Takeaway

Dining at the Georgian table

Prachi Joshi | Updated on January 17, 2020 Published on January 17, 2020

Let’s eat: The traditional supra or feast is bountiful with breads, cheeses, and vegetable and meat dishes   -  PRACHI JOSHI

Straddling Asia and Europe, Georgia offers food and wine rich with the flavours of geography, tradition and hospitality

I walk up to the immigration counter at the Tbilisi airport to find the officer sitting amidst cartons of wine bottles. I’m a bit taken aback but I hand over my passport and papers, and she quickly stamps me through. Then she gives me a small bottle of red wine with a smile. I’m gobsmacked, but you have to love a country that welcomes you with some vino, right?

Deep in the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia straddles Europe and Asia, and its cuisine bears the imprints of both continents. Much like in India, guests are treated like gods in Georgia and the traditional supra or feast is bountiful with breads, cheeses, and vegetable and meat dishes, all accompanied by generous helpings of wine and toasts of “gaumarjos (to victory)!”.

A staple at every meal I had was khachapuri, a flatbread stuffed with cheese. It’s essentially leavened dough with a layer of cheese (usually the mildly salty, brined Sulguni, or a mix of two or three different cheeses) that’s baked until golden. A variant of khachapuri is lobiani, where cheese is replaced with boiled and mashed black kidney beans. Another common bread at the table was mchadi, traditional fried cornbread that accompanied the cheese platter.

Veggie tales

Georgia is a treat for vegetarian travellers, as you don’t have to contend with insipid salads or indifferent pasta. Simple salads of tomatoes and cucumbers are elevated with the help of a walnut-based dressing. Pickled vegetables are plentiful as is jonjoli — pickled sprouts with a dash of oil and chopped onions. My favourite vegetarian appetiser was pkhali, a cold pâté made with vegetables such as aubergine, spinach, beetroot and bell peppers, mixed with a paste prepared by crushing walnuts, herbs, garlic, onions and vinegar. Eat it as it is or spread over bread. Another vegetarian dish worth a mention is lobio, a thick black bean stew. If you’re missing spicy Indian food, try ajapsandali, a ratatouille of eggplant and bell peppers flavoured with adjika, a fiery dip of hot red peppers, garlic, salt and spices

Meats and sweets

Consummate meat-eater that I am, I tucked happily into chakapuli (lamb stew with sour plums), satsivi (chicken with walnut, herb and garlic paste), kharcho (hearty and spicy meat stew) and mtsvadi (skewered meat grilled on an open flame). But the pièce de resistance was khinkali, plump parcels of dough that resemble the Maharashtrian modak, but filled with minced beef and pork. The dumplings are boiled in water, which leads to the meat inside producing a broth, making khinkali a juicy, if somewhat messy, treat.

Georgian cuisine is not big on sweets, and most restaurants offer standard Western-style desserts. One popular sweetmeat is churchkhela, often called Georgian Snickers, though it bears no resemblance to the peanut-chocolate candy bar. The long, sausage-shaped candy is made with walnuts (and other nuts) dipped in a thick roux of grape juice, flour, and sugar.

Old wine, new bottle

The wine welcome at Tbilisi airport is a great promotional move since Georgia is considered the birthplace of wine. In 2017, archaeologists found in the region traces of wine-making on pottery shards dating back to 6000 BC. What makes Georgian wine unique is the way it is made — grapes are fermented along with skin, stalks and seeds in large, egg-shaped terracotta amphorae called qvevri. The qvevri are buried underground where the temperature is low and the fermentation goes on for months. The sediment settles down naturally and there’s no need for adding sulphates or other filtering agents. The wine has a deep colour and a slightly sour taste. It takes some getting used to for palates honed on European-style wines. Georgia, of course, makes European-style wines as well, and I found them on a par with the old-world wines of France and Italy — both crisp dry whites and bold, fruity reds.

Khaketi is Georgia’s main wine-making region. I made a pit stop at Winery Khareba for a tour of their long tunnel cellar and wine tasting. Later, I dropped in at Pheasants Tears Winery for lunch, and at Okros Wines to check out their qvevri cellar.

A by-product of the extensive grape-growing industry is chacha, a fiery spirit distilled from pomace or the remnants of the wine-making process. This grappa-like spirit is being produced in Georgian homes since the early 19th century, though now many commercial producers and wineries make and bottle it as well. Quality differs, of course, but I downed a brimming shot glass of a rather smooth yet potent chacha at Winery Khareba. Gaumarjos, indeed!

Travel log

Getting there

There are no direct connections to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, but West Asian carriers such as Qatar Airways and the budget carrier Jazeera fly from various Indian cities, with a stopover in West Asia.

Visa

Apply for Georgian visa via VFS centres in all major cities (vfsglobal.com/georgia/india/) or get an e-visa online (evisa.gov.ge/GeoVisa/). Confirmed tickets and accommodation, financial statements, and travel insurance are necessary for the application.

Stay

Located in what was formerly a Soviet-era publishing house, Stamba Hotel is in the Tbilisi city centre (stambahotel.com).

Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer

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Published on January 17, 2020
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