Georgian Eats (Part I)

Updated: May 2

Ok, this is going to be a lot to unpack. So, here's just the first part.


Like any national cuisine, it usually takes parts from other nations and cultures and makes them their own. Georgian food is no different. However, because of the long (over 8000 years of continuous Georgian habitation) time people have been there, this factor is multiplied. Almost every major culture in the ancient, medieval, and modern times have been through the area. Mongols, Persians, Greeks, Turks, and Russians just to name a few of them. Its all in the food.


Because I could write for weeks about the different types, lets start with a few examples.


Khinkali

This little ingredient-filled dough dumpling-like treat is in virtually every shop, market, restaurant, and locals stomach you can find, and the fillings range from the common minced meat mix to the more unusual herb-cheese blend. Regardless of which you grow most fond of, the history is even longer than the list of ingredient combinations.


These little things are supposed to have made their way from Mongolia sometime around the 13th century, due in part to the location of Georgia at the heart of the Silk Road trading route, but also since the Mongols had a knack for finding places to conquer. Apparently the Mongols would wrap the beef in dough to make it easier to carry in their kit, since carrying beef in your pockets is generally thought to be a bad idea when on horseback.


One of the more entertaining things, surely as a local but also by yours truly, is the interesting attempts newcomers make at eating these. It's generally correctly done by grabbing them with the "head" or knot of dough downward and biting into the pocket. With the most common Khinkali being the beef mince mix, the cooking naturally creates this pocket of cooked beef and juices.


Don't be alarmed when seeing someone sucking these juices out at the first bite, those juices are not only my favorite part but traditionally highly valued. So much so that I have even seen grown men drinking these juices out of the plate they just finished using. The knot is not eaten, but is said to be kept on the plate as a sign of how many you've eaten. A testament to your manhood (or womanhood), though some of my Georgian friends have laughed this off as a tourist trick to get them to eat/buy more. If you're enjoying it, then that's all that matters, right?


Lobiani

Now let's move on to some street food favorites. In fact, this one is my absolute favorites and one of my chief diet-breakers. From the Georgian word "lobio" for beans, this hand-held delight is beans in a light dough, often with ham inside, and is probably better tasting than you're thinking. Just writing this is going to send me to the local bakery (again).


Traditionally from the Racha region in the northern central mountainous area, the usual ingredients list is not long, but has to be done right if you want them to be any good. Crushed kidney beans, spices including Georgian special salt mixes, and either sliced or diced ham are the most common filling ingredients, with a pastry dough that closely resembled puff-pastry, but isn't as light, retaining some of its thickness to keep everything together.


Then you find the different shapes and styles. I've seen some as big as medium pizzas, and and eaten like them as well, and as small as little envelope-looking things sitting in a bakery window. Then there's the ones I usually have in my face while walking down the street; small rectangular hot-pocket looking ones with nice thick slices of ham hanging out from my last bight. The history isn't as memorable as the previous food item, but there's some thought that these made their way up from Judea at some very early point, but there's not much on this.


Churchkhela

Let's end today's list with something sweet. Anyone who has so much as searched "Georgia", has probably seen strings of these dangling in a food stand or shop window. They're everywhere, and I really mean everywhere here. From the fancy ones in stores that are wrapped plastic and with some gourmet-sounding description printed on it, to the homemade bundle sold in the subway underpass by a bebia (grandmother) sitting on a stool under a yellow aged light, and everywhere in between, they really are everywhere.


Because Georgia produces so much wine (more about that magic another time), the byproducts are not left to waste. Aside from Chacha ( Georgian grape vodka similar to grappa, and again more on that devils juice at a latter date), the excess wine musk juices are poured in a pot and reduced, flour added to thicken, and walnuts on strings about 12 to 18 inches in length are slowly dipped in and covered with the mixture. When they're pulled out, you get the long sausage-looking creation, which is set out to cool and dry. Some variances include berries or dried fruit in lieu of nuts.


These have a more interesting story to them, as they are an old Georgian original. Originally found in Kakheti, the eastern-most region known best for it's immense wine production, these little snacks are a soldiers best friend. Due to the nutritional composition and ease of transportation, these calorie-high rations were carried on campaigns by the legions sent off to fight for the Georgian kingdoms, or whoever happen to rule Georgia at the time. Now known as the Georgian "snickers-bar", they find their place on the table as an easy dessert or holiday treat, or packed in bundles by tourists knowing they'll miss them at home.



These are just a few of the culinary experiences found in Georgia, but I promise to write about more in the future. There's really no shortage of foods to include here. For recipes, it's best to do a little extra research, as almost every family has their own recipe, and some recipes are just not traditional. As for the ingredients, trying your local international foods shop or European market can yield results, or at the least an appropriate substitute as some Georgian ingredients don't make it far from Georgian borders. In future topics, I'll also make sure to cover the infamous wine and chacha, some of the more refined restaurant dishes, and even some traditional sauces.


Cheers!

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