Revisiting Saqartvelo (From Quarantine)

Throughout the coronavirus debacle I, like most people in the world, have spent more time at home than usual. Compared to some places, Texas thankfully has been only moderately affected so far, and the restrictions haven’t been particularly severe. Nonetheless I’ve shelved plans for two trips this year and have turned to other activities to ride out the pandemic. With restaurants either closed or at the least a risk, the main food options are delivery or DIY. So one of my quarantine hobbies has been poring over cookbooks spice up my home-cooking menu.

I’ve found that experimenting with making foods I’ve encountered in my travels is a fun way to travel virtually while “social distancing.” First on the menu: a Georgian supra (feast). In my visit to the Republic of Georgia last year, the cuisine was a highlight. It’s a bit heavy – think meat, bread, and cheese – but the combination of herbs and spices used in Georgian cuisine gives it a unique “Georgian flavor.”

The mountainous highlands of the Caucasus are home to many herbs and spices. Herbs including basil and bay leaves are common in Georgia, though the most popular is cilantro (coriander), used in seemingly every dish. Fragrant caraway and blue fenugreek are popular locally-grown spices. Regions such as Svaneti and Samegrelo are known for their unique blends of spiced salt that are used for seasoning dishes. Other common flavors include berries, marigold (yes, the flower), and grape.

In my attempts at home, I stuck with the classics. First on my menu was ხინკალი khinkali, one of the most ubiquitous dishes in the country. These are brothy boiled dumplings that Georgians take great pride in. They’re thought to have been inspired by the cuisine of the Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century, and resemble some dumplings found in modern Chinese cuisine, though the flavor is different. Khinkali often contain a mixture of minced beef and pork seasoned with caraway and cilantro. However, the many variations can fill entire menus. I ate khinkali many times while in Georgia, including at a creative restaurant in Tbilisi that fused Indian flavors with the traditional Georgian dish!

The broth in khinkali is the dumpling’s most distinctive feature. While the broth in Chinese dumplings is inserted in gelatinous form and then melts while cooking, the broth in khinkali is made by mixing water directly into the meat. While it’s cooking, the water absorbs the flavors and seeps out of the seasoned meat to create a broth inside the khinkali. The broth must be sucked out with the first bite before the rest of the dumpling can be eaten – there’s a particular technique involved that Georgians are eager to teach foreigners! Mine turned out less brothy than I’d hoped – the key, I think, is to add in more water than you think you need!

Next on my menu was ლობიო lobio. That’s simply the Georgian word for beans, but it often refers to a specific dish of mashed kidney beans. The texture is similar to refried beans, and since lobio is often generously garnished with cilantro, it’s easily reminiscent of Tex-Mex. But with its traditional blue fenugreek seasoning, the flavor is nonetheless distinct. Any restaurant in Georgia will serve lobio in a clay pot, but lacking such authentic cookware, I baked it in a casserole dish.

The traditional accompaniment to lobio is a plate of სულგუნი sulguni and warm მჭადი mchadi. Sulguni is a salty Georgian cheese with a taste similar to mozzarella but a texture closer to feta. It is ubiquitous within Georgia, but less so elsewhere – I have’t been able to find it in Houston, but then again, I haven’t ventured over to the Russian grocery store yet. Mchadi, on the other hand, was easy enough to reproduce. It’s simply a mixture of water, salt, and white cornmeal formed into small patties and fried to make a dense cornbread. My technique was not great, and they turned out a little hard and overcooked, but they went well with the lobio!

To top off the meal, I procured some საფერავი saperavi, a dry red wine variety indigenous to eastern Georgia. After all, when you’re talking about a country that prides itself on being the birthplace of wine, it would be criminal to serve a meal without it! As they say in Georgia, გაუმარჯოს gaumarjos – cheers!

If you want to try making these dishes yourself, here are the recipes I used for khinkali, lobio, and mchadi.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting Saqartvelo (From Quarantine)

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