Just imagine it — boat-shaped bread, stuffed to the brim with molten cheese and topped with slabs of butter and a runny egg. Fist-sized dumplings filled with cilantro-spiked ground meat and spicy broth. Savory, slow-cooked red beans served with thick slices of toasted cornbread. These are just a few of the dishes that put the country (not the U.S. state) of Georgia at the top of my foodie bucket list.
So, why Georgia?
I had my first taste of the tiny Eastern European country in Moscow at Georgian resturant Suliko. The cuisine of Georgia is so under the radar in the United States, I had no idea it was such a thing. After one bite of khachapuri, a cheese-filled flatbread (think Georgian pizza), I was hooked. I made a goal to visit Tbilisi and explore its remarkable cuisine, influenced by the best of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Eastern European flavors.
And then, there’s the wine – Georgia invented it.
According to oeno-historians, Georgia has the oldest recorded history of fermenting grapes to make wine, dating all the way back to 5000 BCE. Don’t believe me? Google it.
Georgian wine is unique because the traditional fermentation process takes place below ground in large clay vessels called qvevri. Although this ancient method of aging grapes isn’t used by most contemporary winemakers in Georgia, a natural wine movement is sweeping the country, revitalizing old traditions and paving the way for a future in wine and cultural tourism.
Exploring Tbilisi – Where to Begin
One way to orientate yourself in Georgia’s capital city is to follow the grapevine…straight to organic wine sanctuary, Vino Underground (15 Galaktion Tabidze Street). The pun is intended; this wine bar and shop, opened in early 2012, is at the heart of Georgia’s natural wine movement. Every wine sold here — more than two dozen types, by the bottle or the glass — is made in a traditional clay qvevri, underground, by a passionate group of small growers/producers. The wine bar serves up small plates of local cheeses and meats to accompany tastings.
Vino Underground’s part-owner, Ramazi Nikoladze, is the face of the restaurant. Allow him to pour you a glass or two, while you learn about Georgia’s 7000 year-old wine history. Snack on a fresh tomato salad, spiked with green chili peppers and a plate of hard white farmer’s cheese. Everything at Vino Underground is 100% natural, down to the bread — a dense brown loaf made from tsiteli doli, a variety of red-grained wheat, used in traditional Georgian recipes.
Next, move from wine bar to wine restaurant. Azarphesha is located a stone’s throw from Freedom Square and the Courtyard by Marriott Tbilisi. Run by restauranteur, wine historian and eclectic collector, Luarsab Togonidze, Azarphesha aims to capture the culinary Georgia of days gone by. Along one wall, a glass case boasts an impressive display of ancient drinking vessels, from intricately carved long handled cups to silver-tipped bull horns.
At Azarphesha you will learn about the important relationship between food and traditional music at a supra, or Georgian feast. It’s not unusual to see tables break into song; music is woven into every aspect of Georgian culture. The tamada, or toastmaster, undertakes an important role at meals, presiding over the table, leading a series of meaningful toasts. Traditional cooking is key at Azarphesha. Many dishes are baked in shallow clay pots, like the Georgian favorite mushrooms with cheese (pictured below) and roasted chicken with wine sauce.
From Azarphesha, take a stroll through Freedom Square, then make your way down Kote Abkhazi Street into Old Tbilisi. Take a seat and soak in some live jazz music at Cafe Kala (8/10 Erekle II Street) a buzzing restaurant and sidewalk cafe frequented by travelers, expats and university students. The food is a mixture of classic Georgian (with more than one kind of cheesy khachapuri) and European, with a variety of fresh salads and several vegetarian options. Live music begins nightly at 9:00PM.
If you’re still standing, make like a Georgian university student and grab a cold one to go at the corner store. Try a local brew like Natakhtari, a refreshingly light pilsner. At the bodega, look for thin strips of dry, smoked cheese (sulguni). The cheese has the consistency of soft plastic and is loaded with salt, but goes great with beer. If you’re feeling athletic (or drunk) take a quick, steep hike up the hill past Tbilisi’s famous old houses with wood balconies, to the Narikala fortress for an awe-inspiring view of Tbilisi by night.
Tbilisi’s Cheap Eats
A must-try Georgian delicacy is khinkali. These large, messy/delicious, soup dumplings are filled with coriander-flavored ground meat and a rich broth. According to locals, the best place to sample khinkali in Tbilisi is Shemoikhede Genatsvale, a popular mini-chain with several branches scattered throughout the city.
Grab a picture menu and point to order a mountain of khinkali. The dumplings themselves resemble pot stickers or Shanghainese soup dumplings. Each dumpling is a doughy pouch the size of a fist, the top twisted into a thick knot called kudi, meaning “hat.” Rule number one: don’t eat the kudi. Not only will it fill you up, it’s a fun tradition to count the knobs left on a plate after the meal.
Every Georgian will tell you there’s a specific way to eat khinkali. Grasp the dumpling with both hands. Take a nibble from the side, opening a tiny hole to slurp out every last drop of hearty broth. Eat the rest of the dumpling before it falls apart in your hands and drop the kudi on your plate. Repeat.
If you have a sweet tooth, churchkhela is right up your alley. Frequently referred to as “Georgian Snickers,” churchkhela are made from fruit juices and local nuts. In the classic preparation, dried walnuts are strung onto a cotton string and dipped into a thick, boiling mixture of freshly harvested grape juice and wheat flour. You’ll see churchkhela hanging throughout the city, but the best place to buy it is along Kote Abkhazi Street in old Tbilisi.
Most Georgian restaurants in Tbilisi serve khachapuri, the magical cheesy bread that inspired me to jump on a plane in the first place. These giant calorie bombs are best shared with a group, though it is possible to enjoy as a party of one. Here’s a quick khachapuri tutorial on several popular preparations, so you can choose your own cheesy adventure:
- Imeretian – Your traditional round khachapuri, stuffed with fresh suluguni cheese.
- Mingrelian – Like Imeretian, with more melty cheese on top.
- Ossetian – Is filled with potatoes and cheese.
- Adjarian – The “Love Boat” of khachapuri, shaped into an oval vessel and filled with cheese, butter and runny eggs.
For such a tiny country — 26,910 square miles, slightly smaller than the U.S. state of South Carolina — Georgia has a staggering number of regions (65), each with their own set of culinary traditions, from the shores of the Black Sea to the Caucasus Mountain Rage. When visiting Georgia, a stop in Tbilisi is a great way to familiarize yourself with the country’s unique history and culture of food and wine.