Updated: Apr 4, 2019
One of the great joys of travelling in Georgia is discovering the relatively little-known cuisine of the country, which can come as a pleasant surprise to many. If it's known, it's known mainly for two staples: khinkali (dumplings) and khachapuri (bread). But there is more - much more - to Georgian cuisine than this, Georgian food comes laced with butter, cheese, and more cheese, and is washed down with liberal amounts of wine. Many people go away huge fans of it. Georgia's cuisine reflects its geographic position in some ways; it is a mixture of Middle Eastern, Russian, European and Central Asian influences, and each region has its own distinctive dishes. Broadly speaking, Georgian food is rich in meat dishes, often strongly flavoured (if not spicy), and served in pots with various different accompaniments and sauces. It's not a light cuisine - you may well come away having put on a few pounds.
At the same time, vegetarians are quite well catered for here, as salads, grilled vegetables and nuts are an important part of the diet: aubergine, tomatoes, cucumber, walnuts and pomegranates in particular. Coriander is liberally utilized, and flavours many a dish, so much so that after travelling in the country for a while you start to identify that herb in particular with Georgian food. Fruit is also abundant - peaches, oranges, apples, cherries and strawberries grow everywhere as well as the grapes which are used in wine making. Those with a sweet tooth though may be a bit disappointed. Despite its close proximity to Turkey and the middle east, where sweets and cakes are renowned, Georgia's pastries and cakes leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately, you'll be so full after every starter and main course, you'll never even think about a dessert. As far as drink is concerned, Georgians are most well-known for their wine production, and the Kakheti region has become quite well-known in the viticultural world. Whites and reds are produced, and the warm climate and favourable growing conditions - plenty of rolling hills for vineyards and good soil - mean that this region is well worth investigating for (open-minded) wine connoisseurs. Beer production is on a smaller scale, but beer is still a popular drink, whilst the Russian influence means the average Georgian consumes a fair amount of vodka too. The following are some of the best Georgian dishes, and also some of its best known beverages.
Khinkali (dumplings) are probably the most ubiquitous food in Georgia, and you won't be able to avoid them. In the simplest, most basic eatery in the country, you are almost guaranteed to find them on the menu. They are a food staple because they are simple, cheap and filling - hearty peasant food, essentially. Dumplings filled with minced meat - usually beef or lamb - with a bit of bulion floating around - these are served boiled and plain, rarely with any sort of garnish or accompaniment. They are supposed to be eaten by hand, by biting into them from underneath whilst holding them in the air by their doughy nexus. This is a challenge and a top tip is to ignore etiquette and use cutlery. Another tip is to be prudent when ordering: it's very easy to get too many. Rating: **
As mentioned, the second major staple and unavoidable foodstuff in Georgia is this, a sort of pizza bread, cherished by Georgians and eaten with pretty much every meal, often as a main course. Khachapuri is a doughy type of bread, leavened and allowed to rise, and usually very filling, so again don't order too much. There are several varieties, including:
- Imeretian: usually circular, topped with cheese; probably the most popular type.
- Adjarian: the bread is formed into a sort of open boat shape, and topped with a raw egg.
- Mingrelian: similar to Adjarian but with more cheese.
- Ossetian: contains potato as well as cheese. For those who can't get enough carbs.
- Gurian: has boiled eggs inside the dough and resembles a calzone pizza. Arguably not khachapuri at all.
Overall, khachapuri is something you will probably try once or twice, and conclude it's a bit of an acquired taste - and one you'd probably only have after not eating for two days. Unless you absolutely can't get enough carbs in your diet, in which case you'll love them. Rating: ***
A meat dish consisting of lamb or veal, it is cooked in a sauce made from taragon leaves, cherry plums/cherry plum sauce, white wine, parsley, mint, dill, coriander and salt. Considered to be one of Georgia's signature dishes, you should definitely try it if you see it - it can be an absolute revelation. Rating: *****
Probably the best-known Georgian soup. It consists of meat, cherry plum puree, rice, walnuts and a mixture of herbs and spices. Spicier ones tend to be better. A hearty starter, and as my mum used to say, a meal in itself. It's also very tasty, and well worth a try. Rating: ****