A Taste of Georgia

September 17-28, 2014: Not to be overshadowed by the Caucasus Mountains and the mesmerizing historic sites, a trip to Georgia wouldn’t be complete without sampling the culinary delights.

Georgia sits at a crossroad between the Middle East and Europe, so you find influences of both, but the country (and even different regions of the country) have developed their own unique take on food.

Both Chris and I have been fans of Georgian cooking for a number of years, thanks to our friend Maia back in Canada. She once worked as a chef in Tbilisi and enthusiastically shares her love of Georgian cuisine over sumptuous feasts shared with friends and family.

What really characterizes Georgian cuisine the most for me is the freshness of the ingredients and the natural style of cooking. Pretty much everything is locally grown, locally made. Natural and seasonal ingredients predominate. This is traditional food at its best. Simple, home-style cooking with plenty of flavour. Pure comfort food. Sure, you can find gourmet restaurants in Tbilisi that put a fresh new spin on old favourites, but there’s nothing like the time-tested favourites.

Bread (puri) is baked fresh daily in traditional ovens (tone) with the bread stuck to the side. Just look for a hand-drawn sign that looks like shotis puri (bread that’s kind of shaped like a canoe) to find a bread shop. Once you know what to look for, you start to see them everywhere.

Hearty soups and stews and grilled meats feature prominently on the table. There is a lot of meat! Pork, beef, mutton, poultry and even goat. Accompanying the meat are a wide variety of fresh greens, salads and vegetable dishes featuring mushrooms, eggplant and tomatoes. Walnuts and pomegranates play a key role in many dishes, as do onions, garlic, parsley, cilantro, dill and a variety of herbs and spices. The yoghurt is fresh. The honey is local.

And let’s not overlook the cheese. Cheesy bread. Bubbling cheesy stuffed mushrooms and vegetable dishes served piping hot from the oven covered in a layer of dairy deliciousness. Thick, gooey cheesy mashed potatoes. And exceptional traditional artisan cheeses from different parts of the country.

Many dishes are served hot from the kitchen in traditional clay pots and dishes (known as ketsi) or in cast iron skillets.

As we ambled around Tbilisi and drove around the country, we had ample opportunities to try a few of the specialties. Restaurant menus usually came in Georgian, English and Russian but often the English names were literal translations of the Georgian names or descriptions of the dish, rather than the phonetic spelling of the Georgian pronunciation. This is why I have no idea what a Georgian salad is called.

Here’s just a small sampling of some of Georgia’s more famous dishes and a couple of others that should be…

Dish What is it?
Ajapsandali A traditional Georgian vegetable dish with eggplant, potato, tomato, peppers, garlic, cilantro and seasoning.
Badrijani Sliced grilled or fried eggplant stuffed with a spiced walnut paste, usually garnished with pomegranate seeds. It’s hard to imagine Georgian food without walnuts.
Churchkhela Sometimes called “Georgian Snickers.” A tasty treat made of walnuts (or other nuts) strung on thick cotton thread, dipped several times into a concoction of grape juice, sugar and flour and dried into rubbery sausage shapes. They come in a variety of colours and shapes. When you first see them hanging in the shops, they look a little bit waxy, like candles. Georgian warriors were said to carry churchkhelas as rations. Whatever you do, don’t eat the string!
Khinkali A few years ago, Maia gave me a lesson in making khinkali, Georgian dumplings. Inside is a mixture of ground meat (the best ones are a mixture of beef and pork) and spices, sometimes with green onions or other fresh herbs. The meat filling is then tucked inside a homemade dough wrapping. The trick is not to fill them too full. The hard part is folding the dough around the filling to form a little nub-like hat on the top (called a kudi). Khinkalis made with pride should have 18 folds. Maybe Maia was pulling my leg. I don’t think I ever mastered more than 12 or 13 folds. Most of the ones we were served in Georgia had even less than that. Once the dumplings are made, they are usually boiled and served hot. Grab one by the nub and carefully bite a small hole into the dumpling, sucking out the flavourful broth inside. Then eat the rest of the dumpling except the kudi. Toss it back on the plate and grab the next one. Another favourite were khinkali stuffed with a mushroom mixture.
Khachapuri Bread stuffed with fresh or aged cheese and pan fried. Usually made fresh and served hot. Hard to resist. Regional variations include:
Imeretian: stuffed with fresh Sulguni cheese
Adjarian: boat shaped bread filled with cheese and topped with runny eggs and melting butter
Ossetian: stuffed with potatoes and cheese
Lobiani Stuffed bread similar to khachapuri, but made with bean paste instead of cheese.
Lobio Is it a bean soup or a bean stew? Many regional and seasonal variations. Usually served hot in a ketsi pot with a wooden spoon.
Mtsvadi (Shashlik) Cubes of pork, skewered and grilled over a flame. Usually served with onions and parsley. Best eaten with tkemeli. You can spot restaurants that serve mtsvadi by the smoke coming from little huts along the road.
S’oko Mushrooms. Prepared and served in a variety of ways, such as stuffed with sulguni cheese and baked or brought out sizzling in oil.
Sulguni A salted rennet cheese, stringy on the outside and softer in the middle.
Tashmujabi A thick, cheesy mashed potato dish popular in the Svaneti region.
Tkemeli A sour plum sauce often served with fried or grilled meat, poultry, potato dishes and cheese.
? Fresh Georgian salad. Typically tomato, cucumber, onions and fresh herbs. Sometimes served with a walnut dressing.
? Fresh greens. A plate of cilantro, scallions, parsley and other fresh herbs.

We brought a wee taste of Georgia home with us to MOKEN. A bottle of tkemeli survived the flight tucked into our checked bag and some churchkhela will be a nice treat come Christmas.

Of course, a true Georgian feast would not be complete without Georgian wine, but that deserves a post of its own. Stay tuned for the last post in our Georgian series, coming up next.

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