Tucked away east of the Black Sea in the Caucasus, the formerly isolated nation of Georgia is entering a bit of a renaissance. Their new investments into building infrastructure, generous visa policies, and efforts to preserve their cultural heritage are attracting scores of tourists and immigrants.
Food and drink are the backbone of Georgian culture, evidenced by their 8,000 years of viticulture history and their iconic blue tablecloths that are so integral to the local culture that they have been granted status as a material monument by UNESCO.
But to the people of Georgia, their culinary accomplishments have nothing to do with accolades or recognition, they are the result of generations spent practicing the celebration of sharing a meal.
Formerly a stop on the silk road, you’ll see the clear influences of Turkey, Persia, and Russia in Georgian cuisine, these international flavors surviving to this day. Surprisingly, regional traditions vary wildly despite it being a relatively small nation, but there are a handful of staple foods available throughout the country that exemplify their gastronomic traditions.
If you’re planning your first trip to Georgia, here are the foods you can’t leave without trying.
Possibly the most recognizable and iconic food in the whole of Georgia, khinkali are dumplings that are made by carefully wrapping a simply prepared dough around a variety of fillings.
Reminiscent of the famed Shanghainese xiao long bao, or soup dumpling, khinkali are most commonly filled with some type of meat, though they can also contain other ingredients like vegetables, potato, or cheese. After they are formed, they can be boiled immediately or frozen to be cooked at a later date.
Georgians are very particular about the etiquette of eating khinkali: they are only to be eaten with bare hands, and plain save a sprinkling of black pepper. After you take the first bite, the juices should be slurped from its interior lest they spill out. The rest should simply be eaten, save for the handle-like stump at the top which you can leave on your plate.
Bread is serious business in Georgian cuisine, and of the many local preparations, khachapuri is a clear favorite. There are several different regional variations of this Georgian staple, but all involve some type of delicious local cheese baked inside leavened bread dough. Even though it originates in central Georgia, Imeretian khachapuri is the most ubiquitous nationwide and can be found at restaurants, cafés, and street food stalls all over the country.
Possibly the most beloved variety of khachapuri hails from Adjara, where oversized boat-shaped bowls of bread are left open to reveal the cheese, egg, and butter filling. Much like when eating khinkali, Georgians scoff at the idea of eating khachapuri with utensils, preferring to dive in with bare hands.
This deceptively simple, endlessly delicious bean dish is, both in taste and texture, something in between refried and stewed beans. The exact recipe varies by region, but the basic ingredients of softened kidney beans, herbs, and spices remain largely the same throughout the nation.
Lobio is typically both prepared and served in a clay pot, with the kidney beans within mashed slightly to encourage the flavors to more thoroughly incorporate. Ground walnuts or a sour plum sauce called tkemali can be used to thicken the broth, and you can top it with a generous sprinkling of parsley before serving. Be sure to try it with a couple of pieces of mchadi, or Georgian cornbread.
Resembling the brainchild of khachapuri and lobio, lobiani is a flat pie filled with mashed, spiced beans. Unlike its clay-potted counterpart, this simple but satisfying bean dish is self contained, so it’s easy to eat on the go. That’s why you’ll find that lots of Georgian bakeries will make some version of it as a quick takeaway for breakfast or lunch.
It’s made a few different ways, but you’ll usually find lobiani fashioned into a flat disc resembling a pizza, and similarly sliced into 6-8 pieces to be eaten with your hands. Most types are vegetarian, but in the northern state of Racha, they make a delectable version where the beans are stewed with some kind of pork – usually ham or bacon – and their version is renowned in the nation for being the best.
Many cultures have some sort of tomato-based beef stew, and Georgia is no different. Their version of this, the beloved kharcho, is enjoyed far beyond their own borders, having become extremely popular all over the former USSR, of which Georgia was once a part.
Today, the ingredients can certainly vary, particularly in Russia where this dish has found a second home, but purists will demand a few key ingredients always be present: tomato sauce and beef certainly, as well as ground walnuts, and tkemali, a sour sauce made of local plums. It commonly, though not exclusively, contains pomegranate juice, herbs, and spices, and is served over rice and topped with fresh cilantro.
In Georgia, walnuts are used to top salads, fill delicate rolls of aubergine, and thicken soups, but in the case of satsivi, walnuts become the main attraction.
After a whole chicken is boiled and roasted, the juices are reserved to prepare the accompanying silken sauce made from finely ground walnuts, onions, garlic, and spices. Somewhat counterintuitively, it is chilled before serving and meant to be eaten cold.
Though seemingly simple, to prepare this dish is quite the undertaking, requiring several steps in a precise order. Preparing the walnuts alone usually requires three or four passes through a food mill, and the oil must be carefully squeezed from them by hand. The result of this painstaking process, when done correctly, is a luscious and delicately spiced dish that begs for several pieces of fresh bread to help clean your plate. If you visit in the winter, you’ll likely encounter an even richer version of satsivi, as Georgians prepare it with turkey during the holidays.
Your first glimpse of pkhali may leave you less than enthused, as they look like little more than a congealed mound of some minced, green vegetable. Your first bite, however, will probably change your mind, as this finely milled concoction of greens packs a deceptively large punch as far as flavor.
To make it, steamed greens, usually spinach or beet, are passed through a grinder with onions, garlic, and walnuts, and formed into balls or patties. It can be eaten alone or spooned atop khachapuri or bread.
Like khachapuri‘s even more sinful cousin, chvishtari is a type of Georgian cornbread filled with cheese. Rendering them even more delectable, rather than baked, they are pan-fried until golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside.
Like other hand-held Georgian foods, they can be found at street food stalls and bakeries for takeaway, and can be eaten plain. But they are also delicious topped with lobio or pkhali, so they’re a decadent addition alongside a larger meal.
Described to visitors as a “Georgian Snickers,” the long strings of multi-hued churchkhela seen hanging from market stalls are often mistaken for sausages to the uninitiated. Far from it, this labor-intensive sweet is the chewy amalgamation of nuts and tatara, a mixture of thickened fruit juice, flour, and sugar.
Traditionally, churchkhela is made from grape juice and is prepared around the time of the fall harvest, but because once they have cured, they can be stored for several months, they are a favorite during the holidays. Walnut is the most popular filling, but you can also find them made with hazelnuts, almonds, and even chocolate.
Possibly the most sinful staple of Georgian cuisine might also be one of its most simple, as tashmijabi just unites mashed potatoes with salty sulguni cheese. This Svanetian cheese, though common around the whole country, is springy and waxy at room temperature, but melts into a uniform, gooey texture, and imparts a subtle but welcome umami flavor it gains from the mild fermentation it undergoes during the curing process.
While the proportions vary slightly by region and family, the most decadent varieties of tashmijabi are easily recognized by the long, melty strings of sulguni that descend from every forkful.
It can be served alongside roasted chicken or braised beef, or topped with a fried egg in the morning for breakfast. If you’re lucky, yours will come with a small sprinkling of svaneti salt, a ruddy mixture of sea salt and a uniquely Georgian mix of smoked spices.