For my first trip to the Caucasus, I chose to visit Georgia, attracted by the fame of its cuisine. Here are my suggestions to enjoy it at best.
4 things you should know before eating in Georgia, based on my own experience:
1. You eat well and cheap
In Georgia you can have a full meal for just 3-5 euros, but you can satisfy your appetite with few cents.
2.Try a dish more times
One thing that struck me was that the same dish is always different. Partly is due to regional traditions that change a bit recipes, but my feeling is that everyone has his own recipe. Perhaps due to the fact that the restaurants are mostly family owned. My advice is to try a dish 2-3 times before making your judgment.
3.Prepare to wait a lot in restaurants
A 40-minute wait at the restaurant is a standard in Georgia. This is mostly because the kitchen start to cook from scratch at your order. On one hand this means that the food is fresh, on the other you’ll have to wait. Ironically, the long cooking dishes (like the charlo) come first because those have been prepared before.
You may spend the wait drinking some Georgian wine. Personally I did appreciate kindzmarauli, the most famous red wine because of its artificial sweetness. Instead a liked dry whites like tsindali. If you wanna try something non-alcoholic go for a lemonati a national sparkling drink flavored with pear or tarragon.
3.Beware of nuts
In Italy we say you can put parsley everywhere. I suppose Georgians think so about nuts. Walnuts are eveywhere! Be careful if you are allergic. Personally there were dishes, otherwise good, that disappointed me because of the excessive taste of nuts. For example, the famous badriani nigvrzit (eggplant and walnuts) that in fact I have not included in my ranking.
In a week I could not try everything, but enough to propose you my favorite Georgian dishes:
# 6 Churchkhela
Walking in any Georgian city sooner or later you will be struck by the sight of some colorful candle-looking objects. In reality it’s one of the most common sweet snacks.
They basically are walnuts or hazelnuts covered with cooked grape must, which gives the waxy look. The juice can be colored and flavored: white, for example, is vanilla. Prices may vary from 1 to 5 lari depending on the quantity and quality of nuts. The taste of the wrapper is a bit strange (it seems like wax indeed) but overall they are not bad.
# 5 Mushrooms with sulguni
Georgian cheeses are a highly reputed traditional food. Honestly what I saw in the markets and on the table all looked alike. Probably I was unlucky.
A different cheese is sulguni, which recalls me Italian provola (a smoked cheese close to mozzarella). A classic dish is made with mushrooms and melted sulguni. I liked it, even if a whole dish was boring, it can be an idea to share as an appetizer.
Pkhali is a traditional home-made cold dish, usually based on spinach, cabbage, beets or eggplants, herbs and nuts. Funny thing, I first ate it in an upscale restaurant! As soon as I arrived in Georgia in Tbilisi, my airbnb host recommended me a nearby restaurant, Barbarestan. I found out that it is one of the fanciest restaurants in Tbilisi, but it costs 4-5 times less than in Milan! The pkhali I had was a “gourmet” version, so I do not rely on that in my judgment.
I really enjoyed the home-made one with beetroots I had in in Kazbegi, delicate and with a delicious taste of fresh herbs. On another occasions, instead, it was with too much salt and nuts.
# 3 Katchapauri
Katchapuri means “bread-cheese” and more than a dish is a wide category, which I can compare to pizza & focaccia in Italy. The common factor is the cheese inside, everything else varies. For example, some put cheese on top (megreli), other potatoes in the dough like in Kazbegi. The shape and size varies also. The typical Georgian cheese is always tasty.
The biggest difference is between takeaway katchapuri (bakery-style) and freshly made (in a restaurant). Here are two examples by type.
Takeaway Katchapuri imeruli
This is the version that you will most often eat, as a snack or quick lunch. It can be round or square. The dough is soft and the cheese tasty. I got a good one in the morning at Didube station in Tbilisi for 0,7 lari (0,30 €).
A must-try is katchapuri (imeruli and gremeli) and lobiani (a variant with bean paste instead of cheese) in Tblisi most popular bakery. Not easy to find, it is located in a basement in front of the History Museum. The puff pastry is very friable and delicious. There is always a queue, but you can see the bakers at work.
Imeruli katchapuri 2,60 lari (0,85€) / Gremeli katchapuri 3 lari (1€)
Lobiani (con fagioli) 2,50 lari (0,85€)
Bakery, 13/40 Sioni street – Tbilisi
Restaurant-style katchapuri imeruli
This is more a “pizzeria” experience. The katchapuri is freshly prepared and is much larger (to share, I’d say). I ate a decent one in Kutaisi near the Bank of Georgia. The dough was a bit dry but overall reminded me a lot “Recco” cheese focaccia. A huge portion for 9.90 lari (3.30 €).
The legendary arjani katchapuri
Originally from the Batumi region, it is a caloric bomb absolutely worth trying. In tourist places they sometimes propose it, but I suggest to try it at THE arjani restaurant in Tbilisi. Place your order at the counter choosing the size (medium for me was more than enough); you might combine it with Laghidze waters (naming the place) which basically are syrups with carbonated water.
You’ll get at your table an oval katchapuri with two “handles”, open, covered with butter and an egg yolk. The cheese is very tasty (perhaps goat) and devastatingly fat, with an excellent dough which could compete with the best pizzas in Naples. I am still deciding: is it an open calzone or a pizza with handles?
Adjani katchapuri (medium) 8,90 lari (3 €)
Laghidze waters, Mitropan laghidze street corner with Rustaveli ave – Tbilisi
# 2 Kharcho
Kharcho is a beef soup flavored with tkemali (a spicy paste made from cherry plums) and sometimes tomato and rice. I ate one that left me indifferent, then I discovered my favorite restaurant in Tbilisi. Just 5-minute walk away from Barbarestan – Tblisi’s most famous high-end restaurant – you find Mapshalia, a small bistrot specialized in magreli cousine. Not touristy and a local’s favorite.
I took a kharcho, which – what a miracle! – arrived in just a few minutes later. The color was cloudy white with 3 pieces of stewed beef in it, but it was i insanely good, something between cream and a broth that had clearly cooked for hours and absorbed the flavor of the meat. It was a little spicy and with a very pleasant walnut aftertaste. The best match was to pair it with an abundant portion of elarji, a sort of semolina with melted cheese. An exceptional meal, in an authentic place for locals.
Kharcho e Elarji 4,50 + 3,50 lari (2,60€ )
Mapshalia bistrot, 137 Davit Aghmashenebeli Ave – Tbilisi
Khinkali are meat dumplings. What makes them special is the shape and the way they are eaten. The filling is placed in the center of the dough that is closed in order to have a hard “knob” to pinch with your fingers, lift and eat them.
When they are well done, they have a bit of broth inside, so there is a special technique to eat them. You grab them by the knob and give a small bite to drink the broth, then eat the rest except the knob. It takes a certain skill to avoid splashing. In restaurants you order them by number (minimum 5) and they are often for sharing.
I tried them several times. When they were dry inside I was disappointed. At famous Zachar Zacharich’s in Tbilisi I tried the traditional ones with lamb. I wasn’t impressed.
Instead, I loved the ones I had at Akhakltsikhe at Dzeli Duqani in the typical local version. Quite large, a bit soft, with a delicious broth inside and stuffed with beef. Good and fun to eat!
Khinkali 0,70 lari cad. (0,25€)
Dzeli Duqani, Orbeliani st. corner with Kostava st. – Akhaltsikhe
Did you get hungry?! Have you been or do you want to go to Georgia? Leave me a comment!