Souvenirs from Tbilisi: khinkali dumplings and felted dolls
The national candy of Georgia – the locals refer to it as their own “snickers”. It consists of various nuts threaded on a string, dipped in grape juice and then dried. These long and peculiar sausages in all kinds of colours are sold on every street corner, at least in Tbilisi, and they’re a steal in case you’re out of ideas for those “compulsory souvenirs” for co-workers or relatives’ kids. Georgians themselves are not big fans of sweet stuff, though – the choice of desserts at restaurants is tiny, grocery stores can easily have no ice cream at all, and someone in the street with a churchkhela in hand is an uncommon sight.
Items with khinkali
Khinkali is the greatest pride of Georgian cuisine – the locals eat lots of them and generously serve them to their guests. It’s meat, mushrooms or potatoes wrapped in dough, and you should know two important things about eating it. Firstly, the top, where the dough pleats meet, is not for eating. Secondly, the broth inside is supposed to be skilfully sucked out instead of sploshing it on the plate, table and your clothes. The honour belonging to things like the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Che Guevara, Kurt Cobain or various football teams in the gift shops of other countries, is all taken by khinkali in Georgia. T-shirts, fridge magnets, postcards, even underwear and socks – you can really get anything with a khinkali on it!
Handmade felt dolls, mostly in the shapes of various animals, can be found in any souvenir shop and also bought “freshly made” on the streets from an old lady making them on the spot. For someone inexperienced in handicrafts, the technique of making these dolls looks strange enough – a ball of wool is gradually tousled up with rapid movements, kind of mimicking how a sewing machine needle moves. How the tuft of wool later acquires also a face, tail and other body parts – that bit I didn’t get to witness, though.
Spices and sauces
To stock up on spices it’s best to head to the Deserter Market. It’s perfect for shopping – loud, chaotic and very dirty. The fish and meat are rarely in glass or any other cases – mostly they’re simply sprawled across a table with a snoozing salesman sitting next to it. Sauces and other liquids of unknown origin, filled in Coca-cola bottles, have no markings or indeed any kind of acknowledgement that they’re not harmful for your body. The writing on the spices is mostly in Georgian, but any vendor, unless they’re napping, will tell you everything there is about them and give you a taste. Georgians add cilantro to almost every single dish, but among their national spices is also khmeli-suneli, an important ingredient in the Georgian hkarcho soup, as well as adjika, Svanetian salt and the tkemali sour plum sauce.
A funny hat
The very first time I saw one, a hitchhiker on the roadside was wearing it, and at the time the peculiar “hairdo” even scared me a bit. The dishevelled wool hat, known as the papakha, is a symbol of dignity in the Caucasus, and there was a time when men on a battlefield could only “take it off” together with the head. On our way home from the Kazbegi mountain our Georgian driver stopped at the roadside to buy a hat like that for his new-born child. We kept our suspicion that it might be, at least for now, about ten sizes too big to ourselves. If you’re not feeling like buying one, there are plenty of offers to take a picture of yourself in a hat, or in a full Georgian national costume with a hat, or even in costume, with a hat and on a horse.
Wine and chacha
Of course, they make wine and chacha in Georgia. You can get these drinks everywhere, from vintage wine shops in the centre of Tbilisi to plastic-bottled beverages made by the locals on the roadside or from a bag of someone you’ve just met. Once I even almost bought chacha in one of the rare ice cream shops in Tbilisi – I stopped by to get a refreshing drink on a hot day, and a bottle of tangerine chacha, 50% alcohol volume, stood right next to an identical-looking bottle of lemonade. Georgians take pride in their special winemaking technique – large clay jars built into cellars, so they’re often displayed outside many shops and wineries. A lot of places also sell the peculiar Georgian drinking horns for enjoying wine on festive occasions. Gaumarjos!
Written specially for airBalticBlog by Anete Konste.
Pictures captured by Natalia Golubova.