By Shaly Pereira of TravelToes85
There is this big chunk of Georgian cheese sitting comfortably in my chiller at home. Every time I open the refrigerator, my senses are assailed with the rich, smoky flavor that emanates tantalizingly from this seemingly innocuous snack. The smell brings with it memories of rolling hills and green plains, and I’m hit with the realization that I so want to go back to Georgia.
This country, after letting me sample some of its rich culture, is now beckoning me back. I remember vividly a beguiling temptation of food and wine, welcoming locals and the promise of a laid-back peaceful existence far away from the maddening world — a peace that is completely contrary to its turbulent past.
Prior to embarking on this trip, Google had given me a virtual thumbs-up on the famed Georgian cuisine — the homegrown wines, the rich cheeses, freshly oven baked bread and flavorful meat dishes. I was not disappointed; in fact, the food experience far outweighed my expectations.
In terms of accommodation, I stayed at the Gallery Palace Hotel in Tbilisi, which was walking distance from many restaurants. The others I visited while sightseeing with Mika, a guide who spoke flawless English.
As I left my hotel and ventured into the outdoors, l was amazed to find orchards and fields with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Most of these are homegrown and organic, giving every Georgian dish a unique fresh flavor. The fertile soil and conducive climate ensure a wide array of produce — apricots, grapes, apples, figs, pomegranates, mulberries, plums, oranges and peaches — throughout the year. Nuts like pecans, peanuts, and walnuts grow here in abundance and are used generously in most of the dishes.
By default, Georgia’s location lays claim to the best of both worlds — Asian and European. However, there is a more distinct leaning towards its European lineage, be it through the weather, the architecture, or the choice of food and wines.All foodies must head to #Georgia - here's why! Click To Tweet
Though some dishes do incorporate Russian and Turkish influence, most of the signature cuisine has flavors that are distinctive to its own culture. Chatting with locals, I found most of them bristled at the implication that anything on their plate had Russian or Arabic origins. Proudly, they’d boast how it was simply “Georgian.” After a taste, I found this pride to be truly justified.
Here’s A Toast
A special tradition of Georgian culinary culture is the practice of raising toasts. Yes, each meal has to be accompanied by not one, but several toasts. The toastmaster is a revered person and is known as a “Tamada.”
During my four-day stay in Georgia, I tried to sample as much of the local produce as I could. While there was an abundance of meat, bread, cheese and wines to suit most palates, there was not a lot of fish on the menu, except for trout. My adventurous and ever-craving sweet tooth was also a wee bit disappointed to find a lot less variety in the dessert dishes.
Sugar cravings aside, there are a number of dishes you must try on a trip to Georgia, including:
Traditional Georgian Dishes You Must Sample
Despite being known as “Grappa” or “Georgian Vodka,” it’s actually a kind of brandy with 40% alcohol content. It can be made out of any fruit, but the commonly used is grape pomace (grape skin residue after making wine), which is probably why it has that distinct moonshine whiff.
Most Georgians make chacha at home. My guide Nika told me his homemade chacha has 60% alcohol and is of a far superior quality. I found no reason to disbelieve him. Chacha, he continued, was not a drink to be leisurely sipped; instead it has to be gulped down like a shot. Once the fiery smoothness — of various shots — slips past your throat, you could be anything from deliriously happy to plain knocked out.
Eight thousand years of viticulture ensures this country has some of the best wine varieties. Georgia’s wine producing region is known as Khaketi. Grapes from this region are transported to other wine-making regions of Georgia and served at the best restaurants in town.
I tried quite a few of both the reds and whites — ranging from dry to semi-sweet — and found them delectable. Of course, no trip to George would be complete without a winery visit. Personally, I loved Khareba Winery, which is comprised of 15 man-made tunnels constructured into the hillside and lined with wine bottles. Khareba grows over 15 different grapes varieties, from Tsitska, to Mtsvane and beyond — and you can do a tasting in the tunnels.
Tip: Don’t miss trying their traditional wines, where fermenting and aging of the wine is done in enormous clay vessels shaped like eggs (called “qvevri”) that are buried underground.
Georgia is famous for its bread. The dough is rolled out and slapped on the sides of “toves” (clay ovens), and can be eaten minutes later, hot and freshly baked.
I was treated to a bread-making class at Khareba Winery. The fresh bread was the perfect accompaniment to the semi-sweet wine. A flat bread delicacy called Khachapuri comes with a filling of Imeretian or Sulguni cheese — absolutely melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Kachapuri has various innovative versions that have hence merged with butter, eggs, and even meat.
Cornbread, another popular staple, is typically served with a meat dish.
Known also as soup dumplings, khinkali resemble momos and are filled with either beef, chicken or pork stuffing. The more pleats on your dumpling, the higher up it is on the food scale.
Tip: The best way to eat a dumpling is to hold it up on the knotted side and take a bite from the underside. These taste best with chacha, beer or wine.
This is a special dish made out of skewered lamb, beef or pork (that’s absolutely delicious when topped with local plum sauce, by the way).
Additionally, I savored the pork mtsvadi — pork ribs roasted on a skewer with a choice of dried plum sauce or mulberry sauce as an accompaniment.
The mtsvadi is also known as a “chalagaji” when instead of ribs, pork sirloin is roasted.
Another absolutely delicious preparation was the chicken mtsvadi — delicately seasoned with tomato, marinated in a sour cream sauce and skewered to perfection.
Under the dessert category, this is one of the sweet dishes synonymous with Georgian cuisine. Though churchkhela can be made from a variety of fruits and nuts, the most commonly used variety is made out of walnuts and grape juice.
A string of walnuts is dipped in a mixture of flour, sugar and concentrated grape juice (known as Badagi) and then hung on a line to dry for about four days. The taste is distinctive and unique to Georgia.
After the bread-making class, I participated in a fun churchkhela ‘dip and hang to dry’ session at the winery.
The main ingredient for this wholesome dish is eggplant. Various bell peppers give color and freshness to it, while the tangy taste comes from the tomatoes and tomato paste.
All in all, it’s very satisfying vegetable stew that’s also the perfect accompaniment to khachapuri.
When I asked my guide about the dips of green and purple on my plate, I was told they were made out of mashed beetroot and spinach. Pkhali can also be in a salad form where it is crushed, but not made into a paste.
Both the dips and the salads are used as accompaniments to meats rather than as a main dish. Pkhali can be made out of any vegetable, and many times is mixed with walnuts to give the dish an added flavor.Don't miss these delicious traditional dishes, like chacha, when visiting #Georgia! #foodie Click To Tweet
Some Restaurants Around Town
Most tour guides will take you to Mravaljamieri, which is why it’s often crowded with tourists. There is authentic Georgian dancing and music out in the front, which is nearly impossible to see if you’re sitting at the back. The food here is reasonably good and has many of the traditional dishes listed above; however, the hurried service detracts from its charm.
Instead, I recommend Puris Sakhli. I was told at my hotel and guide that it’s the best in town, and it didn’t disappoint. The mtsvadi, the khinkali, and the plum sauce served here were all very, very good.
Reservations have to be made in advance if you want a table of your choice. The interior has a homey feel to it, accentuated by the freshly baked bread aroma emanating from its in-house bakery.
As I was dining here with friends, a group of men in traditional dress sang a beautiful Georgian song for us. We didn’t understand the words, but it went rather well with the wine (but really, what doesn’t?). They sang at each table, their voices growing fainter as they moved to the upstairs dining room and eventually to the balconies.
On another day, I accidentally stumbled upon the Art Cafe Tiflis Brunch while walking down the narrow Kote Abkhazi Street in Tbilisi around 10 pm. The restaurant — which can get crowded during the day — is closed after 9 pm; however, the bar and dessert counter remain open. This café is small but lovely with cozy seating arrangements and some very delicious desserts. Try the melt-in-the-mouth strawberry cheesecake topped with strawberry jelly. Yum!
Food Samples You Should Take With You From Georgia
The amalgamation of cultures on your plate will induce you to carry some of your memories back home. A good place to start would be with the chacha and the wines, depending, of course, on how many bottles you are allowed to carry to your country.
Carrying a few churchkellas for friends and family is also a good idea. I mean, where else in the world will you find sweets that look like sausages?
Walnuts, prunes and apricots are also a lot cheaper and of a far superior quality – gift assortments are available for sale at the local Carrefour.
Along with some delicacies, the most important thing I took home was the memories — of a beautiful place, warm and generous people, the tastiest of cuisines and an undying urge to visit again.
Responsible Tourism Tip
Georgians are friendly and always answer questions related to their food and culture; however, always ask before clicking pictures — many of them gave me a “go ahead” wave and pointed to whatever they were selling, but they also turned away from the lens.
How To Visit Georgia
Most international airlines fly several times a week to Tbilisi. QA has 24 flights a week from Doha to Tbilisi, with connections to Doha from all over the world. I took a connection from Oman, where I live.
Citizens of over 90 countries can enter Georgia without a visa. Some countries are given visa on arrival while others have to apply for an e-visa. More information can be found here.
This post originally appears on TravelToes85.
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