What the Russians may be eating in Tbilisi

Georgian cuisine is a rose with few thorns

Artillery Row

All over the post-Soviet world there are thriving food markets, but the ones in Georgia have a slightly different look to them. Hanging from the ceiling are objects that seem half-candle, half-sausage, in colourful clusters. They are churchkhela, a regional confectionery, strings threaded with walnuts and then dipped repeatedly in a mixture of fruit juice and flour till they take on their familiar chorizo shape and are left to dry in the sun. 

The Georgians are big on fruit and big on fruit juice. Underneath the churchkhela, piled up on market-stalls is something that looks like stained parchment. This turns out to be fruit juice too, tklapi, dried in flat sheets and then folded up for selling. The churchkhela is pleasant to eat — a mixture of chew and crunch, and all nutritious — the parchment less so, hell for the molars and like eating flavoured shoe-leather. There are always some things about a country’s diet you’ll never understand. 


In other ways, the markets are very familiar. Mounds of cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, peaches, pomegranates are often sprayed with water to give them a glistening look. Sellers shout for your custom and are unoffended when you walk past paying no heed. Bunches of herbs, similarly moistened, are heaped up and fragrant. If the smell of coriander seems to predominate over the others — dill, parsley, tarragon, mint — that’s only because it’s such a feature of Georgian cooking. Finally, though, you spot another thing distinct to this part of the world. There are rows of tables seeming to sell nothing but walnuts. Great piles of them, subtly graded, a walnut bonanza, an almost indecent abundance of the things. 

Georgia is lethargic, colourful, sensual and lush

Few countries I have visited have matched my preconceptions like Georgia has. There are mountains everywhere, richly green even in the heat of summer, disappearing into the mist. Pigs and sheep trot freely by the roadsides. The old towns of cities, sunk lavishly in greenery, fruit trees and vines, have a pleasingly patinated quality to them, their neo-classical buildings cracked and discoloured by time. Balconies, perfect for sipping Georgian wine on long summer evenings, trail shrubs and flowers. Everywhere, even in city-centres, there is a never ending furore of cicadas. It is lethargic, colourful, sensual and lush. 

Russians fled to this neighbouring country en masse after 24 February this year, and who can blame them? Though they may not always get the warmest reception from the locals (whom the Putin government shook up characteristically with an invasion in 2008), the diet will at least have been a comfort: every Russian town has its Georgian restaurant much as every British town has its tandoori, and one of the draws of Georgia is the food. 

Nearly every Russian is familiar with the standard dishes of Georgian cuisine, and seeks them out, amidst the cabbage, potato, buckwheat and blini diet of their own country, for a little spice and vigour. Almost every Russian supermarket has its fridge-shelf of sparkling Borzhomi Georgian mineral water or its clutch of Georgian red wines, with names like Saperavi, Khvanchkara (Stalin’s favourite) and Kindzmarauli. The country, sunk in vineyards and with its network of constantly replenished mountain springs, is a major exporter of both. 

Adjarian Khachapuri

As for the food, the dishes any Russian will know are khachapuri (cheese bread) and khinkali (big steamed pastry dumplings shaped rather like garlic bulbs, filled with meat or cheese). Khachapuri has many varieties, including Imeretian (like a pizza with the cheese — plenty of it — on the inside); Mengrelian (more or less the same with melted cheese on top as well) and Adjarian: most people’s favourite, a boat-shaped flat loaf swimming with molten sulguni, the local cheese, with an egg broken into it and a knob of butter melting on top. This is excellent with a tub of adjika, a fiery condiment of tomatoes, peppers, chillies and herbs, which sets the cheese off nicely. Anyone worried about their cholesterol can order lobiani instead, hot bread filled with a paste of mashed up, spiced kidney beans, tasty but a little more virtuous. 

They’re good for carnivore and vegetarian alike

The khinkali meanwhile — eaten steamed or less commonly deep fried — come heaped on plates, and there is a special technique to eating them. Each khinkali, a rounded parcel, is drawn up and crimped to a solid pastry knob at the top. As the meat cooks inside them, it releases its juices. To avoid splattering, the wisest thing is to hold your khinkali by its narrow end, bite a little hole in the pastry and suck out the broth before starting on the meat. These are best served, I’m told, with cold beer and plentiful black pepper. Khachapuri and khinkali have almost become national symbols now — as iconic as fish and chips — and feature on many Georgian fridge magnets.

Naturally, in a cuisine with such heavyweight carbohydrates, there are numerous salads to dilute or tone things down, featuring things like beetroots, aubergines, spinach and pickles, all with fresh herbs. My favourite is a simple Georgian salad of cool cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and crunchy spring onions, heavily coriandered and in a sauce of pounded up walnuts, garlic and olive oil. I also enjoy Badrizhan Nigzvit, little rolls of fried up aubergine, spread with a thick walnut paste and scattered with the arils of pomegranates — a new combination of flavours. 

At Baraqa, an extensively-menued Georgian restaurant in Kutaisi, the country’s second city, chef Ketavan Shavladze talks me through some of Georgia’s lesser known dishes — mostly stews — and lets me try them. I try Katmis Satsivi, cold chicken served in a creamy walnut sauce splashed with chilli oil, and Veal Chashushuli — a fiery red dish of veal, tomatoes, onions, peppers, spices and herbs, rather like India’s dopiaza without the garam masala. Georgian food does not hold back on the flavours — each dish is pungent, distinctive and vividly coloured, and comes served in a heavy earthenware dish. I also have Katmis Chakhokhbili (sometimes the dishes’ names are as enticing to say as they are to eat), a pleasantly tangy stew with tomatoes, wine vinegar, garlic, parsley and coriander. Again, you have the feeling of things brought straight from the garden or farmers’ market and put in the pot together. 

Though Georgian food has still not broken through in the UK, there are now at least ten restaurants in London, and they’re good for carnivore and vegetarian alike. Myself, I liked nearly everything I ate, apart from the tklapi. But then, as the Georgians are fond of saying, “Vardi uek’lod vis mouk’repavs?” — “Whoever picked a rose without thorns?” 

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