We’ve just returned from a short trip to Georgia (the country located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, not the American state), and apart from the beautiful snowy mountain vistas, one of the outstanding things about the holiday was the local food. The dishes were all freshly made and tasty, making good use of local ingredients, herbs and spices. I confess, I don’t have many good photos of Georgian food, because we were too busy stuffing our faces. But here’s what you can expect to find in Georgia when you’re looking for something to eat or drink:
Georgian white cheese
Cheese is one of the most important foods in the Georgian diet, and you see cattle all over the place when you travel in the countryside and villages, grazing in the hills, at the side of the road or even walking down the street. In the morning the cows go out to pasture and in the evening they return home, often by themselves. We saw one come home and stand mooing at the gate to be let in! The most common cheese is a fresh, salty and crumbly cows milk cheese called Imeretian cheese (imeruli qveli), which has many varieties. Another common cheese called sulguni is made by melting and squeezing the Imeretian cheese, which makes it more solid, creamier and more elastic, a bit like mozzarella.
Translated as “Georgian cheese pie” on most menus, this classic local dish consists of bread dough filled with local white cheese and sometimes egg. Imeruli khachapuri looks a bit like a pizza, except the cheese is in the middle, Megruli khachapuri has an extra layer of cheese on top, and Adjaruli khachapuri is a boat-shaped bread bowl filled with cheese with an egg on top. Sometimes the dough is more like wood fire-cooked bread while other times it is flaky and more like puff pastry. It can be eaten anytime, for breakfast, lunch or supper.
Georgian dumplings are known as khinkali, and they look a little bit like jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), but with a thick “stalk”. The version we most often encountered were filled with minced meat flavoured with onion and herbs such as coriander and parsley, as well as a tasty, savoury gravy. You’re supposed to hold the dumpling by the stalk and then bite a little bit out of the dough so that you can suck out the savoury juices before eating the rest of the dumpling. It’s a good idea to wait until they have cooled down a bit, and to bite a very small hole! The stalk is not eaten but is left on the plate so that you can tell how many dumplings you’ve eaten. Other fillings can also be used for dumplings, such as potatoes, mushrooms or cheese – we had some good potato ones topped with sour cream.
The earliest evidence for the consumption of wine comes from Georgia, where wine has been produced from as early as 8000 BC. Grapes grow wild in the area, and the inhabitants of these valleys in the South Caucasus discovered that grape juice buried in clay pots for the winter turned into wine. The clay pots, called kvevris, then became used to produce wine, which gives it a different style and flavour to wine produced in barrels. Today wine is produced both by farmers using the traditional method and by modern wineries, and comes in many varieties of white and red, dry and semi-sweet.
Churchkhela is a traditional Georgian confectionery shaped like a candle, made from freshly pressed grape juice (must), nuts and flour. The nuts (such as walnuts and hazelnuts) are softened and threaded onto a string, which is then dipped into the thickened grape juice. The dipping is repeated a few times until it looks like a candle, and then it is hung up to dry.
When my husband bought one from an old lady selling things at a market and then tore off a piece and put it into his mouth, we all looked at him in horror, thinking he was eating a candle. He insisted it was a sweet and gave me a piece to try. It tasted rubbery, waxy and only slightly sweet and we were still all convinced it was a beeswax candle. “Thanks for feeding me a candle!” I told him. But later on we found a stall at the market selling the same candle-like structures in more colours and sizes, and the lady there told us it was made from grapes and nuts. The ones she let us try were much softer and tastier, so all of us ended up buying and eating these sweet candles.
Clay pot dishes such as lobio (beans)
Something else you will see on the menus in Georgian restaurants is clay pot dishes, which include dishes of beans, mushrooms, pork, chicken or veal. The beans (lobio) in clay pots were probably the yummiest beans I’ve ever eaten. Red kidney beans are stewed with ingredients such as tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices and herbs such as coriander and blue fenugreek, and in another delicious variation the sauce also includes crushed walnuts. A mushroom clay pot dish also containing crushed walnuts was another one of my favourites.
Kharcho is a traditional Georgian soup made of cherry plum puree (which has a tart taste like tomatoes) containing rice, chunks of meat, crushed walnuts and freshly chopped coriander. There were other soups on the menu too but we all wanted to try the Kharcho. Sorry, there was none left for a photo! 🙂
The aubergines (eggplants) in Georgia seemed to be smaller but tastier. We tried two of the aubergine dishes: aubergines topped with a crushed walnut paste, and a dish simply called “mixed vegetables” but which was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten: small, crispy grilled aubergine slices, juicy tomatoes, peppers, spring onions, garlic and fragrant herbs such as parsley and coriander all coated in delicious golden olive oil and seasoned with salt, chilli and spices.
Elarji is an interesting porridge-like dish made from cornmeal, cornflour and sulguni cheese. It is strangely elastic, and we had to watch a local to figure out how to get it off the plate (you tilt the plate and cut it with the back of the spoon, then push it off onto your plate). It is tasty though, and the cheese-loving gluten-intolerant people in our group were very happy with it as an alternative to the wheat-based kachapuri!
Meats and fishes
Because of all the rushing rivers in Georgia, another thing you’ll find on the menu is trout, often either roasted till the skin is crispy and delicious or cooked in foil with white wine and lemon juice. If you’re a meat eater, you’ll enjoy the barbecued meat on a skewer (shashlik), barbecued chicken or kebab (formed from minced meat).
The local soft drinks come in interesting flavours that I hadn’t seen before. Have you ever had a bright green tarragon lemonade? It is surprisingly refreshing and addictive. Another flavour we were introduced to was pear, which was sweeter and tasted a bit like bubblegum.
Now you will understand why the Armenian who organized this trip told us: when you go to Georgia, you always leave with a few more kilograms. Which of these foods would you like to try?