if you call us one or the other.”
On two separate occasions, once in May and again in June of 2014, I went to visit Milena so that we could cook together, and I could see how the dishes reflected this crossroads of East meeting West. When we first entered the apartment of her Grandmother’s I observed a beautiful table of all kinds of fruits, cakes, and pastries, that was interestingly reminiscent of my visit to a Bukharian couple who had also set their table with beautiful fruits and breads. We made Pkhali Charkhali (Beet Salad with Garlic, Walnuts, and Coriander Leaves), Meat Blinchiki (Fried Meat-Filled Matzah Blintzes), and Pelamushi (Grape Juice Pudding). And like the language, the unusual combination of flavors and ingredients felt unfamiliar to me. Here is what I observed: Georgians like to serve many dishes at once, and the flavors are strong but not hot. They use a lot of walnuts, coriander leaves, garlic, and fenugreek, and are known for their many dairy products and variety of delicious breads. And if you think that you still might have figured them out, for Passover they eat corn meal, but not rice.