Given its proximity to Russia, it might be tempting to dismiss Georgian food as heavy, stodgy and bland. But nothing could be further from the truth. As any traveller to Georgia will tell you, the country’s unique cuisine, wine culture and the ritual of the supra (Georgian feast) are all highlights.
While some of Russia’s gastronomic traits do carry over (read: lots of carbs, dairy and red meat), religious customs that call for meat-free dining at certain times of year means there are lots of options available for vegetarians. Inflected with aromatics and a surprisingly liberal use of chilli (thanks in part to its Persian and Turkish neighbours to the south), Georgian cooking also features loads of fresh herbs and some of the tastiest locally grown produce you’re likely to encounter anywhere in the world.
Georgian food is notoriously moreish and overindulging is not uncommon – the Georgians even have a word for it, shemomedjamo (literal translation: ‘I accidentally ate the whole thing’!). While you’d be hard-pressed to sample every delicacy Georgia has to offer, you should at least try to ensure these must-try Georgian dishes make their way onto your plate.
Georgia’s most recognisable dish, khinkali, is something of a hybrid between Russian pelmeni, ravioli, and Chinese soup dumplings. Simple water-and-flour dough parcels are stuffed with various meat and non-meat fillings – my favourites include potato and cheese, and Mountanier-style with pork and veal – before being boiled. There’s an art to eating khinkali: After dousing the plate with black pepper, it’s customary to first grab the dumpling by its doughy nipple, bite a small hole in the side and slurp out the juices. It’s impolite to eat the knobbly bit of dough though, so just leave it on your plate.
Traveller’s Tip: Which restaurant makes the best khinkali in Tbilisi is a hotly contested topic. Zakhar Zakharich is a local favourite – and according to rumours, one of the last eateries where the khinkali are still made by hand. All restaurants require a minimum order of at least five pieces of any one flavour.
If there’s one Georgian dish I crave regularly enough to attempt to recreate it at home, it’s badrijani nigvzit – widely referred to by its English name, eggplant with walnut. This highly addictive finger food is made by plastering thin slices of chargrilled eggplant with a walnut paste that’s flavoured with blue fenugreek, tarragon vinegar, and dried marigold. Unfamiliar flavours to most taste buds, the result is unlike anything I’ve tasted before.
Traveller’s Tip: My favourite rendition of badrijani nigvzit is served at Racha House, close to Tbilisi’s Open Air Museum of Ethnography. Here, the eggplant is rolled into pretty rosettes and bejewelled with an extra-generous smattering of pomegranate gems.
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Bread (puri) is sacred stuff in the Caucasus – so much so that it’s taboo to throw bread away, which is why you’ll often see plastic bags full of old crusts tied to the outside of rubbish bins. Khachapuri, an open cheese pie, is one of Georgia’s more creative bread dishes. Different varieties correspond to different regions: Traditional khachapuri with salty sulguni cheese is a favourite in the city; there’s also lobiani (filled with beans), khabizgina (filled with potato), and my personal favourite, stuffed khachapuri basted in butter and roasted on a spit. In a league of its own is the extremely indulgent Adjarian khachapuri: a boat-shaped pie served with a raw egg yolk and a stick of butter floating in its molten cheese top.
Traveller’s Tip: A good place to try Adjarian khachapuri is Cafe Restaurant Kala. Swirl the butter and egg yolk with your fork before breaking off bits of bread to scoop up the filling. Budget travellers take note – after one of these, you won’t need to eat again for at least 24 hours!
Native to Samegrelo in Western Georgian, you’ll often find kharcho listed on restaurant menus in the soup section. Whenever I ate it, the consistency was more like a saucy curry or a thin stew. Kharcho is typically made with beef, plum puree and ground walnuts, which gives the sauce a complex sweet-and-sour taste and a beautiful nutty texture, not unlike a satay.
Traveller’s Tip: The best place to eat kharcho is at a traditional Megrelian restaurant like local favourite Mapshalia. Remember to order an extra side of elarji (fried polenta balls) to mop up the sauce.
At this stage you might be in need of a palate refresher – look no further than pkhali, a vegan dish made from finely chopped beetroot, nettles, cabbage, spinach, and other leafy vegetables. Combined with crushed walnuts, garlic and fresh herbs for flavour, pkhali is like a cross between a cold salad and a dip.
Traveller’s Tip: Five vibrant pastes with crackers and cheese on the side, the pkhali at Shavi Lomi (Black Lion) makes for an ideal share plate.
Georgia’s answer to chicken soup, chikhirtma is a light, silky chicken bouillon that’s threaded with egg whites and finished with a zesty citrus kick. Heavy on the onions and garlic, it’s served with a big hunk of fall-apart-soft meat at the bottom of the bowl. Trying to eat chicken off the bone with a soup spoon is tricky, to say the least, but it’s worth the effort.
Traveller’s Tip: Due to its purported restorative qualities, the chikhirtma at Culinarium Khasheria is fondly referred to as ‘hangover soup’. Just what your body and soul need after a night on the chacha (Georgian homebrew).
Now I know boiled beans is a bit of a hard sell; but as per usual, Georgia takes the humblest of dishes to a whole new flavour level. Cooked with onion and spices and served in a quaint clay pot, a good lobio (stewed kidney beans) comes with all the trimmings – pickles, fresh spring onion, and mchadi corn bread. For something different, try lobio Racha, a version of the dish associated with Georgia’s western highlands that incorporates ham hock.
Traveller’s Tip: Duquani, a traditional Georgian-style tavern, serves an excellent lobio alongside other classic dishes.
Georgia grows the most robust, flavorful tomatoes, and no dish showcases them better than the humble peasant’s salad. A traditional Georgian salad consists of chunky wedges of tomato and cucumber dressed with basil and coriander, Kakhetian olive oil, red onion and a little rocket lettuce. But the real secret is in the sauce: creamy baje (Georgian walnut dressing), usually served on the side as an optional extra.
Traveller’s Tip: Make a meal of it – the Georgian salad at Tbilisi’s worst kept secret cafe, Keto and Kote, is served with freshly baked bread and a wedge of salty sulguni cheese.
You’ll find there’s enough diversity in Georgian cooking to justify eating local food every day. There are hundreds of cafes and restaurants around Tbilisi’s Old City and beyond – stick to the tavern-style cellar restaurants and local cafes for the best food. Georgians are renowned for their hospitality and home-cooking is on another level, so if someone invites you to share a meal at their home, trust me, you should accept!
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Words and images by Emily Lush, you can follow her travels at @emily_lush
Feature image: Shutterstock