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History of the Georgian Supra (Feast)

History of the Georgian Supra (Feast)

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History of the Georgian Supra. Learn about Georgia’s famous feast, the tamada (toastmaster) and the various traditions associated with this essential Georgian dining experience. Also, learn how you can attend a supra yourself, and tips for attending successfully! 
 
Below is the Georgian supra script I used for our podcast episode. While it should be an interesting read please note that this was written for podcasting purposes. Enjoy!  
 

Love consuming your information via podcast? Then listen to our Supra Episodes on the Tbilisi Podcast:

 
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The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once commented that every Georgian dish is a poem.
And in this episode we will be discussing the history of the event where you get to eat soooo many dishes, while also toasting and drinking the time away with friends old and new…..the Georgian Supra.
 
Want to join a supra when you visit Georgia? Check out this real family supra tour – feast with a winemaker and their family.
 

What is a Supra?

What is a Georgian Supra? Tbilisi Podcast

Georgian Supra

 
According to studentresearch.iliauni.edu.ge a student research portal in Georgia, The Supra is defined as a social institution, where through the use of alcohol and food mediums, as well as the institutions of tamada and toast, various social functions are performed, including entertainment, socialization, communication and establishing/strengthening connections between people.
 
To explain it in a very basic way – it’s a feast! But as we’ll discover, for the people of Georgia, is it so much more than just eating and drinking.
 
In Georgian, “supra” literally translates as “table-cloth” and also “the feast”. Basically if a Georgian says to you the word “supra” you know a party’s gonna happen. But, party is not the correct word really, because even though there will be food, and there will be drinking, and there will be fun, there is also a strict ritual to the event that needs to be followed by all in attendance. And it is the role of the Tamada to make sure the ritual of the Supra is followed.
 

What is a Tamada?

 
A Tamada is the toastmaster of the feast. All Supra’s no matter the size has a tamada. Sitting at a table at a wedding with 200 other guests…there’s a tamada. Sitting at a table drinking with a friend? One of you will be tamada!
 
It is the tamada’s responsibility to give the appropriate toast at the appropriate times throughout the event. The tamada should be intelligent, thought-provoking, and have a good sense of humor. They need to be able to tell a story but make it relevant to the toast they are telling and to the event at hand. They are in charge of how fast or slow the alcohol is being consumed, as after every toast the guests (especially the tamada) are expected to down their entire drink in one gulp – but on the other to act drunkenly or give the appearance of being overly intoxicated is considered shameful. This is why alcohol and food go hand in hand throughout the supra and the Tamada is like the ringmaster of the circus keeping everything under careful control.
 
“Many first-timer visitors are unaware that the participation at the Georgian Table calls for the skillful exercise of moderation in the face of excess”
 
To give you an idea of how much wine is consumed, let’s just say it is common at a full length, all day supra for a Tamada to drink more than 3 litres of wine.
 
Traditionally the role is held by men with women taking control of the kitchen but today you can most certainly have a female tamada and we have certainly seen certain gender roles shifting when it comes to the supra.  
 

Formal Types of Supra

 
Supra in Georgia

Supra in Georgia

 
There are 2 formal styles of Supra: celebratory banquets (lkhinis suprebi) and mourning banquets (ch’iris suprebi) – as in funeral banquets.
 
Celebratory Supras are held to celebrate the things you’d expect: births, weddings, birthdays, during the Rtveli wine harvest, weekdays….I’m kidding. Celebratory supras are a fun occasion with many many many many toasts made by the tamada who will also tell jokes, and stories, and generally keep the flow of the party flowing nicely.
 
Mourning Supras are highly formalised and held on 3 separate occasions immediately after death, after 40 days, and one year later. Often for mourning supras guests will mostly only stay for the 3 official toasts by the appointed funeral tamada.
  1. to the deceased and wishes him/her eternal peace.
  2. He then drinks to the memory heavenly well-being of the deceased’s dead relatives
  3. Finally, he toasts all the relevant family of the deceased who are still alive, followed by the bereaved themselves
Guests after each toast will swallow their wine in one gulp, first uttering the words xsovna iqos (“May he/she be remembered!”). The total number of toasts given by the tamada must be uneven, so too must the number of spoonfuls taken by the attendants from certain ritual dishes that are reserved for the funeral supra and passed from hand to hand (k’olio, shilaplavi).
 
There probably will be more toasts made by the tamada throughout the evening but I have been told that many guests that are not immediate family or friends will exit after these 3 main toasts have been made.
 

==> Want to experience a Supra in Georgia?

Want to join a supra when you visit Georgia? Check out this real family supra tour – feast with a winemaker and their family.

A tour company owned and run by Tommo & Megsy – the writers of this blog!  

 

History Of the Supra

The thing I was surprised to learn after doing my research was that it seems that the form of the supra we know today probably was created in the 19th century.  Yep that recently! This theory is based on the fact that the word “supra”, “toast” or “tamada” don’t actually exist in any texts before the 19th century. Now, this doesn’t mean that Georgians haven’t been feasting and drinking for centuries….of course, they have! In fact, there is an old story that goes:
 
“When God was distributing portions of the world to all the peoples of the earth, the Georgians were having a party and doing some serious drinking. As a result, they arrived late and were told by God that all the land had already been distributed. When they replied that they were late only because they had been lifting their glasses in praise of Him, God was pleased and gave the Georgians that part of earth he had been reserving for himself. “
but the actual structure of the feast with the toast, tamada, and set sequence of the supra seems to be much more recent.  Before the term supra was coined, feasting in Georgia was more commonly referred to as Nadimi or p’uroba (referring to the traditional puri bread served. )
 
So why did Nadimi change and become the Supra we know today?
 
According to texts the supra emerged with the incorporation of Georgia and the rest of Transcaucasia into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. Through this the Georgian culture was suppressed and so the supra was used as a way of taking back power that had been lost to them.  I read in one study:” Supra succeeds in creating a mitigated (“pleasantly authoritarian”) version of the current repressive situation, which helps people to accept reality. ” Toasting became a way of feeling like they were still doing something for their country, god, family, etc where the confines of the Russian occupation didn’t allow them to do this in their day-to-day lives. Toasting was a way to take back the power that had been lost.
 
it was also a way to continue cultural traditions. so in addition to the abundance of food and drink, the need for a specific supra table along with particular dishes, specially designed interiors, and even traditional elements, such as traditional clothes, dancing, and singing all were a way to hold onto and tell other generations about Georgian heritage.  Supra also was and is an opportunity for political discussions, poetry or verse improvisations, musical performances etc….
 
Of course because of this in Soviet times the supra was frowned upon by the state authorities. In fact, in 1975 a law was passed in Soviet Georgia that large banquets associated with marriages, deaths, births etc were seen as blatant opposition to the Homo Sovieticus (average conformist person of the era), and the supra was declared a harmful custom.
 
Today with a now independent Georgia you may ask why this tradition has continued? Some speculate that the supra seems to offer a permanent form of cultural strengthening in the face of modern globalisation.
 
It has become such an important part of Georgia’s traditions that being invited to an authentic supra is certainly an honoUr for any foreigner visiting or living in Georgia. It is an event that is looked upon with excitement but also despondency….as you know you’ll be leaving at least 1 or 2 pants size bigger than you started LOL
 
Georgian Supra

A Georgian Supra we had instead of collecting honey from the bees. (listen to the podcast for the full story)

 

Top Tips For Attending Your First Supra

From Georgians:
  • it is important to be careful and drink slowly/reasonably as we have many, long toasts, in order not to be overdrunk and understand important details of Georgian supra.
  • never be afraid of making your own toast while attending Georgian supra, tamada would be happy and listen to your words with pleasure, just let him know that you want to say something after him.
  • Goat’s Horn is one of the most important parts of Georgian supra and it will definitely appear during Supra. quite frightening for foreigners 😃 but don’t be afraid, if you can not do that just use the Georgian word “Alaverdi” “ალავერდი” and give it to somebody who can drink wine from that!
  • remember,  it is optional to drink a glass of wine completely for each toast or sip by sip, it is up to you! nobody is going to force you, they will respect your choice. Even if you’re a man – when you are a foreigner they respect your choice (sometimes not 😃 but according to history Georgians don’t force others to drink as much as Georgians)
  • if the host asks you which wine in Georgia is your favorite you have to answer: your wine is the best of all i have ever tasted 😃
  • I would warn them that meat and nicer food would come a bit later and they should try and not fill up on Khachapuri etc.
  • be careful if downing whole glasses of wine as there will be a lot of toasts and he/she would need some resistance if they are not good drinkers
  • also there is this tradition of ‘alaverdi shentan’ when you need to respond to the toast in a toast manner when someone is ‘Alaverdi’ with you. It has to carry on from the previous toast – The idea is that it has to come from your heart, instantly.
 
From Foreigners:
  • Don’t fill up at the bread and pkhali stage, because even though the table seems full of food, that’s only the beginning. Save room for the delicious meats that are coming!
  • Drink a bit of the sweet sugary pear/tarragon/saperavi whatever flavoured lemonade. The sugar actually expands your stomach and means you can eat more lol.
  • If you don’t have a high alcohol tolerance, have something else to drink between toasts and only drink wine during toasts
  • If possible keep a smaller separate glass just for toasts that you can regulate – you don’t want to have been given a new full glass of wine and have to down it all because there was a toast.

Amazing Supra vs Passable Supra

IN SUMMARY: An amazing supra has an eloquent, dynamic tamada (toastmaster) who reads the room and makes the event interactive. Diverse and delicious food, high quality wine (not basic bulk wine), polyphonic singing, and dancing. A passable supra lacks some or most of these elements.

The supra is one of Georgia’s most quintessential (and glorious!) experiences. A rollercoaster of food, wine, history, culture and emotions. I’ve laughed heartily, cried, and shared heartfelt stories (of the host, guests and of my own) that you’d never expect a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman to say out loud.

The supra is about human connection as much as the wine and food. Though any gathering where friends share food, wine, and toasts can be called a supra, the best ones include the best of everything and leave you feeling like you really experienced life, on a level you were not expecting.

But, from someone who has traveled across Georgia, experiencing many standards of supra, let me explain the difference between a passable one (which is still worth it, if you can’t do better) and a life-changing one.

The Tamada (Toastmaster)

The Tamada guides the supra. Wine tours in Georgia.

The Tamada guides the supra.

The tamada is the lynchpin of the Supra. They guide the event. They lead the toasts. They work the room. A great tamada is truly masterful at social dynamics.

  • A great tamada brings life to every toast. They are eloquent, even poetic in their mastery of the topics they present. They weave surprising stories on every theme of the supra.
  • A great tamada leads other guests to contribute, rather than hogging the limelight for themselves. They connect all the guests together.
  • A great tamada reads the room and guides the topics of the toasts in waves along with the mood.
  • A great tamada compels attention and touches on every emotion over the course of the supra.
  • A great tamada drinks to every toast but does not ever act inebriated.

A poor tamada fails at most or all of these elements and simply makes basic toasts “to peace”, “to love” without providing depth or real connectivity. The language barrier can make it difficult for foreigners to experience all of the above, so finding an excellent English-speaking tamada, or having a great translator/guide with you is essential. Though eloquence may be lost in translation, a masterful tamada can perform all the other skills above, even with more basic English.

The Food & Wine

Georgian Wine Tours: Supra with panoramic views of the Caucasus mountains and an abundance of homemade cuisine.

Supra with panoramic views of the Caucasus mountains and an abundance of homemade cuisine.

The food should be traditional, though really the rules can be broken. Either way, a better supra has better food and better wine. The typical countryside supra may include basic budget dishes like khachapuri, khinkali, mtsvadi (pork skewers), and salad. Stacked high on the table. Served with rough and ready “khakhuri” wine, the typical lower-end Rkatsiteli, made to varying standards.

A next-level supra will feature an abundance of additional dishes, more premium options, more refined versions, and better presentation (in some instances). Artisan wine, by the bottle, or direct from the artisan’s cellar in jugs, and made to a higher standard. Not surprisingly, this all costs more.

Though my preference is a tamada who is also a winemaker and who can provide the supra experience along with their own wines, and preferably elevated food made by their family, you could also enjoy a great supra, as many Georgians do, at a restaurant, with a private table and a tamada. 

Finding this experience is much rarer than you’d think, as being a tamada is considered an honor, rather than a paid position. When I first arrived in Georgia I tried to “hire a tamada” and got laughed out of most Facebook groups by Georgians. I was told you had to “be invited” to a supra or visit a family at their home.

Though tour guides can and do perform the position of tamada on tours, it is still the case that most restaurants (I don’t know of any, currently) do not offer a tamada service. And, for every story of a foreigner getting invited to a supra just after arriving in Georgia, there are hundreds of disappointed foreigners who leave never getting to experience a sensational supra, or any supra. You just don’t hear those stories of not getting invited, it’s not much of a story compared to the lucky few who did.

What to achieve with the food & wine:

  • Elevated food: more selection, better quality, and piled high on the table.
  • Artisan wine, not just basic homemade style.
  • Dine with a family or tour guide.

And More…

The Supra: Host & Tamada Singing Polyphonic Songs at The Table. Kakheti Wine Tour. Georgia wine tours.

The Supra: Host & Tamada Singing Polyphonic Songs at The Table

Then you have the bonus items that make the supra even more special.

  • Traditional polyphonic singing. At its most authentic when the tamada and other Georgian guests perform at the table. A worthy substitute is having a singing troupe perform.
  • Traditional Georgian dancing. Again, having hosts that dance and will perform or even teach you a few dances, is the best. There is a winemaker who is a former national dancer and now a dance teacher on this tour (make sure to confirm in your booking that you want the dance experience). Hiring a dance troupe is also great.
  • Help prepare the feast. Helping out with making khinkali or other dishes gives you an even stronger connection to the dining experience.
  • The right number of guests. Less than 4 + tamada and it’s unlikely the event will buzz. More than 18 guests and things become impersonal and disjointed. 7 to 14 is the sweet spot, in my opinion.

If you have limited time in Georgia, getting invited to a supra by luck is very unlikely (I spent more than 2 months in Georgia before getting invited to a supra). If you book a full dinner at a family winery, you are very likely to experience some sort of supra. But this could be the most basic version, it depends on what you pay and where you go.

No matter what you choose, you should make attending a supra a priority as even the below-average ones are normally fun – though I’ve also had some plain awkward/weird supras!

This is not “a” supra. This is “the” supra. Combining all the best elements of supra into one perfect event. Amazing traditional food, artisan wine, a tamada who is also a winemaker, polyphonic singing table side. Join this Georgian cultural journey and become a part of the living tradition of supra.

Learn More About Joining The Supra Tour.