[TRADING PLACES] Georgia’s fermented delights suit Korean tastes

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[TRADING PLACES] Georgia’s fermented delights suit Korean tastes


From left, Rusudan Pirtskhalava, a Georgian Ph.D. student in Korean studies at Yonsei University, Janice Ahn, president of Jstar Management Solution Company, who has been to Georgia four times and hopes to create a Jeju-style Olle trail in the country and Georgian Ambassador to Korea Otar Berdzenishvili at the Georgian Embassy in central Seoul on Nov. 20. [PARK SANG-MOON]

While diplomats do not ordinarily get to choose their host country, Georgian Ambassador Otar Berdzenishvili was long interested in coming to Korea, ever since he lived with a Korean roommate in upstate New York.

Otar Berdzenishvili: When I was starting college I had a roommate from Korea, and we lived two years together. Naturally we got to talking about our own countries. I was surprised when he told me about Korea and showed me photos from his home, the beautiful nature and landscape, because they looked so much like Georgia. Since my arrival in Korea in April this year, I have been driving all over the country to see these nature and scenery for myself - I’ve been to Pyeongchang [in Gangwon], Sejong, Daegu, Busan, Jeonju and Jeju and I was stunned by the beautiful nature in Korea.

Since his arrival in Seoul, the ambassador has found out another striking similarity between the two nations - their taste for fermented food and drinks.

Berdzenishvili: Did you know that both kimchi and Georgian wine were acknowledged as Unesco World Heritage in the same time period? During the Eighth Session of the Intergovernmental Committee of the Unesco in December 2013, the ancient Georgian traditional Qvevri wine-making method has been inscribed as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is the unique Georgian method of the fermentation of grape juice for making wine. Surprisingly, during the same session, the fermentation method of Korean kimchi was also recognized as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is truly striking coincidence. Though if one thinks thoroughly, perhaps the link between the two products becomes obvious, as they are both fermented inside clay vessels buried underground.

Janice Ahn: The method of using Qvevri clay pot to bury Georgian wine in the ground for fermentation is very similar to burying a Kimchi jar and fermenting it in the ground in Korea. As we had homemade Korean traditional rice wine and Kimchi, Georgians have their own vineyards and use the clay pots for their meals or parties with wine through their own lifestyles.

Ahn: And wine is not the only fermented drinks or food consumed in Georgia - while I was traveling there for two weeks in June, I was surprised to find that neither I nor the Koreans that I was traveling with missed Korean food at all. It was because a lot of the food we ate was fermented - there were vegetables like fermented cucumbers, eggplants, onions, pepper, carrots, tomatoes and paprika. None of us were looking for kimchi or Korean food in those two weeks.


Left: Janice Ahn stands on a tree trunk in a botanical garden in Batumi, Georgia, in June 2016. Right: Rusudan Pirtskhalava at Busan during a holiday with her friends in 2016. [JANICE ANH, RUSUDAN PIRTSKHALAVA]


Georgian wine was what drew Ahn back to the country for the fourth time a few months ago.

Ahn: I visit Georgia on a yearly basis, but this time in June I wanted to get the answer for why Georgian wine is famous by going through various vineyards in Georgia. There is documentation that some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, Georgia had already produced wine. Moreover, some archeologists had discovered traces of wine fermentation on Georgian pottery.

Experts confirmed that a recent discovery of wine residue at two locations in Georgia meant that the country may have started producing wine from 6,000 B.C. - the earliest evidence of wine made with grapes only. China may be the oldest country to have produced a type of fermented drink, though it is widely guessed by experts that it mixed rice and grapes with other ingredients, rather than making wine out of grapes only.

Ahn: It is told that Georgia has various tastes in wine with its 500 kinds of grape varieties. I was able to find the reason why the wine has a rich taste through the method of production in Kakheti winery. The funny story is that the winery owner gave me the wine in a goat horn, which does not usually have its base. If you don’t drink it at once, it is made to be spilled. The horn was quite long, so I told the owner that it seemed difficult to drink all of the wine at once. He said it was not that deep, so I trusted him and drank it all. That was the end of the day’s schedule.

Berdzenishvili: Some of these horns are so large they can hold 2 liters (0.5 gallons) of wine. It is a tradition in some households of Georgia for the father of a bride to drink with the groom on the night of the marriage day. The son-in-law is to drink out of the horn in one gulp, which means you will have…

Ahn: A good night?

Berdzenishvili: That too (laughs), and a very harmonious life in your future.

Ahn: It seemed that wherever I was in Georgia, I was served with unending food and wine. And oftentimes, we would have a toastmaster at the head of the table, giving us one toast after another in the unending sequence of meals.

Berdzenishvili: There is a whole philosophy in Georgia when it comes to toasting. You cannot be a toastmaster without good educational background - you have to be well read in history and philosophy. And when you are the toastmaster of a table, you have to entertain without getting drunk, even though you are drinking to the bottom of the glass each time you toast. In the traditional Georgian festivals, toastmasters drank some 5 to 10 liters of wine as they offered some 20 to 25 toasts. In these festivals, people would enjoy together some 50 to 60 dishes at the table for some four to six hours.

Berdzenishvili: I think in our DNA, all Georgians are toastmasters. But in reality, very few become really good ones.

If there is one thing that Ahn wants to bring to Georgia, it is the concept of the Olle trail from Jeju.

Ahn: I am trying to introduce Georgian “Olle” route and “Dulle” route to Koreans to let them have the opportunity to see the clean and majestic nature in Georgia.

Berdzenishvili: Janice came up with the idea and the Georgian Embassy is supporting this project. We hope to be able to have a trail like this in Georgia sometime next year.

Ahn: Hiking is already a big thing in Georgia. I think it will be feasible to create routes that will be connected with wineries and restaurants in hilly countries of Georgia. As far as I know, Georgia has more than 7 million people visiting the country every year, while it has a population of nearly 5 million. This is the reason why new hotels, restaurants and shopping malls are being constructed in Tbilisi. I was able to witness the changes in many sections according to the tourism demand. And wine in Georgia is definitely on the rise in the global market.

Berdzenishvili: Georgian wine entered a more diversified market after the wine embargo from Russia in 2006 - at the time Russia was our major market for wine. We have since diversified our market and now we are selling Georgian wine to China, the United States and European countries.

Old bards and poets

Rusudan Pirtskhalava is the first Georgian to come study in Korea through the Korea International Cooperation Agency (Koica). She came in 2005 and by the time she returns, sometime in a few years, she will likely be the first professor to teach East Asian affairs and speak fluent Korean in Georgia.

Rusudan Pirtskhalava: I was always interested in East Asian studies from when I was little, so I chose to major in East Asian languages at the Free University in Tbilisi in 2001. I came to Korea in 2005 on the Koica program and stayed for some four months studying Korean. That’s when I learned that Koreans are as passionate and hospitable as many Georgians I know.

Pirtskhalava: It was the first winter that I was experiencing in Korea - I had gotten on a cab to get to the Hongdae area [near Hongik University in western Seoul] to meet up with some friends. My Korean was poor at the time and I thought I told the cab driver to please drive me to Hongdae. I got off the cab and called my friend to say that I am near the Hongdae subway station. But we could not find each other. It turned out I was in the Gondae area [near Konkuk University in eastern Seoul].

Pirtskhalava: So I asked a passerby to help me out, who helped me get another cab, and then spoke to the driver to tell him my destination in Korean. As I got in the cab, she gave me her phone number, telling me to call her if I needed her help. I was quite awed at this kindness. But it didn’t end there. I got off the cab at Hongdae and was meeting my friend, when I received a text message from this lady, asking if I found the place. I was deeply touched by her sincerity. I had heard before and read about how Korean people are kind and polite. But by experiencing it myself, I really can say now with confidence that Korean people carry a sense of responsibility and kindness quite unmatched in other parts of the world.

Having studied in Korea for years since then, Pirtskhalava now occasionally assists professors here to translate literary works from Korean to Georgian - one of her projects include assisting professor Cho Ju-kwan at Yonsei University in translating poet Yun Dong-ju’s collection “Sky, Wind, Star, and Poem” into Georgian and in translating Shota Rustaveli’s “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” into Korean.

Pirtskhalava: The origins of Georgian literature date to the 4th century - some sources say that the Georgian script’s exact origin has never been established - when a Georgian alphabet was developed. In the 10th century, during King David IV and later Queen Tamar’s period, Georgia had a cultural golden age. One of the most famous writings from that period is Shota Rustaveli’s sophisticated poem “Vepkhvistqaosani,” called “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” in English.

Pirtskhalava: In the poem you can find a lot of aphorisms, and most of them are similar in style with old Korean sayings - what you call sokdam here. I think Koreans also passed through a long way to develop its literature - in the fourth to fifth centuries, in the period of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, Koreans used Chinese characters to record their history and in this process created high-quality literature. That’s why Korean literature in Chinese is recognized as the greatest asset of old Korean classics and has important historical value.

Studying the two languages, Pirtskhalava realized there are quite a few commonalities between hangul and the Georgian alphabet.

Pirtskhalava: Both of our countries have its own unique script, which is in the list of the 14 existing alphabets in the world. Unesco included hangul on its list of Memory of the World heritage, and the Georgian script on the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

[BY ESTHER CHUNG] chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr

Georgian Ambassador Otar Berdzenishvili

Ambassador Otar Berdzenishvili arrived in Seoul in April this year. Previously, he was the ambassador to Brazil from 2011 to 2016 and deputy minister of defense from 2008 to 2009. His diplomatic postings also include the United States, Canada and Mexico. Born in Tbilisi, the top envoy is married with two daughters and studied at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in 2005.

Rusudan Pirtskhalava

Rusudan Pirtskhala, a Ph.D. student in East Asian studies at Yonsei University, came to Korea for the first time in 2005 through the Korea International Cooperation Agency’s scholarship program. She returned in 2007 through a scholarship program of the Korea Foundation and studied Korean once more at Sogang University in western Seoul.

Wishing to study more about Korea and its society, Pirtskhalava then studied Korean society and literature at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in 2009. Upon finishing her studies here, she intends to return to Georgia to teach East Asian affairs at a university. She has assisted professor Cho Ju-kwan at Yonsei University in translating poet Yun Dong-ju’s “Sky, Wind, Star and Poem” into Georgian.

Janice Ahn

Janice Ahn, president of Jstar Management Solution Company in Seoul, has been to Georgia four times. After she fell in love with the country, she became involved in a project to promote more tourism in Georgia by creating hiking trails similar to those found in Jeju Island in Korea. One of the best things about Georgia, she says, is the unending courses of hearty meals and wine.
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