Knowing just three things about the former Republic of Georgia will explain all you need to know about why it is gaining momentum as an up and coming foodie destination. The first notable reason is its location. Georgia sits directly in the intersection of Europe and Asia. If you have traveled in Asia but found yourself missing the taste of fresh-baked crusty bread or cheese (in any form), you need not worry in Georgia. Bread and cheese are, arguably, what Georgians do best.
The second reason is that Georgia was part of the former Soviet Republic before its collapse in the 1980’s. While communists were known more for a bent toward feeding the masses, they were not strangers to the merits of slow cooked meats. This is an area where peasant farmers worked long hours in the field, and food tends to be heavy and hearty. Stews and slow cooked foods that can be placed in the oven in the morning and fed to hungry field workers, and particularly shared over a large table with family and friends, dominate the cuisine. In their home kitchens, Georgian families elevated comfort food to an art, and they are very proud of it.
Lastly, Georgia is known as the birthplace of wine, where it has been produced for over 8000 years. There is a jug of homemade wine in every cellar and on every dinner table throughout the country, waiting to be shared.
To these three factors, add the influence of inhabiting forces throughout the centuries and imagine the resulting cuisine. It is familiar with a sprinkling of unique spices and cooking techniques that turn the familiar into the exotic. Here are the few dishes that undoubtedly pass through the minds of the first time visitor: “How did I not know about this food?”, and “When will I get the chance to come back?”
Khinkali is one of Georgia’s most popular dishes. It bears a strong resemblance to its cousin, Chinese Xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. Properly eating one of these hand-crafted dumplings is an art form, but these tasty bite-sized morsels are worth the extra effort. Think of a Khinkali as a clash between a Hershey’s Kiss and a won-ton (Asian soup style dumplings). These dumplings are typically stuffed with a beef and pork or potato and lamb combination, or one of our favorite, which is stuffed with cheese.
Khachapuri is Georgia’s answer to pizza. There are several varieties, but most are all stuffed or layered in cheese and surrounded by a pillow soft dough baked until it is crisped to perfection on the outside. Our favorite is Ajurian or Adjurian Khachapuri. It is rolled into a football shape, stuffed with brined silguni cheese and then topped with an egg. The bread is served piping hot from the oven straight to the table. Eager hands then tear off hunks of bread and dunk it into the gooey center.
Pkhali is a cooked and chopped vegetable dish that is a welcome addition to a Georgian table filled with traditional heavy fare. Like most of Georgian salads, pkhali contains a good dose of finely chopped walnuts. It can be made of almost anything, but most frequently restaurants will serve a trio of salads made from spinach, green beans and beets. They are often sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, giving the dish a nice touch of refreshing bite.
We fist sampled skhermuli at the Old Vake Restaurant in Tbilisi. The dish sounds simple enough. Roasted chicken in a creamy sauce made with milk and garlic. We tried it on a cool Sunday afternoon along with cheesy mashed potatoes. Then we went back and had the same things, three Sundays in a row. The waiter finally asked if we wanted to try something else. After discovering a late Sunday afternoon full of garlicy chicken and home made wine, the only other thing we needed was a good nap and another Sunday in Georgia.
Georgian Cuisine Fire
Georgian’s have a deep love of food prepared on an open flame. One of the most beloved dishes is mtsvadi, which originated as preparation of meat in the mountains after a hunt. Small chunks of lamb, pork, chicken or beef are marinated (sometimes up to 2 days) in pomegranate juice in order to enhance the flavor and tenderness of the meat. Another favorite skewered dish is tube shaped khachapuri – bread stuffed with cheese and grilled over the flame. During our stay we also became very fond of kaboli. In this dish the meat is ground and seasoned and served on a paper thin bread with fresh onions. When served in a restaurant, skewered dishes were almost always accompanied with a choice of savory sauces. And it is with the sauces that the distinct and exotic flavors of Georgia shine through.
On the Side… Georgian Sauces
Georgians love their sauces as much as they love the dish itself. The base of the sauce is crafted from vegetables, spices, berries, or fruit juices. Often the sauces are spiked with a favorite Georgian spice blend, Khmeli suneli.
There are many variations, but blue fenugreek, ground coriander and dried marigold are almost always present, giving it a golden yellow color along with its nickname, Georgian Curry.
Rachuli sauce is a most commonly used with roasted chicken and is often used on special occasions. This blackberry sauce is made from berries found in Georgia’s mountainous region, and combined with fresh herbs and often the Georgian Khumeli suneli spice blend. Along with roasted chicken, it’s also a wonderful addition to other grilled meat favorites such as mtsvadi and kaboli.
Americans have ketchup, Georgians have Tkemali. Although the former and the latter are nothing alike, they are both used with the same enthusiasm by their respective populations. Tkemali is a sour plum sauce made from wild plums found only in Georgia. The flavor of the sauce can vary depending on whether red or green plums are used, but it always has a sharp, tart taste. The plums are boiled and eventually hand-squashed to make a watery paste. Then the spices are added, including anis, pennyroyal, coriander, and garlic. Georgians especially like to eat this sauce with grilled meats and fish, but nothing is off limits – vegetables, bread, and salad also taste great with a little Tkemali on the side.
The base of ajka or adjika sauce, is hot red or green peppers, so you’d better believe it’s got a spicy kick! Throw garlic, coriander, dill, blue fenugreek, salt, and walnuts into the mix and you’ve got a flavor-packed punch that will liven your palate. It can be used as a condiment on the side, but our favorite dish is a hands down is slow cooked Ribs in Ajika Sauce. It goes perfectly with a nice slice of fresh bakes khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) on the side.
“If you don’t have cheese in your home, you’re dead.” This famous Georgian saying proves, without a doubt, how seriously Georgians take their cheese. Georgia produces over 250 different cheese varieties of different flavors and textures. The type of cheese depends on the region in which it’s made. And, as the saying suggests, cheese is a dairy product that is guaranteed to be in any Georgians’ home.
Georgians usually eat their cheese with bread, but it’s certainly not limited to this. Expect cheese to make an appearance in many different meals and dishes. Whether it’s added on top, served on the side, or melted somewhere in the middle, hardly any meal in Georgia is complete without their preferred dairy product.
If you’re into the soft and semi-soft cheeses then you must try Sulguni, hailing from the eastern, Black Sea-facing part of the country or Imeruli, originating in the more central Imereti region. The former is a little bit like mozzarella, while the latter is a brined white cheese that’s a bit chewier. One of our favorite ways to enjoy Suguni cheese was in a simple appetizer dish – plump mushrooms stuffed with melted cheese and butter.
Representing the mountainous region is Guda, a hard cheese with a sharp flavor. Back in the days, this cheese used to age in a sheep skin bag, however nowadays an ordinary plastic bag is used. If you love Parmesan cheese then Calt, a cheese made in the Tusheti mountains, is another must-try.
There are plenty of other Georgian cheeses to try like Chogi, made from whole sheep’s milk or Chechili which is aged to perfection in characteristic twists or braids. Another unique one? Sumac Cheese, the inside of which is prepared with dried, red Sumac fruit, creating an interesting flavor and patriotic spirit (the Georgian flag is red and white!).
Georgia’s Ancient Art of Winemaking
Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. Georgians started getting in on the wine action in 6000 BC when they first started cultivating grapes. Also during this time, the Georgians invented the clay Qvevris. These were the smooth, egg shaped vessels in which they stored their wine. The Qvevris were typically buried in the ground or placed in wine cellars and could hold anywhere from 20 to 10,000 gallons of wine!
The whole fermentation process of traditional Georgian wine took place in the Qvevris, which were sterilized with lime and coated with beeswax. Once the grapes had been pressed, the juice, grape skins, and stalks were all poured into the vessel and left 5-6 months to ferment. These traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Amazingly, they are still used today in the villages of Atsana in the Guria region, the most western part of the country bordering the Black Sea.
Wine-making is such an ingrained and prominent part of Georgian culture it’s no wonder wine cellars are considered the holiest place in the home. So, wine is clearly something that must be sampled in Georgia. The only problem is figuring out where to start. There are several places where you can sample wines, many of them scattered around the old town and opened a jaw-dropping 24 hours a day. Dropping in to a shop and doing a little wine tasting is a good way to figure out which Georgian wines best suit your taste, as well as to enjoy your first sample of famous Georgian hospitality. Here are a few varieties that we enjoyed during our stay.
Georgian Red Wines
Ilerco 2012 A dry red wine made with native Saperavi grapes. Rich, intense, and smoky, with underlying notes of black fruit and sweet hay. This wine is pure sophistication in a glass. Shumi’s Ilerco 2012 won the Gold medal at the International Wine Challenge in London in 2016.
Mukuzani This is another dry red made from Saperavi grapes, but unique in that it’s aged in an oak barrel for longer, roughly 3 years, than most other wines. This makes the cherry flavor much sharper, but it’s balanced with chocolate notes. It’s considered by many to be one of the best Georgian wines.
For a special treat, consider a visit to the David Garej Monastery. Not only only will you be able to see a traditional working monastary, which happens to be partially housed inside of a system of caves, but you can also bring home a numbered bottle of wine made by the good brothers.
Georgian White Wines
Georgian white wines often take on an orange hue and mineral notes due to the fermentation process. There are a few winemakers, however, who use more western techniques (such as fermenting the grapes in steel containers) to appeal to a wider market. While in Georgia we suggest trying some wines made in the traditional way to truly appreciate the history of wine making and how it has evolved over time.
This wine is made from Rkatsiteli grapes, considered the most important grape variety in Georgian white wines. Expect sweet flavors of melon, honey, peach and ginger.
Mtsvane or Mtsvane Kakhuri
This is a dry white made from another important grape variety in Georgian white wines. Often blended with Rkatsiteli grapes for a more balanced fruity flavor. It will often have a light green color and is meant to be enjoyed young in the bottle.
Georgians love for fruit and nuts is well represented in their desserts. Sweets are often made of stewed seasonal fruits which can be dried, topped with nuts or dried. A popular choice is “fruit leather” or “fruit rolls” known as Tklapi. The most popular sweet that is easily found on every street cover of the center of Tbilisi’s Old Town is Churchkhela. When we first saw these, we were convinced that they were hand dipped candles.
Churchkhela, a traditional dessert (also known fondly as a “Georgian Snickers). It’s pretty easy to see how this sweet treat got its nickname. The chewy outside, crunchy inside, and sweet and nutty flavor is reminiscent of the world-famous candy bar. Making Churchkhela is long, strenuous work. First, almonds, walnuts, hazel nuts, bits of chocolate, and occasionally raisins are threaded onto a string. The string is then repeatedly dipped into thick, concentrated grape juice, typically leftover from the annual wine harvest. What makes this process so time-consuming is the number of coats the string requires. It must be dipped multiple times and each coat must be allowed to dry before being dipped again. Then they must be hung to dry for 5-6 days.
Here are a few related articles to continue wetting your appetite for a visit to Georgia. Get there now while this lesser known foodie destination remains under the radar and the throngs of tour buses begin rolling in. From our estimation, it’s only a matter of time!
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