Spirit of Georgia

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on January 17, 2018

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Nayantara Maya Oberoi

Nayantara Maya Oberoi

A Georgian meal can sometimes seem like a pot luck at the United Nations

Georgian food has been hip for a while now, but having had the impression that it was just another potato-heavy Eastern European cuisine that leaves one in need of a nap, I hadn’t actively tried to find any. But a mention on a city website about Colchide, a Georgian restaurant right in my neighbourhood, seemed a sign that I could no longer ignore. So off we went on a midweek night to the rather bleak rue des Poissonniers in Paris’s 18th arrondissement.

A quartet of paintings covered one wall, and a minuscule open kitchen another. Despite the large windows, the space was dim, lit by pendant lamps over each table, leaving odd pools of darkness between. For all this obscurity, Colchide appeared to be having no trouble pulling in clients; a large table was celebrating a birthday, while smaller two- and four-tops were filling up.

Colchide is named after the French word for Colchis, the name of the ancient Black Sea kingdom that occupied the place of modern-day Georgia. (If you recall, Jason and the Argonauts went to Colchis in search of the mysterious Golden Fleece; winter woollies apparently not commonly available in ancient Greece.)

Georgia’s geography ranges from vineyards to tea plantations, from orange groves to snowy peaks. With Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan for neighbours, Georgian food, as is befitting for a stop on the Silk Route, varies widely from region to region, and its influences include Turkish, Persian, Russian and Jewish culinary styles. A Georgian meal can sometimes seem like a potluck at the United Nations with soup dumplings, shashlik, naan, the ratatouille-like ajapsandali, and mchadi, a griddled cornbread.

Through everything run the flavours of coriander, tarragon and nuts. And almost every dish at Colchide is studded with pomegranate. Pomegranate dots the fragrant pkhali, chopped and cooked veggies (spinach and beetroot in this case) puréed with walnuts and herbs and then shaped into stubby loaves and served cold. It appears again on the mint yoghurt, and it gleams atop the nigvziani badridjani, lovely thin strips of aubergine rolled with a nut paste and roasted.

The bestseller among the small plates, however, was clearly the khachapuri, a Georgian bread baked with cheese. The Acharuli khachapuri, the canoe-shaped version with a wobbly egg in the centre, wasn’t available, so we asked for the more ubiquitous Imeretian kind: like a circular naan, stuffed with a stringy, gooey mozzarella-like cheese. The pieces come apart easily and make for an excellent, if heavy starter, which as it turns out, goes excellently with wine (Georgia is one of the world’s oldest wine-producing regions).

We began with a dry, acidic Tsinandali white wine, but our waitress recommended that we try one of Georgia’s signature fermented wines next. “They are buried in the earth in clay jars called qvevri,” she said, nodding to the big earthen pots on a high shelf above the kitchen window. While this underground sojourn doesn’t change the taste of red wines very much, whites processed in earthen jars along with the skins and pips of the grapes, gain in body and depth, rounding down their acidity. We chose a bold and heady Saperavi, one of Georgia’s most popular qvevri-fermented red wines, to go with our main courses.

The mains, when they arrived in their shallow terracotta bowls, were without doubt the stars of the meal. Chachouchouli, sometimes written as chashushuli, was cubes of beef simmered in a warming tomato-pepper sauce with spices and leafy herbs, of which coriander seemed to be the dominant one. Chakapuli, lamb braised in a white wine broth with a veritable forest’s worth of tarragon, was a stunner: the sharp, anise-y tarragon perfuming the light, springy stew, chased by a contrasting sour note that we couldn’t identify. The only dud was the chicken in a walnut sauce with rice, heavy and creamy like a leaden korma. Georgian food, gently spiced and herby, more reminiscent of Turkey than Russia, was turning out to be full of surprises.

“What about a shot of our homemade liqueur to finish?” suggested our charming, indefatigable waitress. “It’s on the house.”

I declined to have the faint, lingering liquorice aroma of the lamb decimated by what I suspected was one of those Turkish-rakia-style knockouts, but the rest of the table accepted. Chacha, a clear, grappa-strength alcohol, is made from the grape distillate left over from winemaking. It’s much beloved in Georgia and used topically or otherwise to cure all kinds of aches and pains. The city of Batumi even installed a municipal chacha-spewing fountain, but much to the disappointment of the locals, it never worked. Colchide’s version, dispensed not from a fountain but from a bottle, was viscous and heady, simultaneously coating the mouth and scouring the sinuses. The hapless testers swayed slightly as they set down their glasses.

As we went up to the kitchen counter to pay, one of the other guests began to sing quietly at the piano at the far end of the room. We reeled out in a hazy, well-fed glow. The warmth, like that of Hungarian palinka and Balkan rakia, but stronger, held all through our walk home.

N aintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in Paris; @naintaramaya

Published on August 05, 2016

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