Basic Georgian (food).
A tiny country wedged between mighty mountain ranges, neither Asian nor European, so close and yet so far from both Russia and the Middle East, Georgia is a unique place.
Georgians speak a language that is not known to be related to any other. It therefore sounds like it was made up for a fantasy movie. The same applies to its looks – the origins of Georgian letters are shrouded in a veil of mystery. Georgia has its own church too. It’s part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but separate and different from the Russian or the Greek. Local architecture is also very distinct. Churches and forts are especially impressive when blended in the stunning mountain landscape. Talking about nature – this country is so small and yet so full of biodiversity wonders.
And then, there is food. For the country’s small size, the fame and influence of its cuisine is no less than tremendous. The popularity of Georgian cookery is global, but rooted especially in the former Eastern Bloc. It arose when Georgia was part of the USSR. Why? Well, Georgia had the best climate of all the Soviet republics. Compare it to Siberia, and you will realize that it’s a true paradise of crops and fruits. And wine! With shipment of walnuts, pomegranates, figs, apricots and wine, Soviet tables also received Georgian snacks and dishes.
Tbilisi is much closer to Tehran and Istanbul than to Moscow, both on the map and in the menu. The fire heats the clay walls of tandoor ovens since time immemorial, as it did in Mesopotamia and ancient India. With the Silk Road caravans, local markets became veiled in fragrance of spices. Turco-Mongol armies are said to bring the concept of dumplings to Georgia, enter the khinkali. Tomatoes and bell peppers joined eggplants on local tables with the Columbian exchange. The influence of Imperial Russia, and later the Soviet Union, came as a yet another stir to the melting pot. Georgian cuisine evolves, but in the same time it preserves. Today, as millennia ago, herdsmen cross the valleys of the Caucasus in search of pastures for their sheep. Wine is cherished in these parts as many as eight thousand years, if not more.
Let’s have a brief look at the most special aspects of Georgian food culture.
A sausage or a candlestick? No, it’s churchkhela (ჩურჩხელა), a very Georgian treat and one of my personal favorites. Nuts, usually walnuts, are strung on a thread and dipped in a cauldron with bubbling concoction of grape juice (must) thickened with flour. Naturally sweet, both fruity and nutty, chewy and crunchy, it’s a marvel of human invention. You may want to replace your chocolate bar with this cutie. You’re welcome.
The key element of Georgian bakery is tandoor oven – tone. In fact, in Georgian, ‘tone’ (თონე) means both ‘oven’ and ‘bakery’.
There are several significant kinds of ‘puri’ (პური, Georgian for ‘bread’), one of them being shoti puri (შოთის პური). Its canoe-like shape is easily recognizable and shoti’s image often adorns bakeries’ signboards – as you can see on my photos.
By far the most famous incarnation of traditional Georgian baked goods is khachapuri (ხაჭაპური). Those cheese-filled masterpieces are popular internationally, both as restaurant fare and as street food. Among the many varieties, a famous example is Adjaruli khachapuri – opened and with egg yolk on top. On one of my photos you can see a souvenir stall with magnets shaped like Adjaruli. The egg middle encircled in thick crust make it look like some funky orange-colored plastic eyes.
Last but not least, I have a particular affection for another product available in Georgian bakeries – lobiani (ლობიანი). This pastry is filled with lobio, a terrific spiced bean paste.
Archaeological discoveries prove that the Caucasus is one of the earliest wine-making regions of the world, with the oldest finds dating back as far as 6000 BCE. Try to beat that. No wonder the moniker ‘Cradle of Wine’ is often given to Georgia.
Kvevri (ქვევრი) is a large vessel used in Georgian wine making since those prehistorical times. Buried under the ground completely up to its neck, it serves for both fermentation and aging. The photos I’m sharing with you have been taken in Gremi, Nekresi and Kvareli towns in Kakheti, the country’s foremost wine region. The Georgian grape variety of largest significance, Saperavi, originated here.
Among the places I visited during my jaunt to the region was Alaverdi Monastery. It has a history of more than a millennium. It’s a nice place to visit for both history lovers and wine enthusiasts. The monastery produces excellent wines.
I also went to the town of Kvareli to visit the Khareba Winery. Their wine tunnel is 7.7 km long. The ticketed tours include wine tastings. Cheers!
No trip to Georgia would be complete without eating khinkali (ხინკალი), dumplings famous for their soupy insides. Larger than Mongolian or Tatar manti (манты), they look more like Chinese xiaolongbao 小笼包 (or like the larger and soupier tangbao 汤包). However, their skins are much thicker and their tops are very different, with pleats pinched in a more crude way. This is because the tops are actually not meant to be eaten – they serve as a handle (which is pretty clever) and they remain on your plate so everyone can count how many khinkalis you have gobbled (which is damn clever). The first bite is followed by drinking the released juices, then you proceed to finishing the entirety of the dumpling before repeating the same process again and again. And then you order more.