The World According to Georgia
8 am, the morning sun has just started to hit my kitchen, but my house is already filled with a smell of freshly baked bread. Although, it’s not technically bread, it’s something much more – the loveliest dish of all – Adjarian Khachapuri. Imagine a 10-inch boat made of weightless dough and filled with rich, bubbly cheese, egg yolk, and butter. Already drooling? Well, you should because of this iconic Georgian dish might be the best thing you’ve tried in years.
I started learning about Georgian cuisine a couple of years ago when I met a lovely food blogger who came to the Bay Area from Tbilisi. Together we made khachapuri, khinkali, and badrijani nigvzit, and while we were cooking she shared her stories about Georgian culture and way of life, about complicated history, and war and what an important role food still plays in their everyday life.
A Phoenix of Sakartvelo
The Republic of Georgia, or how Georgians call it, Sakartvelo, is not just one of the small yet proud Caucasian countries with a Soviet past, but an under-explored jewel for the traveling world. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgia that used to be one of the most flourishing and prosperous republics was scattered and thrown into an utter state of poverty. No electricity, no heating, and no food supplies – it was literally a dark time for the country. Having survived various military conflicts and natural disasters, the nation grew stronger and more united than ever before.
Within the past few years, Georgia has grown into an attractive tourist destination offering quite an impressive set of cultural revelations for adventurous visitors. With its relaxed and almost siesta-like lifestyle, Georgia makes you forget urban fuss and dive into a pool of safe serenity. This country gently takes place in the heart of everyone who experiences it.
The Nature of Art and the Art of Nature
It might be a daring comparison, but Georgia can be called a Caucasian France regarding the number of artists from all over the world flocking there. Fine arts, photography, music, and fashion design find a constant expression in the country’s everyday life with the spirit of creativity that’s shared by everyone. Maybe it’s also thanks to a fantastic diversity of landscape within the small country. With its snow-covered mountains, lakes, ancient churches, traditional villages, and vineyards there is not a minute of dullness. Georgia is divided into several historical regions, each with a specific culture including food traditions, clothing, language peculiarities, and mentality. Hard-baked highlanders from Tusheti and jolly masters of good humor from Guria sit on the opposite sides of communication experience.
Becoming a Supraman
The tradition of hospitality in Georgia has no limits: a guest is a cherished treasure, a family member, a friend, and the center of the universe. Therefore, a community feast culture is so robust in that part of the world. There’s even a special term for an authentic Georgian feast – Supra, an experience after which you are facing not a food coma, but rather a complete awakening of body and mind. As tradition demands, dining tables have to be covered entirely with delicacies in a Rabelaisian style. Most often, an intense supra is followed by a lunch next day called ‘Khashi’ after the star dish (basically, it’s a thick meat stew). It roots back to the medieval times and is considered to have an astounding healing effect.
Dough & Co.
A whole new article (or two) will be needed to at least shortly embrace Georgia’s culinary diversity. But just like an Oscar movie has two or three high-level celebrities, this cuisine can boast at least two gourmet heroes of all times. One of them has almost become a national emblem with its easily recognizable shape and a signature taste – it’s Khinkali, a Georgian dumpling. There are many varieties of fillings, but one of the most loved (at least in urban areas) is the kalakuri type with minced meat and herbs. Vegetarian versions include khinkali with sulguni cheese, button mushrooms, and mashed potato. Boiled khinkali are served on a platter and are usually eaten with bare hands. Making khinkali with as many pleats as possible is a special form of art. 18-20 pleats considered a mediocre achievement.
The second Caucasian favorite is Khachapuri, which is a Georgian interpretation of ‘bread-and-cheese’ culinary archetype. Imeretian khachapuri is a round buttered flatbread stuffed with cheese; Megrelian khachapuri is like Imeretian, but with extra cheese on top. But the king of all khachapuri is the Adjarian one – a giant that impresses and awes at first sight and smell. An open ‘boat’ of dough filled with cheese and topped with a runny egg yolk and an impressive pat of butter. Traditionally, this ‘boat’ is not expected to be shared, but eaten solely.
Georgian winemaking tradition counts around eight thousand years, which makes it the oldest in the world. Currently, there are two different types of wine fermentation process – a traditional Georgian (a whole mass of juice, grape skins, stalks, and pips is fermented) and a European (only juice without any extras). Georgia is the only nation in the world to use unique earthenware egg-shaped vessels Qvevri for making and storing the wine. Qvevris are buried in the ground; they can be of various sizes with the biggest one giving enough space inside for an adult. A model of strong ties and time-proof traditions, almost every family in Georgia has its wine-making history and secrets rooted in a uniquely preserved culture.
White wine is a most common festive drink, while red wine (which Georgians call ‘black’) is considered too heavy and rather a medicine than a beverage. Often used during the feasts, a traditional Georgian wine vessel ‘Kantsi’ is made of mountain goat’s horn. The trick is that you can’t put it on the table without drinking all the wine inside at once. It’s quite a challenge, considering that some kantsi can hold up to 3 liters of wine!
If after reading this you find yourself checking out flights to Tbilisi or counting days before your next vacation, you might consider making a personal acquaintance with Georgia on a plate. The easiest way to taste Georgia is to make their famous Adjarian Khachapuri. I’m sharing my recipe, which I made about five hundred times already. I teach this khachapuri at my cooking classes and also cook for my guest at pop-up dinners. It’s time to share it with a broader audience. Enjoy and let me know how it turned out!
- 325 g all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
- 250 ml or a little over cup whole milk, lukewarm
- 3/4 tsp kosher salt
- 3/4 tsp white sugar
- 1 tsp active dry yeast
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
- 100 g Syrian cheese *, grated
- 100g Suluguni cheese *, grated
- 100g queso fresco, grated
- 100 ml or a little over 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 1 whole egg, lightly beaten with a fork
- 2 egg yolks
- 50 g butter, unsalted and room temperature
- In a big bowl, whisk together the milk, salt, sugar, and yeast. Let the mixture stand for 1-2 minutes.
- Sift 120 g of the flour into the milk mixture and use a whisk to mix well until you’ll have a batter with a yogurt-like thickness. Cover the batter with a kitchen towel and let it stand for 20-25 minutes.
- Sift the remaining flour into the mixture, then add the olive oil. Stir well to combine. After mixed, remove the dough from the bowl and start kneading. The dough will come together and form a ball. Continue kneading for 5 minutes. By the end of the 5 minutes, the dough should be slightly sticky and very soft.
- Divide the dough into 2 equal balls. Lightly brush the balls with some olive oil and place into individual zip lock bags, or bowls covered with plastic wrap, and let rest in a warm place (60-80 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 2 hrs.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F.
- In a small bowl mix together the three kinds of cheese and heavy cream.
- When the dough balls have risen and doubled in size, place them on a lightly floured surface, then roll into a 10 inch equal ovals, about 1/4 inch thick.
- Place the dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Spread a quarter of the cheese mixture (about 5 ounces) over each piece of dough, leaving a 1 and 1⁄2-inch border all the way around. Fold both halves of the lengthy sides together and pinch the edges tightly to seal.
- Flip the khachapuri over completely, so the side you just pinched is now facing down. Cut lengthwise down the center of the dough with a sharp knife, making sure to leave about 1 1/2 inches uncut near each narrow end. Tucking the sides of the khachapuri under and away from the center, roll the edges of khachapuri to form a boat shape. There will be cheese under the rolled sides when you finish. Divide the remaining cheese mixture evenly between the middle of the khachapuri and lightly press down.
- Cover the khachapuri with a kitchen towel, and set aside to rest for 15 minutes until slightly puffed.
- Just before baking, brush the edges of the khachapuri with the lightly beaten egg, then bake for 15-18 minutes until the crust becomes golden brown.
- Make a well in the center of each khachapuri with the back of a spoon and drop 1 egg yolk into each well. Then place a slice of butter on top of the cheese and serve right away.