Issue 4, 2014. August-September

   

TKEMALI: INTRODUCING THE WORLD TO GEORGIA'S TASTY, TANGY SAUCE

On July 18, the Georgian parliament ratified the country's Association Agreement with the European Union. The agreement, among other benefits, also opens the way for more Georgian exports to the European Union's common market. While Georgian wine is a widely known commodity, other Georgian products - like tkemali, the tangy omnipresent plum sauce popular with meats and vegetables - have also been making headway into foreign, non-post-Soviet markets.

Marta Ferrer Lubeck

Go to any Georgian restaurant, a friend's dinner, a supra... you will find it there. Tkemali sauce is a staple of the Georgian cuisine. In Georgia they say that just as Americans love ketchup, Georgians love tkemali sauce. And, from profiles in the New York Times to sales on Amazon.com, the rest of the world is also starting to appreciate the tangy taste of tkemali.

Geostat does not list exact numbers for tkemali exports. Exports of "sauces, and preparations therefore; mixed condiments and mixed seasonings" nearly quadrupled from 2010 to 2011, however, mirroring efforts by local companies to sell tkemali abroad. In the first five months of 2014, Georgia exported $434,400 worth of sauces, mixed condiments and seasonings - putting it on track to meet or beat the $792,700 in exports in the same category last year.

Tkemali Sauce Exports

Kula, one of the brands of Gori Feeding Cannery Kula, a leading tkemali sauce exporter, has been exporting tkemali sauce since around 2010 and now sells to over 20 countries—some in the former Soviet bloc, as well as to Canada, USA, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Iran and France.

Vano Goglidze, the director and co-founder of Kula, says that the company produces 12 kinds of tkemali sauce, between 1 and 1.5 million bottles of sauce per year, including the red, green and yellow varieties.

All ingredients used are fresh and are grown in Georgia, adds Goglidze, and up to 60 percent of what Kula produces is exported. "The local market includes supermarkets and restaurants, and Kula produces tkemali sauce for the Georgian Army," states Goglidze.

Asked if there is a particular strategy for a larger market, Goglidze says "The production of tkemali sauce existed during the Soviet period, so people know these products. Kula is sold in countries where there are many Russians, who recognize tkemali sauce." In any case, he notes, all bottles have the English-language label 'Plum Sauce' to make them easily recognizable. Moreover, Kula has participated in numerous food exhibits in Dubai, Germany, Moscow, Kiev, and in October the company will participate in the SAIL exhibit in Paris.

Another company active in the export market is Marneuli Food Factory. The company's director, Irina Gaprindashvili, explains that sales outside Georgia are concentrated in "former CIS countries, where tkemali sauce is well known." Marneuli has also started exporting green and red tkemali sauce to the UK, the first try for an expat market outside CIS." However, Gaprindashvili indicates, "People in Georgia are increasingly buying tkemali sauce rather than preparing it themselves, so [our] sales are concentrated on the local market."

Asked about producing tkemali sauce, Gaprindashvili notes, "The main goal of producing green tkemali is to capture the taste of spring."

"Local farmers are involved in gathering the fruit in west Georgia, and delivery of the fruit is organized by around 10 different suppliers. We buy over 500 tons of tkemali and we produce over one million bottles."

She estimates that 150 employees work at Marneuli in the spring, the highest production time of the year.

Soso Kobakhidze, the agribusiness director for Georgia's Export Development Association, noted that several other companies are also exporting tkemali, including LTD Georgian National Product and LTD Aroma Product. These companies, he said, are "100 percent export- oriented."

"Mostly," he wrote in an email interview, "it is exported to Soviet countries or in the case of other countries (USA, EU, etc), the distribution is mostly to Russian shops, Georgian restaurants, etc, which work for communities from post-Soviet countries."
Beyond Georgia, tkemali sauce is better known in former Soviet countries. But that is changing. From sales on Amazon.com ($7.99 plus shipping) to detailed recipes for the sauce in a New York Times' article on international barbeque, Georgia's humble plum sauce is gaining fans around the globe.

"In the Caucasus Mountains, the mythical birthplace of fire, barbecue sauce means tkemali, a piquant puree of sour plums or rhubarb, with garlic, dill and cilantro.

This is not as strange as it may seem: after all, many Americans add apple or pineapple to their barbecue sauces. You don't need to journey as far as the Republic of Georgia, for tkemali turns up at Georgian restaurants in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, like the colorful Primorski," Steven Raichlen wrote for the Times in his 1999 "Barbecuing With a World Full of Accents."

"As for the appropriate meat, well, you haven't fully savored grilled lamb, pork, sausage or salmon until you have tasted it with a dab of tkemali," he noted.

Irene Makhatatze, the wife of the former Greek Ambassador to Georgia, would probably agree.

Like many Georgians, she learned to make tkemali sauce from her mother but after living in various countries where tkemali is less well known, she has developed a knack for tracking it down.

"In Russia, tkemali sauce is easy to find. In Greece, I would find it in Armenian stores, while in the US I would find it in Russian grocery markets," says Makhatatze.

What Is Tkemali?

The main ingredient of this piquant sauce is the tkemali, a sour plum in season in the spring and summer. The tkemali fruit is relished by Georgians because of its nutritional value—it is high in antioxidants—and for its many uses. Maya Katsiashvili, chef and lecturer at the Georgian Culinary Academy, says "We buy about 20 kilos of tkemali each spring. You can find the fruit at your local market or at the supermarket," though she points out that buying at the local market is better.

Katsiashvili explains that tkemali is also an essential ingredient of chakapuli, a dish generally consumed in the spring and cooked with lamb or beef, tkemali and fresh green herbs. Tkemali is also used in lobio, the Georgian bean dish, and borsh, and she adds, "At the Academy, we like to experiment with new dishes. One example is our dish of stuffed fish with tkemali and tarragon."

As for the sauce, Katsiashvili affirms that at the Academy you can learn the relatively easy method of preparing tkemali sauce. The basic ingredients are: tkemali, garlic, dill, coriander, salt, pepper and pennyroyal—a sort of wild mint.

First, the tkemali is boiled in water until it is soft and the seed can be easily removed. It is then put through a colander, and the remaining mass is mixed with the other ingredients and cooked slightly until a thick consistency is obtained.

Once cool, the sauce is placed in airtight containers and the product can last as long as two or three years if properly stored. Katsiashvili further notes that "Once you have tkemali sauce you can enjoy it with meat and chicken dishes, as well as new potatoes. You just cannot buy new potatoes without buying tkemali sauce to go with them - they are inseparable!"

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