by Tom Lee
Georgian cuisine has been looming large in my mind for a while now. First, because of the stories I’d heard from my friend Susan, who returned from her time in the country with many a tale of wine-filled supras. Second, because — as may already be apparent — many of my friends have bee traumatized by Russian food, and I’ve heard it said (in comments on that post!) that if you need to eat in Russia, you should make sure it’s at a Georgian restaurant. And third, because my colleague Ryan recently returned from a trip to Tbilisi and confirmed everything that Susan had said. I was pretty excited to sit down and try some, even though one of the grizzled semi-spooks in the expat hotel bar had dismissively described it to me as “good, hearty peasant cuisine” just the night before.
Well, my first truly Georgian meal didn’t disappoint, though I think that that expat’s description wasn’t unfair. My hosts made sure I was able to try all the classics. The khachapuri was as delicious as you would expect a cheese bread to be. The lobio was a simple but exceptionally good bean dish (Emily would’ve loved it). The table’s standout dish was a simple kebab preparation of pork and onions that, while a little tough, was flavorful, beautifully seasoned, and made remarkable by a sour plum sauce condiment that my hosts confessed to sneaking into virtually every dish they ate. I also really enjoyed the presence of a plate of miscellaneous raw greens on the table for finger-food munching — dandelion leaves, watercress, and plenty of green onions, in this case — which I’m told is typical for a Georgian meal.
There wasn’t anything I didn’t enjoy, and there were only a few things I can quibble with — and those only because I’ve had similar dishes in other contexts that I preferred. There was a walnut-and-vegetable paste (the name of which escapes me) that came in spinach, cabbage and beet varieties, and which reminded me of muhammara, except not as spicy and delicious. The other minor disappointment was the khinkali, which, from what I can tell, is considered one of the foundational dishes of Georgian cuisine. Sorry to say, but even my extremely limited Hong Kong-style juicy bun experience reveals khinkali to be a strictly junior-league soup dumpling. That’s not to say that it isn’t tasty or satisfying. But the dough isn’t anywhere near as delicate; the broth isn’t half as savory or plentiful; and the technical skill involved in eating one isn’t nearly as satisfying to acquire (you don’t even have to administer condiments through the breached dumpling hull!). Maybe this restaurant just wasn’t the right place for it.
But the weirdest thing I’ve had is pictured above. Churchkhela consists of walnuts threaded on a string, then dipped in grape juice that has been reduced to a jellylike consistency. The rubbery result falls somewhere between trail mix and candy, and the most charitable description I can come up with for its appearance is that it sort of resembles a lumpy candle. But more impolitic descriptions are easy to come by.
It’s not bad! But it’s definitely weird. Wikipedia claims there’s also a version that comes dipped in caramel — finding an example of that is my mission for tomorrow.