Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Eating Moscow: Georgian-style

I attempt to suck out the khinkali juice without squirting it all over my shirt
This is another post in the slowly-drawing-to-a-close Moscow series while simultaneously being a concluding post in the former Georgia series, which I wrote back in June of last year. A reader recently reminded me that I had promised a post on Georgian food and completely failed to deliver. And because Moscow offers some of the best Georgian food outside of the Republic and because I want to encourage as many Georgian food enthusiasts as possible, I go back and now forward to one of the most underrated, most overlooked, most delicious world cuisines - Georgian.

We begin with khinkali. If you are a dumpling fan, you will love these. First, the meat is usually  either ground pork or beef mixed with coriander and chilies. Coriander! So unexpected! So delicious! The chilies give it just a little kick, which could be tamed with a dab of sour cream. if you like. Second, the technique. There is actually a “correct” way to eat these adorable little nubbins. Grasp at the twisted knot and bite gingerly into the dough only. A small bite to make a tiny hole through which you will attempt to drink most of the broth that the meat has been stewing in. And I say attempt for two reasons: you will never manage to get every last drop out, which is actually a good thing. Save a drop or two for your last juicy bite. And secondly, as with any technique, this one requires skill – skill that is only acquired through practice. Therefore you would be wise to bow your arms into a square, bring the dumpling into you, flattening the square into a thin oval, ready to spring back into a bow when the broth inevitably spills out. Approach with caution, very slowly. My instructor was Jacob Jugashvili, Josef Stalin’s great grandson who I was put in touch with through a mutual friend. Jacob educated me not only in the art of the Georgian dumpling but also in history – or at least, his version of it. His recounting of events leading up to and following WWII would make historians gasp and would land him in jail in Germany – as he himself pointed out as an example of what a joke he believes democracy is. A painter, a Soviet nostalgist and a historical revisionist (he called himself a “researcher of the truth”) – needless to say, lunch was “interesting”.

One more note on technique, or maybe a rule: don't eat the doughy knot at the end. First of all, they will only fill you up, leaving you less room for the other delicious dishes on the table. And secondly, Georgians frown upon it. You will be told they will make you sick. This sounds to me like one of those reasons mothers make up to prevent their kids from doing something, like, "Fine go ahead and pick your nose but watch out for the sharp-tooth snail!" If you are curious, go ahead and eat one. It won't hurt you. It'll just make you look like a dumpling novice.
See the resemblance?
Khachapuri. My introduction to khachapuri was also sobering – in a completely different way. In the hangover cure kind of way. Out too late the night before with more friends of friends, a British journalist and a Canadian political analyst, the latter of which I met the next morning for a walk and lunch. Andrew and I dragged ourselves around a few city blocks before simultaneously admitting that we both needed an aspirin and hangover food i.e. something greasy and heavy on the carbs. Oh, and did we find it. He smiled when I described my ideal hangover cure: “I know just what you need,” he said.

And here is what we got:

When you say Georgian food, most people will have one of two reactions: a blank stare or “Cheese pizza and dumplings!” The cheese pizza is the khachapuri which comes in different forms, the most common being both stuffed and topped with cheese. For the brave and the hungover however, there is only one way to go – the adjaruli khachapuri. Shaped like a little boat with cheese baked in the center, its also topped with a raw egg and a generous slab of butter. So if alcohol poisoning hasn’t killed you, high cholesterol levels and a coronary blockage will. This dish was too much for Georgian-wine-hungover me to handle. You take a fork and stir the melted cheese, raw egg and butter together into a curdly puddle and then work your way from the outside in, picking off the barnacle of the dough boat which you use as a vehicle to get this soupy mess to your mouth. I might have finished half but I think that’s an optimistic exaggeration.

While khinkali or khachapuri are meals unto themselves, in order to sample more of the cuisine you might skip them (though you shouldn't skip them entirely) or order smaller portions and then opt for a number of the small dishes, mezze-style. And I highly recommend you try as many things as possible. Georgian food is a revelation for vegetarians – so many amazing combinations of spices and nuts, fresh salads and herbs, and cheeses in different consistencies – I really cannot understand why Georgian food has not taken off the way other cuisines have. Small plates to pass like Greek or Lebanese mezzes – washed down with Georgian wine or for the hard core – vodka. It is so easy to see how the supra (Georgian feast) culture has evolved.

A look at what you would find on your table at a Georgian restaurant serving mezzes:

Salads – so many delicious salads, the most common is a simple tomato-cucumber combination topped with either dill, coriander or parsley, oil and vinegar. Simple but so fresh – a necessary counter-balance to some of the heavier sides and khachapuri.

Badrijani Nigvzit – fried eggplant, rolled up and stuffed with walnut paste. To be devoured.

Phakali – this post is inspired by the phakali recipe posted by Melissa at the Travelers Lunchbox. This dish is spinach based and combined with what Melissa describes as the combination that she'd "come to recognize as the country's holy trinity of flavors: walnuts, garlic, and a haunting herb-and-spice blend that offsets the biting freshness of cilantro and tarragon with the bitter, aromatic edge of fenugreek", and I thought as I read this YES YES EXACTLY! Every time I ate this I sat there in silence thinking: WHAT IS THIS?? I MUST KNOW WHAT THIS IS!!! The texture and weight of the ground walnuts, the hauntingly mysterious mixture of herbs - those of which I thought I could identify were estragon, coriander and dill – sometimes together, or separately. You know when you purposely keep a bit of something swirling around in your mouth, wracking your mental index of flavors to figure out exactly what it is you have just eaten in the hopes of attempting to reproduce it yourself? I did that bite after bite. FOR THE LOVE, WHAT IS THIS COMBINATION!?!? This combination is so unique, so specific to Georgian cuisine, I personally know nothing else to compare it to - you will simply have to try it yourself. 

Lovely Nick and Nino and the continuation of my Georgian culinary education
Satsivi – a walnut sauce served over chicken, usually cold which comes as a bit of a surprise at first but somehow makes it lighter, refreshing, delicious.

Shashlik – your typical kebab, grilled on a skewer, seasoned and perhaps alternated with onions, tomatoes or other vegetables.

Salguni – a salty sometimes rubbery freshmilk cheese akin to feta but not as crumbly.

And so, so much more.

If you have the chance to Georgian food, I cannot recommend it enough. If you have the opportunity to get to Georgia, ditto. And if you find yourself in Moscow, check out one of the following Georgian restaurants:




  1. Josef Stalin’s great grandson taught you how to eat Georgian dumplings?? What a FANTASTIC story.
    And those dumplings look suspiciously like Asian dumplings. I am completely intrigued. Completely. Wondering how I can make it to Gorgia. And if I do -- PLEASE can I have a dumpling lesson from Josef Stalin’s great grandson?

  2. I'll put you in touch! Or you can contact him yourself - he's on Facebook! (of course).

  3. Oh, that IS such a crazy story about Stalin's great grandson! With a dining partner like that, it's a wonder you were able to focus on the khinkali at all.

    I totally agree about the badrijani nigvzit. Oh my god, I could eat that stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Why don't more people know about this food???

    Sigh... Great post! I'm biding my time until I can go to Georgia too!

  4. I love love love trying new kinds of food while traveling... so now Georgian cuisine has been added to the top of my list! It sounds (and looks) so delicious.