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: ****
A wonderful starter. It consists of fried, sliced aubergine, rolled up and stuffed with lightly spiced walnut paste and topped with pomegranate seeds. Simple, tasty and cheap. The walnut paste ('satsivi') that is used as the filling is also used to cover some salads, fish and poultry, which usually adds a lot to the dish. It's a Georgian wonder. Rating: ****
Another starter, often thought of as a salad, also very tasty and simple. Consists of chopped and minced vegetables such as beetroot, spinach, beans and aubergine, mixed with chopped walnuts and herbs such as coriander. Usually served with bread. Rating: ****
A catch-all name for a cooked bean dish. There are many types of Lobio, served hot or cold, either as an appetizer or main course. The beans are usually cooked or stewed, often mashed, and mixed with coriander, walnuts, garlic and onions. Rating: ***
Tenderly cooked meat in a clay pot - beef, lamb or pork - slow cooked with aubergine, peppers, tomatoes and onions, and topped with melted cheese. There are many varieties of Ojakhuri, but it originates in the east of the country near Azerbaijan, and maintains an Azeri influence; its rich and slightly spicier flavour hinting at the Orient. A very tasty dish, and like Chakapuli, not easy to find but definitely worth a try. Rating: *****
Georgia is a country where fresh water runs freely everywhere, due to there being mountains everywhere and a fairly wet climate for most of the year. Probably the most famous brand of bottled mineral water is Borjomi, and if you order water, that's likely to be what you'll get. Borjomi is popular all over the ex-Soviet Union too. The best Borjomi of course is in Borjomi itself, and a trip to this genteel spa town in the southwest of the country will involve drinking copious amounts of the stuff while wondering around. Note that if you choose to drink water straight from the spring, it has a strong sulphurous taste and smells of rotten eggs; it is good for you though, apparently. Also available - Nabeghlavi, Likani and Sairme. Rating: ***
Not usually worth noting in a country's drinking culture, Georgian lemonade is quite distinctive because of its colour - a lurid green - and its taste - it is flavoured with tarragon. The beverage was made famous by a Georgian pharmacist by the name of Mitrofane Lagidze, who mixed carbonated water with tarragon syrup in the 19th century and marketed it as a health drink. The brand Lagidze survives to this day. Rating: ***
The ultimate Georgian wine experience involves a special wine - and that's because of the fermentation method it uses. Qvevri is a clay jar with a pointed end, and is the main vessel used in traditional production of Georgian wine. After the grapes are crushed, the juice together with stems and skins are poured into the qvevro for fermentation. This is then buried underground, where the natural soil temperature reacts with the liquid and creates the amber-coloured liquid we associate with Georgia. You'll no doubt end up ordering a few jugs of the stuff, as it's often served as house wine, and is dirt cheap. Don't drink too much though - and do expect a hangover! The ultimate Georgian wine experience involves a Tamada - when the (male) head of the family or group makes a toast with an impenetrable speech involving everyone from God to granny and her geese, followed (traditionally) by supping from a ram's horn. Rating: ****
Grapes aren't only used in the production of wine in Georgia; they are also used to make this very potent pomace brandy. The Georgian word 'chacha' refers to the solid remains of the grape pomace that remain after wine grapes have been pressed. Chacha is traditionally a home-produced drink in Georgia, and is anything from 40-70% proof. It is also produced commercially now, and can be made from figs, peaches, oranges and even honey. Rating: ***
In recent years, coffee popularity has soared in Georgia, and coffee bars in major cities like Tbilisi and Batumi are proliferating. The country is crazy for coffee and it is usually served strong and bitter like Turkish coffee. Remember to avoid drinking the grounds at the bottom of the cup if you order one of these. They usually come with sweet conditioned milk also. However, locals have taken to new-wave coffee making in droves, and there's nothing better on a scorching day than an iced frappe. Rating: ***
Until recently, barely worth a mention - Georgian beer is traditionally quite weak and sour - a craft beer revolution has (like everywhere else it seems) swept through Georgia, at least in the cities, and there are suddenly all sorts of micro-brews available. Black Dog Bar in the Old Solalaki area of Tbilisi pours its own brews and stocks plenty of decent bottles too, from wheat beers to IPAs and porters. Rating: ***
So there you have it - a brief but fairly comprehensive introduction to Georgian cuisine, upon which so much of its culture is built. One more tip: if you get invited to a traditional Georgian Supra - family feast - don't hesitate to go. It's an essential Georgian experience. It also means you have made very good friends with a Georgian. Just allow for several hours out of your day, or more likely, the entire day, and next day, recovering from the inevitable hangover. Take it easy, don't eat too much, and only pretend to drink all the chacha and wine that's coming your way.
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