My glorious Citizens – MERRY CHRISTMAS! Confused by My seemingly tardy felicitation – don’t be, for hundreds of millions of ☦️ people, January 7 is indeed Christmas by the old Julian Calendar still followed by most of the world’s Orthodox churches. The majority of Orthodox Christians are based in eastern Europe – but many Ukrainians now celebrate on December 25 in response to the ongoing war with Russia. Georgia also celebrates today and so I give you today’s recipe for shila plavi!
The timing on this recipe is especially sanguine – My sister-in-law is visiting from Mexico and while she is Protestant, I thought the idea of giving her a second Christmas feast to be both well-timed and demonstrating My hospitality. She is also a pescatarian, and this recipe is one of the few in My repertoire that can be successfully made fully vegetarian (even vegan, if needed). Georgia is My culinary homeland and I never shirk from the opportunity to share one of its glorious recipes with TFD Nation!
There is a certain symmetry in posting this recipe today – ‘shila plavi’ actually translates to ‘funeral rice’, and what better way to celebrate the birth of Christ than to remember that He died for the sake of humanity to be resurrected anew three days later, redeeming all sin in the process? Plus, it’s also delicious and there is even a faint remembrance of Georgian paganism in the recipe, which I will explain.
As noted on Georgianjournal.ge:
In the past, people used to gather, visit families and wish them Merry Christmas singing Alilo. The host families would give food and sweets to the guests (an egg was a necessary gift carrying a symbol of fertility). The tradition was performed all over the country. Each region of Georgia added their traditional elements to it.
Alilo is a long-standing tradition dating back to the V-VI centuries. No sooner had the Soviet Union been established than the Christmas tradition Alilo was forbidden in Georgia. The leaders of the union strived to eliminate religious superstitions and to discredit the holy-day. Fortunately, after the collapse of the regime in the 90s, the tradition was restored to the country by the spiritual leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church Ilia II.
Nowadays, Alilo takes place on Christmas Day on the 7th of January. People in religious costumes are processing through the streets of Georgian cities, collecting food, sweets, and gifts accompanied by traditional Georgian Christmas songs. The presents are gathered in a church where Christmas service is conducted. After the service, the food and the presents are distributed to orphanages, nursing houses, and penitentiaries.
Alilo is often compared to a trick-and-treat tradition which is a Halloween ritual. Children in costumes travel from house to house, asking for treats with the phrase “Trick or treat”. The “treat” stands for gifts, food, and sweets that the host is supposed to give a guest. The “trick” refers to mischief on the homeowners if no treat is given.
Georgian funeral rites are FASCINATING, as noted in this excerpted article from khatikana.wordpress.com:
Caucasus has often been a dream place for ethnologists because of its multicultural and traditionalist environment. Megrelians and Svaans who live in the Republic of Georgia, mountainous part of the Northwest Caucasia, are two ethnic groups with their exceptional ways of ritualizing mourning. Although they live in two different regions – Samegrelo and Svaneti, they share some similarities and differences in the mourning practices.
Georgian rituals are partially rooted in the Christian Orthodox religion as well as pagan superstitions. In order to comprehend and explain the true character of this particular cultural behavior – mourning, we need to take into account several factors which shaped how Megrelians and Svaans perceive death and deal with bereavement and grief.
Firstly, it has to be noted that death is perceived as a public occasion in Svaneti and Samegrelo. Once someone dies, it is considered as alarming news for every inhabitant of the village. In both regions, the family of the deceased person hosts a mourning ceremony in their own house where everyone is welcome to share the sorrow and comfort family members. This ceremony mostly lasts for four to six days.
During this time, the family keeps the body at home and pays last tributes to it by performing various rituals such as staying awake overnight to watch the dead body, lighting the candles, walking around the coffin, praying and etc. By doing so, the Svaan and Megrelian people believe that they help the soul of the deceased person to go to heaven. However, not all of those rituals are Christian which underlines the fact that pagan superstitions have been well preserved and penetrated into the customs and traditions overtime.
Although the Megrelian and Svaan people share common believes about soul and afterlife, in Samegrelo women are the chief mourners whereas in Svaneti men take the privilege to mourn by singing polyphonic songs. The mourning style of the Megrelian women is very intense to hear. They usually sit around the coffin and shouting out the words imbued with a lot of pain and grief.
Sometimes they stress the ending vowels of the words which make the mourning sound like a lyrical poem. Marta Gawinek in the article “Between religion and superstition – Megrelian Burial Traditions“ says: “When I first enter a house where a Megrelian mourning is taking place, I hear a piercing scream. In the courtyard dozens of men are chatting and smoking, inside the house there is a big refrigerated coffin surrounded by women in black. Some of them howl and tear at their faces until they bleed; others just look thoughtlessly into space”.
In the same article the author refers to the Megrelian man Gia Khasia who says: “In fact every custom or tradition meets social or personal needs. Shouting out your emotions and tearing at your face until you bleed lightens the pain and sorrow and helps you protect yourself.” Differ from Megrelian women, in Svaneti males take a position of chief mourners.
Their exceptional way to express the grief makes the Svaan people so unique and special from other Georgian ethnic groups. Instead of crying out loudly, the Svaan men sing funeral chants during the mourning ceremony and after the burial as well. These chants are called “Zari” which means “Bell” in English. The video “Funeral Chants from the Georgian Caucasus” shows the Svaan men performing “Zari” for a funeral.
These particular chants are very significant from an ethnological point of view. It is polyphonic and contains no words. However, if we pay a closer attention to the song, it is noticeable that polyphonic sounds of the chant is an interjection of the word “Vai” which is a common Georgian word for grief and sadness. It’s obvious that in Samegrelo as well as other Georgian regions, woman is a dominant figure in mourning. The only exception is Svaneti, where men so publicly express the sorrow and sing the funeral chants.
Besides this, it is also well known that crying as an emotional activity is socially very unacceptable for the Svaan men. According to a public belief, it reveals a weakness of the man. This stereotype has rooted in the mourning ritual, where males do not cry but sing polyphonic chants instead. Singing funeral chants instead of loud crying (as women do) they somehow maintain and defend their reputations as a strong, dominant social figure.
Differ from Svaneti, Samegrelo had better environmental conditions and rich agricultural resources. Hence, the Megrelian women were playing an important part in the labor and had more opportunities to strengthen their power in the family household and the region. This is why the Megrelian women are dominant figures in mourning ritual.
After describing the differences and similarities between Megrelian and Svaanese practices of mourning, it becomes easier to understand how those groups perceive death in general. The Christian religion has definitely influenced perceptions about afterlife and the existence of soul. The combination of the religious and superstitious beliefs shaped the way of ritualizing death. Mourning styles of these two ethnic groups definitely speak of the social environment of Samegrelo and Svaneti.
Both regions are very small with its population. In the video Funeral Chants from the Georgian Caucasus it is indicated that the Svaan people represent only one percent of the whole population of Georgia. The size of the region always affects the intensity of kinship and relations among the inhabitants of the village. The smaller the region is, the stronger the emotional ties are. The sense of brotherhood and group is stronger in small urban areas than in bigger cities.
This is why death is publicized in the small communities. Compare other liberal countries, such as the United States, death is considered as a private occasion. Individualism as an important pattern of the liberal ideology influences the cultural and traditional practices such as death rituals. The individual sorrow and grief of somebody can barely be shared by other person in the democratic and liberal conditions.
In the collectivist environment such as Megrelian and Svaanese communities, death is a social event which gathers a lot of people together. The grief can easily be shared by other individuals without even knowing the deceased person. It has already become a social norm or responsibility to go to any mourning or burial ceremony no matter how far they live from a cemetery or mourning area.
Shila Plavi’s origins are unknown, even in Georgia – all people know is that it is a traditional meal served at Georgian funerals and also enjoyed outside of that somber event by many families. My guess is that like Mormon funeral potatoes, it is a recipe that can be made pretty quickly, inexpensively, and can scale up to feed a LOT of people. Many versions of the dish, especially during Lent, are meatless and made with mushrooms – My version surprisingly follows the meatless route (yes, I said it!).
The anthorpologist/ethnoboatanist in Me says that mushrooms were the original filler in shila plavi – not meat. Why? Simple – in many ancient pagan cultures, mushrooms are a symbol of the afterlife and resurrection – ever seen how they seemingly come up overnight out of nowhere? The fact that some mushrooms were psychedlic meant they were seen as a gateway to the afterlife as well. So – that’s My theory and I’m sticking with it, and why I’m going old-school with the ‘shroom version!
In case you haven’t figured it out by now – shila plavi is basically Georgian risotto and yes, it even includes grated cheese (sheep cheese, in this case) to be added at the last moment, just like a risotto. Shila Plavi is more forgiving, and doesn’t require the constant stirring of Italian risotto – it’s a hybrid of Silk Road plov and risotto in terms of ingredients, techniques and flavor profile.
Much of the culinary bounty of Georgia – and trust Me, it’s a CORNUCOPIA – is represented in shila plavi, not the least of which is Georgian wine. Not familiar with Georgian wines – you should know that Georgians INVENTED wine, as noted in this fascinating segment from 60 Minutes:
There are so many different varietals of unique grape cultivars in Georgia, I doubt even they know how many are truly extant. However, the dry white wine varietal found in Orgo Vineyards Kisi wine is PERFECT as both a key ingredient in shila plavi and to accompany it as well. Here are some details on the kisi grape and the vineyard:
Though nearly extinct at the turn of the century, kisi has made a comeback in the past few years, and this wine is a terrific example of what’s driving that interest: the ambrosial elixir is fermented in qvevri (earthenware jugs) and buried underground for six months as has always been done for thousands of years.
Wine Enthusiast Magazine notes aromas of orange blossom and white peach prepare the palate for flavors of pineapple, nectarine, apple pie and butterscotch. The wine is full on the palate, and offers a soft, spicy finish.
Wineorigins.co.uk further offers:
Kisi is a rare but a rather exciting indigenous white variety. It comes from the Kakheti region in the south-eastern Georgia and is at least several centuries old, though its exact origin remains unknown. A well-made Kisi wine is gorgeously fragrant, with notes of flowers and stone fruit.
Despite its potential to produce high quality wines, during the Soviet era Kisi vines were widely replaced by the more productive and easier-to-grow Rkatsiteli grape. As a result, Kisi plantings became almost extinct. Nowadays, Kisi vineyards are gradually being restored now with more and more winemakers turning their attention to this promising grape.
Aromas And Styles
Kisi makes stunningly aromatic dry wines with captivating notes of flowers, dried pears and apples. The most amazing feature of this beautiful indigenous grape is that when you smell Kisi wine, you are almost entirely sure that it is going to be sweet. But then you taste it and surprise! – it is dry and refreshing. At the same time Kisi wine overwhelms you with an extensive range of flavours.
Kisi is often vinified in the traditional Georgian style: fermented on skins in big clay amphorae known as qvevri. This gives them a lovely amber hue and brings out notes of apricots, mango, lime, orange, mint and walnuts. Kisi is often blended with other local varieties, such as Rkatsiteli, however a solo-act Kisi wine is truly gorgeous and expressive.
Shila plavi calls for several somewhat unusual ingredients, at least for non-Georgian households. The good news – all of it can be made at home or simply purchased online. Sunflower oil is the classic oil used in Gerogian cuisine and has a delicious flavor profile as well as being very healthy – you can easily buy it here. I have My own recipe for the garlic-laden, herbaceous salt known as Svanetian salt – follow My recipe or buy it pre-made from here.
Khmeli-suneli is THE classic Georgian spice blend – again, you can either go with My version and make it yourself or buy it pre-made from here. Dried porcini powder is not traditional in the dish, but I find it adds a potent and earthy flavor of mushroom to the final product that is truly addictive – buy it from here. Georgians have traditionally used the ground, dried petals of the marigold plant to add yellow color and a dusky, dark flavor profile to their dishes – buy it here or just substitute saffron or turmeric.
My Citizens – enjoy the holiday if you are celebrating it and please do keep your beloved Autarch of Authenticity in mind as you share this delightful – yet somberly-sobriquetted – recipe from the cradle of winemaking, GEORGIA!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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