By Tornike Kakalashvili
There is nothing new with food disputes or culinary claims between different countries or cultures. The Greek-Danish decades-long “gastronomic fight” over the feta cheese and current feud over halloumi cheese between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots are some of these examples.
The Caucasus region is seemingly one of the ‘hot-zones’ of these kinds of food quarrels. Armenia still does not accept the dolma as an Azeri dish while it is already included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists as an Azeri one. Additionally, Armenia has some culinary disagreements with Turkey on the Kashkak dish, which is also recognized in the UNESCO list as a Turkish meal.
Georgia and Armenia – two neighboring countries – officially enjoying warm bilateral ties, often referred to as “brotherly nations” by high-ranking officials from both sides, have a bitter unofficial historical rivalry. These countries have gotten into a row over food, although not on the governmental level yet.
Not long ago, there were several high-profile cases where some people laid claim to Khinkali, Khachapuri, Churchkhela, and other Georgian dishes as Armenian ones, which caused huge social media backlash in Georgia.
Back in 2018, an Armenian restaurant in the Spanish capital laid claim to Khachapuri, a traditional Georgian cheese bread. Adjaruli khachapuri is one of the regional varieties of the dish, which comes from the seaside region of Adjara but it is referred to as ”Noah’s Ark Khachapuri” in Madrid’s Armenian eatery. The Facebook page of the restaurant has even proposed its own fictitious definition of the Georgian word Khachapuri, which literally translates as “Cheese Curd Bread” and provocatively claimed in a post that “Armenia not only gave the alphabet and Christianity to Georgia but also Khachapuri, a flag, wine and much more.”
Currently, it is impossible to find the page on Facebook, but screenshots remain. Their Instagram page, however, still portrays Georgian cuisine as Armenian. I have contacted the restaurant in Madrid via Instagram, but they declined to comment.
In 2018, an Armenian restaurant in Los Angeles, caused a stir after claiming that its menu included dishes from the regions of Armenia, including Khinkali and Khachapuri. Today their webpage suggests that they offer dishes from the regions of the Caucasus. Apparently, this correction of the text is a result of Georgian social media infuriation.
Back in 2019, American news website laist.com published an article with the misleading headline ”Khachapuri, Ancient Armenia’s Stuffed Crust Pizza, Is One Of LA’s Hottest Dishes.” This sparked outrage in Georgia with many expressing their anger on social media. After a sea of complaints from Georgians, the website was forced to issue an explanation at the beginning of the article saying they’ve changed the controversial headline of this story “to better reflect the complex history of the dish”. Now you can read the publication under the headline: “Khachapuri, Ancient Stuffed Crust Pizza, Is One Of LA’s Hottest Dishes”.
On 3 May 2019, London-based “Calvert Journal” published an article with the title “Khachapuri wars: can everyone stop calling Georgia’s national dish ‘Armenian pizza’” where author Katie Marie Davies harshly criticized LAist and some other Western media outlets for badly-researched articles. Additional social media outcry occurred when a photo from some Russian supermarket emerged, where Churchkhela, a traditional Georgian candy, was referred to as ”Armenian Snickers.”
Such disputes are widely seen in Georgian society as an attempt to expropriate their material or non-material cultural heritage. The cuisine is not just a sacred thing for Georgians, but a source of pride as well. Gastronomy is regarded as a distinct part of their Georgian national identity and culture.
The National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia (NACHPG) has a registry of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Georgia, where some dishes are inscribed, including “Tradition of Khachapuri in Georgia,” and “Technology of Kakhetian Churchkhela.”
I asked the government agency if they have any leverage to protect Georgia’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), In this particular case – the Georgian food, from plagiarism.
Maka Taktakishvili, an expert at the NACHPG, says in an official letter sent to me that Georgia is safeguarding its ICH in accordance with the 2003 UNESCO Convention.
“The mechanism for protection of ICH elements recognized within the country is those elements registered by the National Intellectual Property Centre of Georgia – Sakpatenti, which have a defined area of origin and geographical indication, which is regulated by the Law on Appellations of Origin and Geographical Indications of Goods.”- Taktakishvili says in her letter.
According to her, four Georgian elements are already inscribed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and Georgia is currently planning to introduce “Khachapuri Culture in Georgia” to UNESCO.
“Before the recognition of the element, we have to create documentation, which is already underway, and when we submit the element to UNESCO, the organization has two years to consider it and grant the status.”- Maka Taktakishvili emphasizes.
She notes that the country’s culinary traditions have been influenced for centuries by the history of the country, the migration processes of peoples, groups, wars, mixed families, and other factors. So, it is quite difficult to prove such affiliations when it comes to food.
Giorgi Oganesyan, a civil activist, who is a Georgian citizen of Armenian background believes that there may be intersections between the cultures of the neighboring nations, including in gastronomy, though he thinks that ICH must be protected in all countries.
“The two neighbors may have the same characteristics in cooking. During my several visits to Armenia, I discovered that some dishes that are also prepared in Georgia, for example, Tolma, Mtsvadi, Churchkhela, Satsivi are also prepared in Armenia, but they have a different name.”- Oganesyan reckons.
The civil activist assures me that he has come across many Armenophobic statements about the food dispute in Georgia because, as he says, there are saturated stereotypes in Georgia and similar ones in Armenia – both nations blaming each other for appropriating things from each other, including dance or music.
“I have heard similar things in Armenia, that Georgian composers often write songs on Armenian musical melodies as if Georgian dances include some Armenian dance elements. Of course, all this is wrong. I think all this is just anti-state statements as it only serves to stir up strife between the two nations.”- He supposes.
Giorgi Oganesyan is optimistic about Georgian-Armenian relations, however. He believes that such gastronomic disagreements will not cause a confrontation between the two countries, as friendship and historical ties are so strong that nothing can hurt the relationship, not even, what he calls “far-fetched culinary problems”
“I believe there will be an eternally friendly relationship between the two nations.“- Oganesyan says.
Will cultural appropriation finally affect the bilateral relations of the South Caucasus countries? Will the officially declared friendship turn into hostility? – These questions remain open. If the differences between these nations are not addressed urgently, the current Georgian-Armenian “brotherhood” could be at stake.
By Tornike Kakalashvili
Illustration: Sonia Engström