24 | May | 18

Hugh Thomas

This Is Not A Trend

Sometimes, an explorative enthusiasm for a cuisine not your own comes off as a bit, well, cringey. It can sound imperialistic. Or privileged. It’s something I’ve come to call ‘Bourdainian’ in nature, and there’s lots to be read on the subject.

We’ve covered the ‘rise’ of Japanese and African food before, but truth be told it can be tricky talking about a country’s cuisine being ‘great’ or ‘interesting’ without sounding like some white bloke sticking his nose in and saying ‘my, what nice food you have. Let’s call it a trend. Say I’ve unearthed it to the world.’

Aaaannnyyyway, oftentimes the best way to explore a culture is through its food. And so you’ll find yourself having to point and ask: Peruvian Aji de Gallina – sounds lovely, but what’s in it, please? Finnish karjalanpiirakka – how are you supposed to pronounce that? And while we’re at it, how do you suggest I tuck in to a portion of Romanian mici?

Such is what we’re grappling with here. Last time out, eight countries took part in the European Street Food Awards. Adding to that tally this year, there’ll be representatives from Finland, Portugal, Romania, and Wales. Which in some cases means cuisines and flavours we (and parts of Europe) have not come across before. So when we heard that Georgia were joining the Awards, we were delighted. But we didn’t know what to expect.

‘We have many customers who already know the country through our excellent rugby, chess, and football players; cloth designers; high mountains. And with our ongoing conflicts with Russia,’ says Keti. Keti is part of the husband and wife team behind Suneli, the only Georgian street food trader working regularly in the UK. And taking part in the BritSFA south heat this year. ‘So we thought it’s time to discover Georgian flavours a fresh produce laden with marigold petals, blue fenugreek, Ajika, walnuts… landrace wheat and rye, pickled flower-buds.’

Walnuts are, apparently, the ‘big thing’ in Georgian cuisine, taking centre stage in Suneli’s dish of grilled aubergines with Baje paste. ‘Baje paste is based mainly on ground walnuts, blue fenugreek and marigold petals,’ says Keti. ‘It is garnished with sour pomegranate seeds and fresh coriander. We serve it in a box, or as a wrap (pictured). It isn’t a traditional way to do wraps, but is one of our most popular dishes.’

Yes, Georgian cuisine, obviously, isn’t new. But it is to British ­streets. And the streets of mainland Europe. Was that part of why Chan Hon Meng (the world’s first street food trader to boast Michelin stars) got queues a hundred deep for his chicken and rice in London earlier this year? Probably. Just a good thing no one started calling Singaporean food the ‘hot new trend.’