Abkhazian Cuisine Links Black Sea to the Mediterranean

The borders of Abkhazian cuisine, like the political borders of that conflicted region, are hard to define. Lea Ocheri and Bella Chanan try to pin it down.

Majwanai – a stew of lamb, sour green plums and herbs – which Georgian flavors with Abkhazian cornmeal porridge.
Dan Peretz

Lunchtime at the Shota Restaurant in the Western Galilee. Lea Ocheri and her daughter Limor remove dozens of black-and-white family photos from a plastic sleeve. “We have to scan them, or at least put them in an album,” mumbles Lea, “and we don’t have time to do it.” The old photos show the women of the family, black-haired and wearing elegant dresses and tailored coats, alongside the men, on the backdrop of the promenade of Sukhumi, their home town and the capital of the Abkhazia region.

In other photos, family members gaze seriously into the camera while fans of water spurt from fountains in the ancient port city on the shores of the Black Sea. “The photographer always stood there, at the fountains in the city square, and once a year we would have our pictures taken,” says Ocheri, who immigrated to Israel with her family at the age of 10.

“It was a big city, ethnically mixed and liberal. As opposed to other cities in Georgia, there was a strong Russian influence, and we spoke Russian at home. Sukhumi was a financial and intellectual center for the surrounding villages – Abkhazia is considered a rural area and anyone who moved to the capital improved his quality of life. But anyone who wanted a real higher education went to Moscow or Leningrad. The Jewish community of Sukhumi also differed from other Jewish communities in Georgia.”

Lea’s father, Shliko Kricheli was a merchant who, like his forefathers, had a shop in the central marketplace of Sukhumi. “Most of the Jews in the city were merchants. According to the family legend, the members of the Kricheli family wandered in search of sources of income until in the early 19th century they settled in the port city, which had extensive connections with Turkey.” Anyone who was born and grew up in the city remembers the beautiful bridges over the Black Sea, the merchant ships that anchored at the port, the fragrance of the oleander blossoms, the avenues of palm trees and the many languages that could be heard in the square of the cosmopolitan city.

“Everything was destroyed in the war,” says Lea, referring to the war that took place in Abkhazia in 1992, shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Abkhazia, which Stalin annexed to Georgia in the 1930s, demanded its independence in the late 1990s and paid a heavy price in death and destruction. The Jews of Sukhumi, who like other Israelis have been traveling to Georgia often in recent years, almost never visit Abkhazia, whose independence is recognized by only four countries and which is accessible only via Russia.

Red mullets replace anchovies

Red mullet coated with cornmeal, fried in deep oil and served with spicy herbs
Dan Peretz

In 2014 Lea Ocheri and Bella Chanan opened Shota, a Georgian restaurant, in Kibbutz Shomrat. Since then the restaurant has become a center for joyful feasts, led by the pair of charismatic friends, as well as excellent Georgian cuisine.

At the beginning of this year Lea’s mother passed away – the bundle of family photos is part of her estate – and perhaps because of their longing, this month Bella and Lea are offering a unique Abkhazian menu in addition to the regular one.

Like the controversial political and national borders, the borders of Abkhazian cuisine are hard to define. A multi-ethnic community – especially one that has experienced a rich and complex history – absorbs various cultural influences, and the nuances that differentiate between Georgian and Abkhazian cuisines are subtle.

“Abkhazian cuisine has more Russian influence,” says Bella, while rolling up thin pancakes and filling them with fish eggs. In the division of work between the two friends and partners, Bella is in charge of the food and Lea is the hostess. “Abkhazia is a hilly country that was inhabited by shepherds and cowherds, so that the basic diet included meat and dairy products, with the addition of Black Sea fish and significant Greek-Turkish influences.”

Ajika, a spicy red pepper paste used as a basis for various sauces and dishes, is one of the foods most identified with Abkhazian cuisine. A lightly smoked bean stew is another typical dish. (I once ate a similar stew in a Black Sea restaurant: The beans, a divine species that is unfamiliar in Israel, were cooked in butter and tomato sauce and the stew was worthy of being served to VIPs along with caviar and truffles.) In addition, there are various dishes made with cornmeal. Although corn, or maize, reached the Black Sea region only in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became an integral part of the cuisine of the communities living along its shores. Corn bread and cornmeal porridges – made of coarse cornmeal and combined with milk, butter or cheese – are also among the basics of Abkhazian cuisine.

Majwanai – a stew of lamb, sour green plums and herbs – which Georgian flavors with Abkhazian cornmeal porridge.
Dan Peretz

The line connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean – two multicultural regions that have been the sites of war and conflict – is in evidence on Shota’s Abkhazian menu in the red mullet coated with cornmeal, fried in deep oil and served with spicy herbs. The Mediterranean red mullet replaces the hamsie, the famous and delicious Black Sea anchovy, or sardines.

Another wonderful dish is majwanai – a stew of lamb, sour green plums and herbs – which combines the familiar Georgian flavors with Abkhazian cornmeal porridge. My favorite dish is a sorrel soup. Sorrel soups are common in various cuisines in the large geographical area of the former Soviet Union, but the Georgian-Abkhazian version is particularly wonderful: full of herbs, with a rich nutlike texture that adds richness and complexity, and with a spicy-tart taste.

Sorrel soup

Shota's sorrel soup
Dan Peretz

Ingredients (serves six):

4 tbsp. olive oil

50 gm. butter

1 medium leek

(the white part only)

1 white onion

1 1/2 liters water

or chicken broth

a bunch of cilantro

a bunch of parsley

a bunch of spearmint

1 package (250 gm.) sorrel

3 tbsp. tamarind paste

(available in spice shops)

3 crushed garlic cloves

1/2 hot green pepper

(optional) finely chopped

250 gm. ground walnuts

salt

Cut the leek into thin strips and chop the onion into small cubes. Heat the oil and butter in a pot, add the leek and the onion and fry until golden. Add the chicken broth or water and bring to a boil. Chop the herbs and the sorrel coarsely.

Add the other ingredients except for the walnuts, bring to a boil and lower the flame. Cook the soup on a medium flame for about 30 minutes.

Blend the soup with a hand blender, add the ground walnuts and cook for another 10 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Serve the soup cold or hot, with sour cream or hard-boiled eggs.