This Georgian Word Means Guilt-Free Cuisine

What’s your meal-time limit on resigned self-disgust?

The more you explore the world, the more you realise that other cultures are better (ie. more honest) than yours at facing the brutal realities of certain aspects of a life well lived.

For example, if you’ve ever felt the weight of that post-lunch part of the day when the rigours of the morning combine with the heat of the early afternoon and it’s just agony to fight your way through to mid-afternoon, take a lesson from Spain, or Greece, or many other parts of the Mediterranean. They gave up pretending to work at this time of day decades ago. Try to visit the average small-sized shop (say, a pharmacy, as I discovered one migraine-racked day in 2006), and you might well find it’s closed, opening again around 4pm. 

Closed? In the middle of the day? But – of course it’s closed! Everyones at home, having a restorative nap, like a normal, sensible person should.

"Siesta" is originally from Italy
“Siesta” is originally from Italy

In Spain, the famous siesta (which originally came from Italy) is something between an enshrined tradition and an unreflective stereotype: yes, there’s a town in Valencia where a siesta from 2pm until 5 is part of a citizen’s rights, but nowadays less than a fifth of the Spanish workforce takes midday naps, even though they take long lunches. (As this BBC Worklife piece explains, these periods of midday downtime have a complicated relationship with Spain’s extraordinarily long modern working day – which may be set to change, as flexible, remote hours become more the norm.)

But the benefits of a “power nap”, long-known but formerly unfashionable in Western workplaces, are starting to get the attention of international workforces with a greater percentage of remote workers than at any time in modern history. A survey of 2,000 Americans cited in this Guardian article found that around a third were napping daily, and 25% of Brits in another survey were doing the same. In a practical sense, many of us are now taking siestas – we just call it something different. 

In other words, these Mediterranean countries were the first to face reality – and it’s only now that the rest of us are doing it too.

Travel is filled with so many gifts of wisdom like this. It’s an opportunity to stop and reflect on your own culture’s way of doing things, and to think, Wow, yeah, you’re right. Our “normal” way of doing things is really daft, isn’t it?

In my experience as a Brit, a lot of these revelations have featured mealtimes: the things we’re usually too much in a hurry to enjoy, too habitually antisocial to turn into a group activity, too used to regarding food as “fuel” rather than “pleasure” to make proper relaxation-time for.

Do you usually find pleasure in eating?
Do you usually find pleasure in eating?

In particular, there was one wedding feast I attended in Italy that blew my mind in all sorts of ways. First, the sheer length of the thing – a good eight hours of dish after dish, staggered in such a way that allowed you to lurch to your feet and go for a walk in an attempt to create some space in your stomach for the next course. Second: the opportunity to talk, to really talk. Who has the time to do that, these days?

And thirdly, something I could never quite put into words, until I learned the Georgian word for it this week.

If you were part of Wheel and Anchor’s previous tour around this Eastern European country, you know how spectacular it food and drink is (here’s Gordon giving the lowdown on it). In the words of travel writers Dan & Audrey of Uncornered Market in their comprehensive guide here

Georgian food is arguably one of the world’s most underrated cuisines, featuring flavors from Greece and the Mediterranean, as well as influences from Turkey and Persia.”

Khachapuri in Georgia
Khachapuri in Georgia

In 2023 we’ll be returning to this part of the world in our Caucasus Explorer programme, announced in this webinar last week. So, for everyone attending, and indeed everyone else, I have a new word for you to learn. It’ll make delicious meals a lot more fun, and it’ll take away a lot of guilt (if you feel anything like this often Brit does).

The word is shemomechama – and, like those enormous German compound words, or Japanese terms that have multiple meanings, it’s a little difficult to translate (but well worth the bother).

For this BBC Travel piece, writer David Farley consulted Georgian chef Meri Gubeladze, owner of the Tbilisi restaurant Shavi Lomi:, 

“It’s when you didn’t intend to eat so much but you accidentally did. Usually it’s when something tasted so good that you couldn’t resist. You blame it on the food – and not the eater – for tasting so good.”

Another restaurant-running chef (Tekuna Gachechiladze of Culinarium Khasheria) expands upon this definition: 

“I don’t remember the first time I heard this word but the experience of shemomechama occurs frequently. It usually happens at a late-night dining experience, when, after a long day of working in the kitchen, I suddenly end up at a late supra, or traditional feast. And even though I may not be hungry at all, I eat and eat, and the experience is mixed in with Georgian singing, laughter, wine drinking and then voila! Shemomechama happens.”

Khinkali, Georgian dumplings
Khinkali, Georgian dumplings

Doesn’t that sound great? It’s not your fault. It’s just something that happens. When you find yourself going back for seconds or thirds in a way that virtually guarantees gastric discomfort and some kind of pharmaceutical remedy in the near future, it’s not something to beat yourself up about. It’s just part of life, and this is how it is. Get real, my friend.

(I also like how it’s retrospective: “well, it happened” instead of “oooh, no, I really shouldn’t”. It’s hard to feel regret about something that you never gave yourself the opportunity to feel pre-regret about. It was simply inevitable, and an integral part of this whole immensely enjoyable experience. So it goes. Onwards.

Later in the article, Farley consults an anthropologist from Montreal for the roots of the phrase:

“In a sense, the verb ‘eat’” – or ‘chama’ – “becomes passive, and the subject a sort of indirect object: ‘it got eaten, and I was somehow involved’, more or less.” 

So, there you have it. Go to Georgia and learn, without guilt or shame, how to be somewhat involved in loads of great food somehow getting eaten, with nothing & nobody to blame except the food itself. Your mealtimes will never be the same again.

Join Wheel & Anchor on a special trip next year to the hardly known yet amazing vibrant cities of Tbilisi and Yerevan, with a whole lot of spectacular countryside and rich history in between. Click here for the details.

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