There is this big chunk of Georgian cheese sitting comfortably in my chiller at home. Every time I open the refrigerator, my senses are assailed with the rich smoky flavor that emanates tantalizingly from this seemingly innocuous chunk. The smell brings with it memories of rolling hills and green plains, and I’m hit with the realization that I so want to go back to Georgia.
This country, after letting me sample some of its rich cultures, is now beckoning me back, with a beguiling temptation of food and wine, an ever-smiling hospitable people and the promise of a laid-back peaceful existence far away from the madding world – a peace that is completely contrary to its turbulent past.
Prior to embarking on this trip, Google had given me a virtual thumbs-up on the famed Georgian cuisine – the homegrown wines, the rich cheeses, freshly oven baked bread and flavorful meat dishes. I was not disappointed; in fact, the food experience far outweighed my expectations.
We stayed at the Gallery Palace hotel in Tbilisi, which was walking distance from some of the eateries. The others, we visited in between the sightseeing with Nika, our friendly guide who spoke flawless English. As I left my hotel and ventured into the outdoors in Georgia, l was amazed to find orchards and fields with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Most of these are homegrown and organic, giving every Georgian dish a unique fresh flavor. The fertile soil and conducive climate ensure a rich crop of fruits – apricots, grapes (but of course), apples, figs, pomegranates, mulberries, plums, oranges and peaches throughout the year. Nuts like pecans, peanuts, and walnuts grow here in abundance and are used generously in most of the dishes.
By default, Georgia’s location lays claim to the best of both worlds – Asian and European; however, there is a more distinct leaning towards its European lineage, be it on the weather, the architecture or in the choice of food and wines.
Though some dishes do incorporate Russian and Turkish influence, most of the signature cuisine has flavors that are distinctive and unique to its own culture. Chatting with the friendly Georgians, I found out that most of them bristled at the implication that anything on their plate has Russian origins (no love lost there) and proudly told me that the dish I just relished was not Russian or Arabian, it was simply ‘Georgian.’ When I tasted these unique flavors and blends, I found this pride to be truly justified.
A special tradition of Georgian food culture is the practice of raising toasts. Yes, each meal has to be accompanied by not one but several toasts. The toastmaster is a revered person and is known as a ‘Tamada.’ Not to say you can’t aspire to be a ‘Tamada’ if you want to…practice makes perfect.
During my four days stay in Georgia, I tried to sample as much of the local produce as I could. While there was an abundance of meat, bread, cheese, and wines to suit most palates, there was not a lot of fish on the menu, except maybe for trout. My adventurous and ever craving sweet tooth was also a wee bit disappointed to find a lot less variety in the sweet dishes.
Well anyway, here’s some of what I sampled and then ate and drank a lot of:
Chacha – Within no time this drink became a ‘hot’ favorite with our group of friends, and of course, I carried a bottle back. Also known as ‘Grappa’ or Georgian Vodka, it is actually a kind of brandy with 40% alcohol content. It can be made out of any fruit but the commonly used is grape pomace (grape skin residue after making wine) which is probably why it has that distinct ‘moonshine’ whiff.
Most Georgians make Chacha at home. Our guide Nika told us, his homemade Chacha had 60% alcohol and was of a far superior quality. I found no reason to disbelieve him. Chacha, he continued, was not a drink to be leisurely sipped instead it has to be gulped down like a shot – once the fiery smoothness (of various shots) slips past your throat, you could be anything from deliriously happy to plain knocked out.
Wines – Eight thousand years of viticulture ensures this country has some of the best wine varieties to suit any palate. Georgia’s wine producing region is known as Khaketi – Rkatsiteli is one of the most common white grapes and Saperavi the common red – grapes from this region are transported to other wine making regions of Georgia and served at the best restaurants in town.
I tried quite a few of the reds and the whites ranging from dry to semi-sweet and found them delectable. Our vineyard visit took us to the Khareba Winery where we were given a tour of the storage cellar. Later, we got together and toasted each other at an impressive artificial waterfall. We also sampled more wines at various restaurants and bought some wines to take home with us. Our home bars are now stacked with some full-bodied and potent liquid memories.
Bread – Georgia is famous for its bread. The dough is rolled out and slapped on the sides of ‘toves’ or clay ovens and can be eaten minutes later, hot and freshly baked. We were treated to a bread making class at the vineyard we visited. The fresh bread was the perfect accompaniment to the semi-sweet wine. A flat bread delicacy called Khachapuri comes with a filling of Imeretian or Sulguni cheese – absolutely melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Kachapuri has various innovative versions that have hence merged with butter, eggs, and even meat. Cornbread, another popular staple variety of bread, is typically served with a meat dish.
Khinkali – known also as soup dumplings, resemble Momos and are filled with either, beef, chicken or pork stuffing. The more pleats on your dumpling the higher up it is on the food scale. The best way to eat a dumpling is to hold it up on the knotted side and take a bite from the underside. Tastes best with Chacha, beer or wine.
Mtsvadi – is a special dish that is made out of skewered lamb, beef or pork. I sloshed it with local plum sauce and found I just couldn’t have enough. We also had the Pork Mtsvadi – pork ribs roasted on a skewer with a choice of dried plum sauce or mulberry sauce as an accompaniment. The Mtsvadi is also known as a ‘Chalagaji’ when instead of ribs, pork sirloin is roasted. Another absolutely delicious preparation was the chicken mtsvadi – delicately seasoned with tomato, marinated in a sour cream sauce and skewered to perfection.
Churchkhela – clubbed under the sweet category, this is one of the sweet dishes that is synonymous with Georgian cuisine. Though Churchkhela can be made from a variety of fruits and nuts, the most commonly used variety is made out of walnuts and grape juice.
A string of walnuts is dipped in a mixture of flour, sugar and concentrated grape juice (known as Badagi) and then hung on a line to dry for about four days. The taste is distinctive and unique to Georgia. After the bread making class, we participated in a Churchkhela ‘dip and hang to dry’ session which was a lot of fun.
Ajapsandali – The main ingredient for this wholesome dish is Eggplant. Various bell peppers give color and freshness to it, while the tangy taste comes from the tomatoes and tomato paste. All in all, a very satisfying vegetable stew, that is the perfect accompaniment to the Khachapuri.
Pkhali – Dips of green and purple on my plate and when asked, I was told they were made out of mashed beetroot and spinach. Pkhali can also be in a salad form where it is crushed but not made into a paste. Both the dips and the salads are used as accompaniments to meats rather than as a main dish. Pkhali can be made out of any vegetable and many times is mixed with walnuts to give the dish an added flavor. I felt this taste is an acquired one and I more or less bypassed it for the more flavorful Mtsvadi.
Some restaurants around town
Most tour guides will take you to a restaurant called Mravaljamieri and even if you walk into it on your own, for this reason, you will find it very crowded with tourists. There is authentic Georgian dancing and music out in the front, which is nearly impossible to see if you’re sitting at the back. The food here is reasonably good and has many of the traditional dishes listed above, however, the hurried service detracts from its charm.
Another restaurant that serves authentic Georgian dishes is the Puris Sakhli – we were told at our hotel reception that it’s the best in town and truly it was. The Mtsvadi, the Khinkali, and the plum sauce served here were all good. Reservations have to be made in advance if you want a table of your choice. The interior has a homely feel to it, accentuated by the freshly baked bread aroma emanating from its in-house bakery.
As we were dining here, a group of men in traditional dress sang a beautiful Georgian song for us. We didn’t understand the words but it went rather well with the wine. They sang at each table, their voices growing fainter as they moved to the upstairs dining room and eventually to the balconies.
On another day, around 10 pm, we accidentally stumbled upon the Art Cafe Tiflis Brunch while walking down the narrow Kote Abkhazi street in Tbilisi. The restaurant – which I believe is quite crowded in the daytime – is closed after 9 pm, but the bar and dessert counter remain open, so visitors can have their own happy hour there. This café is small but lovely with cozy seating arrangements and some very delicious desserts.
Food samples you should take with you from Georgia
The amalgamation of cultures on your plate will induce you to carry some of your memories back with you. A good place to start would be with the Chacha and the wines from the Georgian vines, depending of course on how many bottles you are allowed to carry to your country.
Carrying a few churchkellas for friends and family is also a good idea. I mean, where else in the world will you find sweets that look like sausages?
Walnuts, Prunes, and Apricots, are also a lot cheaper and of a far superior quality – gift assortments are available for sale at the local Carrefour.
Along with some delicacies, what I did take back, in a lot more abundance were the memories – of a beautiful place, warm and generous people, the tastiest of cuisines and an undying urge to visit again.
Ask before clicking
Georgians are friendly and always answer questions related to their food and culture. However, always ask before clicking pictures – many of them gave me a ‘go ahead wave’ and pointed to whatever they were selling, but they also turned away from the lens.
How to get there
Most international airlines fly several times a week to Tbilisi. Qatar Airways has 24 flights a week from Doha to Tbilisi with connections to Doha from all over the world. I took a connection from Oman where I live.
Citizens of some countries can enter Georgia without a visa. Other travelers are given a visa on arrival if they have resident visas from over 80 countries which are listed here –https://www.geoconsul.gov.ge/HtmlPage/Html/View?id=956&lang=Eng
If you do not have a resident visa from any of the countries listed above, you have to apply for an e-visa. The immigration officials at the airport are for the most part not very familiar with this list. Be armed with all the accurate information prior to travel. More information can be found at –https://www.geoconsul.gov.ge/en
First published on – Medium.com
This article was also published on Epicure and Culture on September 25, 2017. Can be accessed at https://epicureandculture.com/georgia-culinary-experiences/