Georgia – a guide to food and feasting
On my first day in Georgia, when I arrive at Kala for lunch, a rustic little restaurant tucked away in old Tbilisi, I’m really hungry. This is the last time I will feel that way for over a week.
At that first lunch we ordered all sorts of dishes from the fabric covered menu, far too much, getting excited about the different tastes, combinations of ingredients, the unique flavours. Little did we know that Georgians don’t eat – they feast – at every meal.
Eating is taken very seriously and a supra or feast will stretch on for hours and hours. A tamada is appointed and is the toast master. He will give heartfelt thanks for the food on the table, the company the occasion. Mindfulness for Georgians is a way of life. The toasts are not flippant but involve deep feeling and thought. It’s not about getting drunk (although Georgian’s seem to have a great capacity for drinking) it’s about taking a thought or a philosophical notion and expounding on it. The supra and its ideals is not something that’s arranged for tourists, it’s part of Georgian culture – our guide Geo would not be able to let us sit down for an evening meal without a few words to help us savour the moment.
Georgian’s mythology tells that a stranger to your table might not be all they seem so guests are viewed as potential Gods and treated as such. I was a guest of The Georgian Wine Agency for over a week and no God could have received better treatment (or more food). In a whirlwind of food, wine, polyphonic singing, scenery contemplating, history and Georgian lessons when I started writing this up new questions about the dishes and ingredients kept arising. A great excuse to return to find out more…but here’s what we ate and what you might encounter on a Georgian table.
There are at least forty different variations on this filled dough often dictated by region. Usually bread with cheese (sulguni cheese) baked onto it or inside it, there are also bean and egg versions in many shapes too and some are fried. Some are a bit like fluffy pizza, some are buttery and flakier, I had one from a street-side kiosk made with hard-boiled egg and cheese … it was a cold day and I grabbed it with both hands, demolished every cheesy, fluffy mouthful quickly and it soon warmed me up. Khachapuri was served at every single meal and often after several courses so you were filling up but couldn’t resist a slice…or two.
The national dish of Georgia is filled dumplings. To eat them you hold the dumpling by the sides or the top-knot and bite carefully, sucking the savoury liquid out of the hole you have made. You can then eat the whole thing (the top knot is often discarded). Strangely we are only served them on two occasions; a comforting smokey potato filled version with fried onions at an incredible foraged feast and the more typical meat and gravy kind at Tabla.
Vegetables and walnuts
Walnuts feature a lot in Georgia cooking and these badrijani nigvzit were on every table without fail. Silky grilled or fried aubergine slices rolled around a subtly spiced paste of walnut and herbs. Sweet grilled peppers were stuffed or just plain.
Pkhali are little balls of puréed vegetables mixed with spices and flecks of walnut and usually shaped into little balls – like shaped dips really. We had spinach, beetroot and aubergine versions – all delicious – and topped with pomegranate seeds. Aren’t they gorgeous.
Lobio is bean stew taken to another level of hearty, tasty, comfort food with dried spices and fresh herbs. It is traditionally baked in the oven in clay pots – loved the one at Kala. Vegetarians have plenty of choices in Georgia… (unless you have a nut allergy).
There must be meat
…despite the Georgians love of meat in stews and barbecued on skewers on outdoor grills. These mtsvadi can be lamb or chicken but the pork we were served (in many forms including a suckling pig at one supra) is a particular Georgian favourite.
Just when you thought you couldn’t eat another morsel, usually when grilled meats were served, out came a plate of thick, sweet, perfectly cooked chips. All the vegetables in Georgia were full of flavour and the potatoes were no exception.
A steaming bowl of meat stew was always part of our groaning table of dishes. Chicken such as Chakhokhbili in a tomato sauce, liver with a blackberry sauce and even chicken cooked in milk – rich and creamy – in all the meat tender and melting, the flavours deep, with multi-layered savoury spices. I wish I’d recorded the names of them all but our eating and drinking marathon was too intense. Another reason to go back to Georgia…
Cheese was usually at the start of the meal but sometimes at the end too. Cows milk curd cheese made in the Imereti region or Sulguni from Samegrelo was the most common but there are many other varieties. Chef Gio Rokashvili at Pheasants Tears presented the most interesting cheese board: Sulguni aged in honey, Sulguni aged in Saperavi (red wine), Sulguni cheese rolls with smoked bacon, Cow cheese with spices, Sqibu (sulguni with mint) and Muchly cheese (still researching what this last one was).
Fresh and preserved veg
There’s always a fresh salad on the table, often just unadorned but sometimes with a walnut dressing.
The Georgians love their pickles. I think they are made in a way that harnesses natural fermentation (like their wine-making) as the market stalls have piles of pickles rather than jars.
You may have gathered that bread is a big part of Georgian cuisine and trational chotis or shotis puri is on every table – a bread cooked in a wood-fired clay oven (a bit like a tandoor) called a tone. Mchadi, a popular cornbread, comes in small oval rounds and is perfect for dunking into lobio.
Georgians do not eat a lot of fish surprisingly but when they do it’s usually trout or carp – often served with a pomegranate sauce.
Mushrooms (and Racha)
Georgia has five micro-climates and Racha (part of Racha-Lechkhumi and Lower Svaneti) is known for its humidity which is ideal for growing mushrooms. Georgians attribute certain characteristics to the people of each region and the people of Racha are said to be slow at doing things. A movie called “The Fastest People in the World” was made about them. Mushrooms came simply baked, filled with cheese, or chopped and stewed, laced with large amounts of fresh tarragon.
Veal salad appeared on the table often – and it was probably the only thing that I disliked (other people enjoyed it). After Googling a bit I wonder whether this is a Russian influence rather than a traditional Georgian dish. I’m investigating…. We were served Russian or Easter salad at our supper in Telavi.
… in the main there wasn’t one. After all this feasting, it seems that Georgians don’t have much of a sweet tooth. Or if they do it’s not part of a supra. Churchkhela are strings of nuts dipped in thickened grape juice and eaten as a snack. I saw them at the breakfast table but rarely at dinner. Winery Khareba served a plate of fresh fruit at the end of a quite stupendous supra (where I had no camera juice left) – you’ll see it stacked upon other dishes below. Supra means tablecloth as the dishes at the feast cover the table so densely. Another exception was at Azarpesha when a spectacular fruit and nut stuffed pumpkin was paraded out of the kitchen and served in slices. Gia at Pheasant’s Tears prepared seasonal fruit stewed in red wine served with clotted cream which was demolished so fast there is also no picture.
Other dishes and sauces
Thanks to Tamta for this information about the fried cheese balls: Elarji- ელარჯი, which is a popular dish from Samegrelo region, made from coarse cornmeal, cornflour and Sulguni cheese. Its balls are rolled in Panko Japanese bread crumbs. The sauce is – Bazhe- ბაჟე, made of almonds is also served together with hazelnut sauce.
Sauces whether sour plum, pomegranate or spicy tomato was always somewhere on the Georgian table.
Our evening at Pheasant’s Tears in Sighnaghi stood out for many reasons – a night of toasts, polyphonic singing, quevri wines, chacha (type of Georgian grappa) and wild folk dancing. The menu created by chef Gia Rokashvili was based on traditional dishes from the region and local, seasonal ingredients with some foraged. The wild baby leeks were harvested from the newly thawed slopes of the mountains and were sweet and tender. See pictures above plus these…
Gaumarjos – this is Georgian for ‘cheers’ although it actually means ‘victory’ reflecting the country’s history of battling invaders. Dissecting my account of my visit to Georgia into separate chapters of places, food and wine is probably a complete travesty. It is inconceivable that there wouldn’t be wine on the table and sense of place given by the food, surroundings, singing or philosophical discussions around the table. But wine is so central to Georgians that I had to give it a special focus (following soon) – not to mention the ubiquitous firewater chacha. Georgia also produces some excellent mineral water (I can buy the excellent Borjomi here in Dubai) but there was another beverage on the table that fascinated us by its colour and flavour (an acquired taste to say the least). Natakhari lemonade comes in many varieties including pomegranate, pear, cream, grape and tarragon – which looks as though it’ll land you a part in Wicked if you drink enough of it.
The diary of feasts
Every meal in Georgia was memorable for its quality and blurred the memory because of its quantity. As guests of The Georgian Wine Agency and International Wine Tourism Conference our itinerary was planned and we visited restaurants where larger parties could be accommodated. When I return….oh yes not if but when… I’d like to seek out some of the smaller places and maybe eat at someone’s home (Georgian’s are famed for inviting strangers to dine with them). As a country coming out of the Russian culture of standardisation, Georgians are promoting their unique and regional cuisines after a century of suppression. This does mean that favourite dishes from all over the place are presented on the table at the same time. Celebrating the special characteristics of each region, whether through food, singing or wine-making is being encouraged by forward thinkers such as Irakli Cholobargia (Georgia Wine Agency) and John Wurdeman (Pheasant’s Tears) to name two. There’s a McDonalds in Tbilisi and one Starbucks kiosk but the invasion of multi-national chains has yet to happen (which could be an even more destructive force on Georgian cuisine than Soviet homogenisation).
A quirky place that we chose for lunch, tucked away on a pleasant pedestrianized street full of restaurants in old Tbilisi (our taxi driver hadn’t heard of it). Helpful waiter and embossed cloth-covered menu containing many classic Georgian dishes (as well as international). Next to and runs into KGB, which is owned by the same group.
8/10 Erekle II Street, Tbilisi (+995) 592 79 97 97 Facebook
More drinking than eating went on here (tasting notes to follow) but this wine bar is underground in more ways than one. A basement serving a massive selection of qvevri and natural wines from around the world by the glass. Local cheese and charcuterie boards provide sustenance. Hang out with wine makers including co-owner Ramazi Nikoladze if you’re lucky.
15 Galaktion Tabidze Street, Tbilisi (+995) 322 30 96 10 Facebook
Welcomed by proprietor Luarsab Togonidze, imposing in national dress, this was my first introduction to a supra and the start of a week-long supra marathon. Our party filled the whole restaurant which, in addition to the dim lighting and walls clad with ancient wine-making and wine drinking implements, made it very cosy. Course after course of traditional Georgian dishes, spell-binding polyphonic singing, qvevri wines, chacha, toasts drunk from animal horns and antique silver drinking vessels, culminating in the carving of the enormous pumpkin. A night to remember that kick-started the week.
2 Ingorkova Street, Tbilisi (+995) 579 7040 Facebook
Georgian Chamber of Wine
After a morning of sparkling wine and brandy tasting the elegant table bathed in natural light was a welcome sight. Located in Mtskheta, the former ancient capital of Georgia – you can spot the Jvevri monastery from the terrace, just one of the surrounding UNESCO World Heritage sites (which include the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the town). The airy interior and excellent food, including grilled meats from the outside barbecue, made this a really enjoyable lunch. At other times there is traditional entertainment, wine tasting and culinary tours plus you can see some qvevri in the basement.
Agmashenebeli 69, Mtskheta (+995) 322 23 77 00 Facebook
Arranged on several floors of one building, the major attraction of this restaurant is the absolutely stunning view of Tbilisi lit up at night from the terrace.
8/10 Chekhov Street, Tbilisi (+995) 322 77 55 20 Website
In the Shadow of Metekhi
There was a fantastic view here too, but the main focus is the entertainment of dramatic, stagey folk dancing in lavish costumes and singers – a bit like Georgian El Divo. Sometimes you have to be in the mood for this, and I wasn’t – however many of our party stayed dancing late into the night and absolutely loved it.
29a Tsamebuli Avenue, Tbilisi (+995) 322 77 93 83 Website
Leaving Tbilisi after two full on days of the International Wine Tourism Conference we set off on a two and a half hour journey to Telavi. As we had to turn back at the path across the mountains due to icy conditions it took over four and half. Tired and weary it was a subdued feast at Old Telavi although Geo managed to make it into a supra with a least one toast. I can’t remember deciding not to take photos, I just didn’t. The food was of the usual good and plentiful standard, a Russian salad and a plate of fresh fruit adding a different note. The breakfast at the hotel was probably the most limited we’d encountered consisting mainly of bread, cheese, tomatoes and packaged honey. The rooms were clean but furnished with ornate furniture (not to everyone’s taste) and had complicated state of the art showers with countless knobs and sprays which was the main discussion over breakfast.
1 Cholokashvili Street, Telavi (+995) 350 27 07 07
I was predisposed not to like Chateau Mere. It sounded all wrong. Why give a Georgian place a French name? It looked all wrong too – is it old or new trying to look old? I never did discover. The dining room is kitsch – jampacked with ornaments, bits and bobs. But it reflected the personality of its owner George Piradashvili who was one of the most hospitable people we’d met – and in Georgia that’s saying something. More to follow about the wines we tasted, before a generous spread of freshly prepared dishes (no surprises apart from a delicious green garlic sauce). Sinking into a comfy sofa, sipping tea in front of a roaring fire was luxurious, with a splendid view of the Caucasus mountains glimpsed from the window. With both camera and iphone battery juice depleted, just one pic, but great memories.
15 Vardisubani, 0145, Kaheti (+995) 595 990399 Website
Saperavi restaurant at Winery Khareba
After a tour of the winery cellars and a tasting we spent the evening at a supra of lavish scale in a banqueting hall with John Wunderman of Pheasant’s Tears as tamada and course after course appearing on our tables including a suckling pig which was wheeled out (literally) sporting fireworks. Probably not somewhere you would go for a cosy lunch although there is a cafe apparently and as it’s up on a hill the views are wonderful. A bit odd this place as it seems to have two names and two websites Winery Khareba and Gvirabi.
Meurneoba District, Kvareli (+995) 32 249 77 70
We’d had the edge taken off our appetite by a some fairly insistent force feeding of grilled pork at Shumi previously (more about this in my wine post) but after a tour of the winery felt up to the task of another multi-course lunch. The restaurant is flanked by long glass windows with a view over the vineyard and distant Caucasus mountains and the floor had glass panels down to a view of qvevri. This was an elegant lunch and the food consisting of the usual suspects was really excellent. A lovely place to while away an afternoon, if you didn’t have another supra to go to….
Kisiskhevi, Telavi District 2200, (+995) 7 90 557045 website
Artist John Wurdeman, born in New Mexico and raised in Virginia, USA, was travelling in Georgia following his passion for singing and recording polyphonic songs, with no intention of setting up a winery. However, his overwhelming passion for Georgia makes it seem inevitable that he would follow that path eventually as wine is so inextricably linked to Georgian life and culture. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see what people take for granted and he’s a great spokesman for the treasures that make Georgia so special. Pheasant’s Tears is in the centre of the historic (and restored) part of Sighnaghi. A slightly rambling building housing John’s artist studio, a carpet shop and an interesting cellar, the food prepared by chef Gia Rokashvili is both authentic but freshly original at the same time, perfectly suiting the wide range of qvevri and natural wines on offer.
18 Baratashvili Street, Sighnaghi (+995) 355-23-15-56 Website
This was an odd place. A stopping off point on our journey from Sighnaghi back to Tbilisi. A sign of some prosperity for a few in Georgia – new money. A cluster of single storey houses around a golf course which didn’t seem to be open but had an enormous, shining new club house which looked like it hosted banquets. The main building (which was being extended a rapid pace by construction workers) had a pool to one side and crazy golf complete with mini qvevris as a hazard opposite. There were business meetings going on in one section, a children’s play area in another and a very pleasant terrace shaded with flowing curtains where we ate lunch. The food was excellent and included the chicken in milk dish and vine leaves which we had not had before.
Kachreti 1510 (+995) 32 272 94 17/19 Facebook
Tabla is located in the desirable University area of Tbilisi and it shows. The clientele were well-groomed. There was a genteel air of affluence about the place. The varied entertainment of singers was professional and accomplished. The whole atmosphere was extremely pleasant and the food some of the best we had been served, in my opinion. Amused that the Tabla home catering service is called house wife – read more here.
33 Chavchavadze ave., Tbilisi (+995) 32 2 60 20 15 Facebook
- About Food – Svanetian Khachapuri (georgiaabout.com) – a really exceptional guide to Georgian food
- Everlasting feast: Food in the republic of Georgia (saveur.com) – a beautiful, indepth and moving account by Karen Shimizu
- Roadside stands of Georgia (sarahmelamed.com) – beautiful pictures and information about eating on your journey
- Tbilisi – new foodie capital (vinoge.com) – an insight into the restaurant scene and how it has changed in the past decade