Gluttonous in Georgia

In this Eurasian nation, wine flows freely and every plate promises a culinary surprise.  
Georgia
Tbilisi’s Deserter’s Bazaar used to be a marketplace for guns and ammunition in the early 19th century, but now is the city’s largest produce market. Photo by: eFesenko/shutterstock

The bowl of soup in front of me wasn’t much to look at—dense yellow egg-and-chicken broth garnished with bits of roughly chopped wild mint. It looks more like whisked eggs ready to be made into an omelette. But looks can be deceptive for the chikhirtma. The popular Georgian dish has a creamy richness and hearty flavours of meat, and a tangy kick of lemon and mint in the end.

A meal of chikhirtma, served with a side of pan-fried cornbread called mchadi and pickled vegetables including carrots, beet and seasonal wild garlic, was my introduction to Georgian cuisine. Over the next 10 days that I spent in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, and the coastal city of Batumi, I ate meal after meal guided not by online reviews but only my hunger pangs. Though rich in dairy and meat, it features a vast selection of local legumes and vegetables that are foraged seasonally, pickled, or freshly cooked. The flavours and ingredients of Georgian food, along with a wine culture and an industry that is slowly making a mark globally, reflect its geography—straddling Asia and the Mediterranean, squeezed between Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea.

The tiny Eurasian country of about four million people has managed to preserve its provincial food culture despite being under Soviet occupation for close to 70 years. By design, Georgia has largely escaped the clutches of industrial food production because scaling up is simply unviable to support the country’s tiny population and its unique food culture. Georgians are proud of the fact that their food is natural and organic.

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Though churchkhelas, or Georgian candy, were traditionally made with grape juice, modern versions include pomegranate and kiwi flavours. Photo by: Ryhor Bruyeu/easyFotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

Throughout my trip, I had wolfed down supple, cheese-filled bread boats called khachapuris, devoured juicy meat-filled dumplings or khinkalis, chewed on churchkhelas—a type of Georgian candy, made of grape must, nuts and flour—and drank glasses of house wine at restaurants in Tbilisi and Batumi, about six hours southwest of Tbilisi. Soon, I could confidently order anything on the menu without having to ask the waiter to explain.

Nevertheless, Georgian gastronomy continued to surprise me, especially with its farm-to-table simplicity and abundance of foraged, seasonal ingredients. The balmy morning of the eighth day of my trip found me along with a bunch of tourists at the nerve-centre of the city’s culinary scene, the Deserter’s Bazaar in Central Tbilisi, on a food tour organised by Culinary Backstreets. A warren of warehouse sheds with tin roofs, Deserter’s supplies meat, dairy and vegetables to the restaurants around Tbilisi. Our group was led by Californian journalist Paul Rimple, who moonlights as the frontman of a local blues band, and has been living in Tbilisi since 2002. He chatted with the sellers about their wares in fluent Georgian, relaying their answers to us in English. All around, there seemed to be harmony in the market’s chaos; vendors peddled everything from spices, Georgian wild asparagus, heaps of tarragon, pickled vegetables, green sour plums, and curly shoots of wild spinach to cheese, matsoni yogurt, and whole suckling pigs. The tour ended with a sampling of local wine from plastic canisters before we headed to Vino Underground, a wine bar in the upscale Sololaki neighbourhood of Old Tbilisi.

In the basement bar, stacked with over 500 kinds of wine from around the country, we sipped unfiltered Georgian wine. My white wine, made from Tsolikouri grapes in the Imereti region, was citrusy with a dense mouthfeel. “It’s a gamble to keep the natural wine for longer. Since they don’t have sulphides, they tend to sour quicker,” the sommelier explained. Wine has been made in Georgia for more than 8,000 years and the Georgians use qvevri or earthen pots to ferment their wine even now. Making natural wines is a gamble Georgian wine makers are increasingly willing to take because they are sought after in restaurants around the world.

Winemaking was revitalised in the 2000’s. Under Soviet occupation, Rimple tells us, winemaking was industrialised and red Saperavi grapes monopolised the cultivation. Once local winemaking made a comeback, so did artisanal wines. Tea growing was industrialised too—mechanised harvesting in the early 1940s eased the gridlocks in the product’s availability and helped gratify the appetite of Russian tea drinkers. Gradually, tea is coming back: in Tbilisi’s alleyways, fashionable tea houses are cropping up, with connoisseurs harvesting wild tea groves abandoned after the Russians left the country. Even the chacha, Georgian grape brandy, is having its time under the sun.

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The wine accompanying the traditional long Georgian meals is usually made by locals at home. Photo by: Luis Dafos/Alamy Stock Photo/India Picture

Faces flushed from the wine, we ventured out walking past the Soviet-era buildings, which stood alongside crumbling homes with exposed brick walls and wood-panelled windows. The real estate boom sweeping across Tbilisi has not reached this part of the city yet.

As the day wound down to a breezy late afternoon, we arrived at Ezo. The restaurant, hidden away behind an iron gate, has no English signage and a courtyard with an open fountain. Resident cats zipping up and down the trees around the courtyard eventually sought our table for the soft sulguni cheese. Dinner began with a spread of spicy ajika dips—condiments made with hot red peppers, garlic, herbs, and spices such as coriander, dill, and blue fenugreek—paired with crusty mchadi. This was followed by a whole bowl of jonjoli, pickled bladderwort flowers that taste like green peppercorns, and a cheese platter with the tangy-and-sweet wild berry chutney. Entrée was baked veal meatballs with a side of stir-fried vegetables and flaky homemade bread. The star of the show, however, was the chakapuli, a piquant lamb stew with tarragon and other herbs, one of Georgia’s most popular dishes. The chunks of lamb melt with every bite and the meaty broth leaves dense flavours in its wake—a hint of the teeth-squeaking tartness of green plum sauce smoothened by the white wine, both a perfect foil for the gamey lamb. The Georgian feast, all washed down with delicious Rkatsiteli house wine, put us in a dreamy state after the meal.

In this milieu of happy meals and a food tour that left me wanting to sample more, I’d almost forgotten it was time to pack my bags. I also realised that, over the course of my trip, I had accumulated quite the collection of Georgian groceries—pickled vegetables, sour plum sauce, home brewed Rkatsiteli wine gifted by my driver, unrefined sunflower oil, sundried persimmons and the like.

Needless to say, my greed for Georgian groceries trumped the cost of excess baggage. But its was a small price to pay for a few reasonable Georgian meals I am able to put together back home.

  • Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.

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