Georgia is one of the most charismatic places I have ever been to. Its landscapes, people, wine and food exude boundless energy unrivalled by anywhere else I have been to. Geographically, Caucasus, the region Georgia is a part of, is flanked by Turkey, Iran and Russia and you can feel the influences in the region’s cuisine. Yet, Georgian food is also extremely idiosyncratic. Despite being surrounded by some extremely intense neighbours, Georgians managed to preserve and develop their own language, culture and of course cuisine.
When I was growing up in the Soviet Ukraine, everybody new Georgian dishes. Every Soviet town from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka had a Georgian restaurant. However, when I went for my book research a few years ago, it was so much more than I knew – the diversity of the dishes in both seasonal and regional terms was astounding.
Georgian cuisine has always had a reputation of being very meaty, but I found, especially in rural areas where people reared their own meat – that cooking with vegetables, beans and fruit was rife. The country is blessed with incredible grapes, plums, aubergines, tomatoes, beans, walnuts, hazelnuts, quinces, tangerines, soft herbs and numerous wild foraged greens which one can easily find at the local farmers market.
Western Georgia called Somegrelo (closer to Turkey) uses quite a lot of chilli, in the Imereti region – I have tried some outlandish mushrooms and in the East they cook pork neck over grape vine embers.
Whereas the neighbouring Azerbaijan mostly pickles using vinegar, Georgians are master-fermenters. The pickles section at markets and in people’s cellars are mind-blowing.
The Soviet Union has done a lot of damage with its aggressive, mass industrialisation and collective farming, almost completely destroying some ancient techniques of preparing food and wine. But luckily there are now people who are reviving tradition and the forgotten crops like the ancient red and black doli wheat found growing on mountain slopes as well as ancient grape varieties. The wine is made in antique clay amphoras, called qvevri – which are dug into the ground
The eating culture is as important as the actual food. Georgians have supra – literally meaning ‘table cloth’. It doesn’t not actually refer to fabric thrown over a table but the multitude of dishes that are brought to the table during a feast. There are so many, the dishes overlap and go on top of each other, covering the table completely, like a table cloth. The toast master called tamada leads the feast. There are no simple ‘cheers!” though. Each toast turns into a philosophical discussion, long into the night. Before going to bed a beef stock called khash is put on the stove. And it is the best hangover cure. Served in the morning with a pot of salt, minced garlic and herbs (to be seasoned individually), this viscous broth is the most restorative hang over cure that I know of.
I sometimes think, this was the way Georgians managed to preserve their own flavours of life, even neighbours who were often bellicose. “Come drink with us…let us talk and toast and charm you. Try this food, it is a portal to our souls.”
Roots, shoots, seeds and greens
Despite its reputation, Georgians eat seasonally – and that involves respecting the seasons of meat. In areas where people rear their own animals, you can’t afford to kill animals every day, so a lot of vegetable and bean dishes, enriched with protein-rich walnut pastes are eaten. One of the cornerstones is a thick paste of walnuts, garlic, marigold powder, blue fenugreek, oil and vinegar. It is used to dress a myriad of vegetables – depending on the season – green or yellow beans, beetroot, mushrooms and foraged greens like ekala (climbing, flowering smilax excelsa to you and me). It’s sometimes pounded with spinach or grated beetroot and rolled into balls decorated by pomegranate seeds. One of the best things that is made with beetroot is a dish called charkhali. This turns beet haters into beet lovers. First you make tkemali (there are a lot of guttural sounds in Georgian) by stewing down whole plums with a splash of water. Then it’s passed as a puree and seasoned with salt, cayenne, crushed garlic, dill seeds and pennyroyal mint – it is one of the most versatile and ubiquitous condiments in Georgia (served with meat, fish and cooked with eggs). One of the most genius uses though is marinating boiled beets in it. Sweet beetroot, seasoned with a sour, salty and spicy plum sauce was a revelation to me.
Beans are another favourite. A hearty stew called lobio (literally ‘beans”) can be as thin as a soup or thick as a stew, often seasoned with local spices including the complex and musky blue fenugreek. Finally herbs are king. A heady mixture of cilantro, red basil, tarragon and dill are used in copious amounts as garnish for many a dish. One of my favourites is teh early summer rattatouille-style dish called adjapsandali. Summer vegetables including peppers, tomatoes and aubergines are gently stewed ina pot, but the flavour bomb comes after. Tarragon, basil, dill and cilantro are bashed together with raw garlic and salt and stirred through the dish just before serving. Which leads us to the next cornerstone…
Salt and flavour
Georgians have a very special way with flavouring salts – it can come as dry flavoured salt pellets or also as a wet salty paste. Red adjika in Somegrelo (Western Georgia) is one of the best seasonings I have ever tried. Salt, raw garlic, blue fenugreek, red chilli.
Another outstanding flavoured salt found in the region is mint adjika – it is a simple blen of (a lot of) salt, mint leaves, garlic and green chilli. It keeps in a jar for ages and goes really well with all sorts of dairy (try it on toast with mild goat’s cheese and a piece of seasonal fruit, like persimmons right now).
The mysterious, gorgeous mountain region of Svaneti does its own salt – Svaneti salt. Similarly to red adjika – raw garlic, salt and local spices such as wild thyme, coriander, blue fenugreek and dill seeds go through an old school meat grinder creating the most fragrant seasoning used on top of home-made yoghurt called matsoni or in their meat pies (of which we will speak later).
Beasts of land, sea and air
I grew up watching men douse meat in vinegar and onions and throwing it on the barbecue, they called it Georgian ‘shashlyky’. What I have discovered in Georgia, however, was far removed from the mediocre Soviet version. This barbecued meat is called mtsvadi in Geiogia and it is genius in its simplicity. Dried vine clippings are thrown into a barbecue grill and burnt until they become the most fragrant of coals. Pork neck is then skewered and basted over fire with a mixture of red or white wine mixed with salt. This process creates the most delicious savoury crust. The meat is taken off the skewer with a flatbread, the latter soaked in its juices. A simple red onion, pomegranate and parsley salad is served on the side.
With the first green leaves, and lambs come chakhapouli – a dish of young lamb braised with lots of sour plums, tarragon, dill, cilantro, wild garlic, spring onions – any young green shoots and herbs. The liquor, after all the meat has been eaten, is drunk out of a cupt as yet another perfect hangover cure.
The best chicken dish that I know (ever, in the history of anything) is tabaka. A young chicken is spatchcocked and browned in a frying pan, then weighed down by something heavy (like an old-school iron or pestle and mortar) and cooked in the pan until tender. It is then doused in oil infused with garlic. I go one step further and add butter to mine and lots of tarragon, basil and dill.
To mention Georgia and not to mention their most famous meat dumpling would be a crime. Khinkali are incredible. They look like money bags and they contain riches inside. Pork and beef or lamb is mixed with plenty of black pepper, chilli, cilantro (sometimes), Georgian spices and lots of water (to create that liquor that makes khinkali a real ‘soup dumpling’. Poach them, then douse in butter and more black pepper. Bit a tiny bit off, suck out the juice, then devour with abandon.
Sun, milk, flour and ash
Cheese is king in Georgia. In fact, in West Georgian dialect bzha means both sun and – the sacred essentials. Georgian cows are skinny and agile, almost like massive mountain goats hopping around the slopes. They produce less milk than regular cows, but boy is it rich. They make fresh cheese called Imereti cheese in most places. This cheese can then be salted in a barrel of brine, and becomes suluguni. The most famous Georgian bread called khachapouri is filled with either Imereti or suluguni cheese and it’s a true joy. There is a boat version filled with egg that you may know, called Adjarouli khachapouri, but there are so many others. There are Ossetian pies, filled with cheese, herbs and chard.
There is kada lobiani – an intricate layered bread filled with caramelised onions and mashed red kidney beans. There are the meat-filled kubdari pies in the mountains of Svaneti, flavoured with the aforementioned salt and lots of pepper and spices.
Finally there are the road-side bakeries with tandyr ovens (similar to tandoor) with elongated breads slapped to the sides. We tried some with home-made buffalo butter (as good as cheese, I could have eaten it with a spoon) and with funky salty cheeses from the Tusheti mountains, aged in lamb’s stomach.
Summer’s soul in a 3L jar
Talking about the funk. Georgians are very serious about preserving their vegetable glut, so anything from gherkins to whole cloves of garlic are thrown into a weak brine in September and are left to ferment. One of Georgia’s most special ferments is called jonjoli also known as bladdernut. It is an endemic shrub with gorgeous clusters that vaguely resemble capers. They are unopened flower buds which get foraged and Packed in massive jars with some salt. They end up fermenting too and taste like nothing else you’ll ever try. One of the best ferments is made with unripe green tomatoes. They get slashed and stuffed with celery leaf, garlic and chilli slices – the result is out of this world. Ferments in Georgia get served with nutty, unrefined sunflower oil and sliced raw onions.
Georgians are not so keen on puddings. But they are masters at preserving their fruit. It can be whole callipygian peaches preserved in sugar syrup or it can be tklapi – fruit leather made out of plums, mulberries, apples – you name it. All you need is lots of fruit, a ten litre cauldron, an ore for a stirring spoon and some sunshine to dry out the fruit puree. They also use grape must mixed with cornflour to make pelamushi pudding, sweet preserved walnuts and even young pinecone preserves (that one really blows your mind). They also make churchkhela – walnuts encased in grape must – which disconcertingly look like sausages. One of the best sweets though is called gozinaki – its the most desirable Christmas treat for children – a honey and walnut brittle – as tasty as it is good for you.