Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Georgia: State Silk Museum, Tbilisi

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An old postcard of the State Silk Museum, Tbilisi. It looks very much the same today.

On the left bank of the Mtkvari river, Tbilisi, is a small gem of a museum - the State Silk Museum. Although there are numerous silk museums in Europe and Asia, only this Georgian one, founded in the 19th century, still resides in the building specifically for the museum's purpose.

For centuries Georgia had its own flourishing silk industry. - remember it was also part of the Silk Road - and was a source of silk for the Russian Empire. The Caucasian Silk Station was founded in 1887 under the leadership of the renowned naturalist, Nikolay Shavrov. It was with his direct engagement that the complex was built during 1890-1892 at the end of Mikhail Street, what is now Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue, within the Mushtaid Gardens.
Originally it housed a cocoon house, silk spinning and reeling mills, a silkworm nursery and other structures. The main building, which clearly dominates the complex, survives in an authentic shape. It is one of the finest works of Tbilisi architecture of the late 19th century and is listed as a monument of national significance.

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Ionic capital crowning pilasters with high relief showing the silk moth Bombyx mori and the mulberry leaves

As architectural historian Maia Mania writes: "... the entire complex, was designed by an architect of Polish origin, Alexander Szymkiewicz, who then worked in Tbilisi. Szymkiewicz is responsible for numerous public and residential buildings erected in Tbilisi in the second half of the 19th century.

Stylistically, the building represents a fusion of traditions, with its fa├žade and elevations displaying features typical of the so-called Russian style, Classicism, and Gothic and Islamic arts.

Of particular note is the interior adornment which, apart from architectural decoration, includes designed elements, such as a frieze, a cornice, a pilaster and a capital, all of which display silk related features including a mulberry leave, a silkworm, a silkworm cocoon and a pupa".

Alexander Szymkiewicz also designed all the library furniture and display cabinets: these remain intact today. They were built in the wood workshop of the museum's basement. The library includes around 20,000 volumes related to silk farming and natural sciences in many languages. Visitors are welcome to use the library's resources - though note that there is no photocopier.

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Library of the State Silk Museum - note the stunning parquetry floors

The main exhibition space displays several collections:

Dyes: there are 144 exhibits collected at the end of the 19th century,. They were imported from 16 countries. Most of them are plant, organic and mineral dyes, with some synthetic dyes added from a later period.

Silkworm eggs containers: countries exchanged silkworm eggs for centuries and special perforated transportation containers were created. The museum's 125 box collection testifies to the international trading relationships that the Caucasian Sericulture Station had in the past.  Charming reproductions are available as souvenirs.

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Reproductions of the covers of silkworm egg containers with perforations

Silk cocoons: most of the 5,000 different varieties were collected in the 1880 - 1890s from over 20 countries. This diversity once again demonstrates the scale of international contacts that the Caucasian Sericulture Station had across the world.

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Display case of cocoons at Georgia's State Silk Museum

In addition, there is the Jacquard textile collection of almost 100 patterns, which was brought from France in the 1890s. The Jejimi collection, a Caucasian silk textile usually produced at home in the 19th century, has 45 samples. The lace collection was imported from Munich at the end of the 19th century and consists of almost 400 samples of lace - one of the world's most unique collections.

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Lace collection at Georgia's State Silk Museum

There is a section devoted to the mulberry tree dating from the 19th century and the rich photo collection, depicting silk and mulberry farming in the Caucasus, were taken by the photogpapher Konstantine Zanis. He was actively involved in scientific expeditions organised by the Caucasian Sericulture Station and this museum is the only place that Zanis' entire collection can be viewed.

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Georgian silk workers, weighing cocoons

The Georgian silk industry collapsed at the end of the 20th century. There are small steps toward reviving it and entrepreneurs await what the governmental strategy for silk's renaissance will unveil in terms of opportunities.

Dilyara Kaipova, whom I think is Uzbekistan's most innovative textile designer, undertook a residency in Tbilisi with the State Sik Museum in 2018 and conducted master classes there.

Address: 6 Tsabadze Street, Tbilisi next to the stadium Dynamo. Easily reached by bus from downtown Tbilisi or a 10-minute walk from Station Square metro station.
Tel: +995 322 340 967
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Entrance fee: 5 Georgian Lari (about US$2)

Related posts:
The Blue Tablecloths of Georgia: New Life of an Old Tradition
Ikat: The "Thread That Connects Generations" Exhibition, Tashkent
Sacrament of Magic Yarn - Madina Kasimbaeva's Exhibition, Tashkent
Buy Dilyara Kaipova Original Pieces

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Uzbekistan's Jamie Oliver Dreams of Going Global

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Chef and entrepreneur Bakhriddin Chustiy at SalSal restaurant, Tashkent
Besides setting records and opening restaurants, the ambitious 34-year-old is plotting a culinary revolution.

Bakhriddin Chustiy feels uneasy about being likened to Jamie Oliver. It is not that he doesn’t admire the world-famous British chef. It is just too early, he told Eurasianet. "One on hand this makes me happy, but on the other, we have a long way to go before reaching the level of Jamie Oliver," Chustiy said, sitting in a corner sofa at his newly opened restaurant in Uzbekistan’s capital.

But like any career-minded professional with ambition, the 34-year-old has a plan – a four-point plan. And he is doing well so far:
  • Open his own restaurants: done.
  • Publish a book: done.
  • Cook up a serving of plov so huge it would earn a berth in the Guinness Book of World Records: done.
  • The last goal, to set up a house of Uzbek culinary arts, is a work in progress.
Chustiy owes his current trajectory to an unlikely person. In August 2010, when Chustiy was working in an Uzbek restaurant in the southern Russian city of Sochi, he was summoned by the mayor, a regular diner, to come cook for a special guest. It was then-President Dmitry Medvedev. The meal was a hit.

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A modern twist on Uzbek cuisine at SalSal
"Medvedev came to me to congratulate me and asked if this was real Uzbek rice we were putting in the plov. I answered that, yes, all the ingredients were from Uzbekistan," Chustiy recalled. That encounter was the confidence-boosting event that spurred the Ferghana Valley boy into setting his objectives higher.

Another one bites the Chust

There are no chefs in Chustiy’s family. His father was a middle-school teacher and ran a small shop on the side. His mother worked in a kindergarten. Chustiy is not even his real surname. Bakhriddin Najmiddinov’s nom de cuisine was inspired by his family’s native village, Chust, which is a 45-minute drive west of the Ferghana Valley city of Namangan.

In 1998, the family moved to Tashkent in search of a better life. There, they opened a bakery, marking Chustiy’s first foray into cooking. The fledgling business also sold drinks and chebureki, a deep-fried turnover with a mince and onion filling.

It was a large family and Chustiy was the oldest of six children. After his father died in 2002, Chustiy ditched any thoughts of continuing his studies since he had to concentrate on providing for his family. He never completed middle school.

In 2007, he went to Moscow with hopes of finding employment in a cafe. To his disappointment, all he found to begin with was work as a dishwasher. His break came two months after his arrival, when a chef’s job freed up at the restaurant where he was doing the dishes.

All you need is plov

At the start of 2011, he moved to the Turkish resort town of Antalya and got a job cooking in an Uzbek restaurant there. It was around that time he set up a now-defunct website called and began blogging about the culinary arts of his native land.

"That is how I really began to earn some popularity on the internet. In 2013, I returned to Uzbekistan and I opened my first restaurant in Chust. With friends and business partners I opened another two places in Tashkent," he said.

In 2017, he published 365 Days of Sun, a photograph-rich compendium of national cooking. An English-language edition of the book was published the same year and presented at a function in London organized by the Uzbek Embassy. While in town, he tried to look up Jamie Oliver, but to no avail.
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Preparations for the world's largest plov

That was the same year he oversaw the cooking of a 7.3-ton serving of plov. Representatives of the Guinness Book were there to record the achievement – as was portly U.S. B-list action star Steven Seagal, for some reason.

That stunt belies Chustiy’s real stated ultimate intention though, which is to transition away from the pile-it-high and sell-it-cheap model. Doing that will mean weaning Uzbek cuisine off its often unhealthy obsession with fat and throwing new flavors into the mix.

"Uzbek cuisine is still very homely, not for the restaurant. We need to make more of an effort to present it in a new format so that it would be accepted around the world alongside French or Italian cuisine," he told Eurasianet. "When somebody comes to a restaurant, they should get pleasure not just from the taste but also from the appearance of the dish, because it is that, after all, that makes the first impression."

Akbar Umarov, chairman of the Association of Chefs of Uzbekistan, agrees, but cautions against throwing away the baby with the bathwater. "If we want to promote the popularity of Uzbek cuisine overseas, we need to attain international standards. But at the same time, we cannot forget distinct national traits,” Umarov told Eurasianet.

Not so fast

Not that everything has gone smoothly for Chustiy. In 2015, he dabbled with creating a fast-food chain: Tez food – from the Uzbek word tez, meaning fast – committed to providing an Uzbek spin on familiar American fare, like hamburgers. The idea failed to catch on.

Chustiy is not eager to revisit the failure, although he says he may return to the idea somewhere down the road.

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Aksu Cafe, Mukumi Street, Chilanzar

In what feels like an almost blasphemous revelation, Chustiy admits that plov, the dish to which he owes his popularity, leaves him reasonably indifferent. His passion is for flour-based dishes. One favorite is Uzbek naryn, a soupy dish of noodles and horse meat.

Chustiy is an inveterate experimenter. He says he has developed around 70 variations on the classic Uzbek repertoire. Most of them are available at his four restaurants. The newest restaurant, Aksu, Uzbek for “white water,” opened at the start of the year. It may have been rushed, however – the smell of fresh paint still lingers in the air.

That fourth point in the plan still remains. Chustiy said he is tired of taking part in TV cookery shows and giving master classes. Creating a house of Uzbek cuisine will be the culmination of his efforts.
“This is a big project. We will have a restaurant, a school, a hotel and a library. Chefs will come here from all over the world to become specialists in Uzbek cuisine. But this will cost a lot of money to do and this is just a plan for the time being,” he said.

Uzbek Journeys note: Chustiy's restaurants  and other "family restaurants" in Tashkent are alcohol-free, however, often fresh juices such as carrot and apple, are available.  Call ahead to check.

This article was originally published on Eurasianet, 7 February 2019.

Related posts:
Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and The Caucasus
The Glory of Uzbek Bread
Tea with Bread and Jam – a Traveller’s Appreciation of the Finer Things in Kyrgyz Life
Sumalak, Kyrgyzstan's Nowruz Treat for the Pure of Heart