It’s often called the alchemy of cultures and influences, but that is just one of the many facets that make Georgian food such an incurable fascination – especially its bread.
Contemplate Georgia. It is this little sliver of a kingdom lying in the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and sandwiched between the Black and Caspian Seas with Russia on the north and Turkey and Iran to the south. And yet, when it comes to food, it’s a showcase of the multiple food cultures. Part of the reason behind is Georgia’s history of being one of the greatest trade station of the great old Silk Route, the other of course is the interesting topography – beginning with the tangerine orchards and tea plantations along the Black Sea coast flowing up to the sugar dusted the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains in the north to the rolling hills of wine country in the east – that makes it conducive to take on a variety of culinary influences. In fact, Georgia to many often appears as this vast food alley, where you can find just about anything – from kebabs, breads, platters of soup dumplings called khinkali and pomegranate- flavoured meat stews with that unmistakable hint of sweet-tartness.
In fact, such is the alchemy of the dishes that form that Georgian Supra (feast) that Russian poet Alexander Pushkin after sampling its fare and said, “Every Georgian dish is a poem.” And in a way, it is a little chef’s table of the world’s most evolved and impressionable cuisines. A characteristic that showcases itself in the breads here, which are an accompaniment necessary for any Georgian meal, which is a happy mélange of the following dishes.
One of the tonir wonders, Khachapuri is a cheese-addicts dream. The sheer amount of sulguni cheese used to make a single serve of is enough to get you into lala-land in a jffy. A decadent delight, this bread when baked is taken off the toné, the cheese part is torn open and a raw egg is cracked on top with a generous dollop of butter. This bubbling mass of sheer dairy wonder is placed alongside vegetables, meats, or legumes for a hearty dinner. It is considered Georgia’s national dish.
The most attractive dish of all Georgian food, churchkhelas are this lumpy, colorful confections that often get mistaken for sausages. A fruit of intense labour, it is made of concentrated grape juice (mostly left over from the previous years’ wine harvest) that is poured over strands of walnuts. A protein and sugar restobar, churchkhela was once an essential food in every military kit.
Essentially a flavoursome Georgian soup dumpling, a good Khinkali is often determined by the number of folds it has: Tradition dictates no less than 20. But when a platter of pepper-flecked khinkali hits the table, counting pleats is the least of anyone’s priority, gobbling as many khinkali is. A favourite finger food, Khinkali not only needs a special kind of grab technique to be enjoyed well, but comes with its own style of eating – which often determined how true a Georgian you are.
According to folklore, khinkali was first brought to the region by the royal Tartars during the 13th century. Today, the best sakhinkles (khinkali houses) are said to be found in Pasanauri, a village 50 miles north of Tbilisi ( a city where visitors are welcomed with a bottle of home-made wine), where wild mountain herbs like summer savoury and ombalo mint accent the filling.
It is the ratatouille of the Georgian world, albeit with a twist. To begin with, it’s unapologetically spicy, with that distinct garlicky taste, and is made of an oven-roasted medley of firm eggplant and crisp bell peppers, lightly browned and finished with fresh tomato purée and livened up with a flurry of chopped cilantro instead of the mush used in the original ratatouille. Customarily it is served in the final months of summer when tomatoes and eggplant are in plenty.
A cusp between refried beans and soup with the consistency of a well-pounded, slow-cooked beans in a mortar and pestle, Lobio is a weave & waft of interesting tastes: be it the slurpiness of fried onions, cilantro, vinegar, dried marigold, and chillies. Most traditional places like Salobie, a restaurant in Mtskheta dedicated to lobio, serve it w its loyal sidekick, mchadi, a griddled cornbread whose only function is ancillary – and is reminiscent of Southern cornbread in its crumbliness, white colour, and absence of sugar.
Georgia’s kebab essentially, Mtsvadi is in contrast with Turks and Armenians variety. Here the cooks tend to be purists, eschewing elaborate marinades and rubs in favour of a liberal dose of salt. A preferred source of protein here, Mtsvadi is made by threading chunks of lamb or beef onto a skewer, either on its own or with alternating slices of vegetables, which is then grilled. This is served along with tkemali, the sour plum condiment that Georgians pour over everything, from potatoes to bread to fried chicken.
The Georgian comfort food at its finest, and it’s become so popular throughout the region that Russians have made it a part of their winter menu. Characterised by its amber colour and redolent of garlic, khmeli suneli (a Georgian five-spice blend), and cilantro, kharcho begins with chicken or beef, which is seasoned and seared before it’s tucked into a sauce enriched with walnuts and perked up by torn bits of sour tklapi. This fall off the bone dish is served alongside baskets of chewy shoti bread – or Georgia’s roti.
Plan a visit to this amazing European country and know more about things you can do while in Georgia.
Text by Madhulika Dash (@madabtfood)