In Georgia, the food is quite appropriately an expression of the culture. Warm, gooey comfort food like khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) finds balance with matsoni (sour yogurt). Herbs like tarragon, flat parsley, dill and coriander combine with walnuts and garlic for rich fillings and sauces.
Eating, hospitality, toasts and the supra bind family and friends and snare visitors into long, table-bound interludes. Georgian food and hospitality surrounds you…and can sometimes suffocate you under its weight.
We developed a deep appreciation for Georgian food during our travels there, particularly due to helpful friends and host families who enjoyed providing us a quick and tasty education in Georgian cuisine. Words of wisdom from Lali, our host and instructor in Kakheti resonate: “Onions take parsley; garlic needs walnuts and coriander.”
The following is just a taste, arranged in the order of our experience. Restaurant listings follow. If you do visit Georgia, just ask people where you can find a specific dish and people will be more than happy to help you discover their cuisine.
If you are interested in a specific recipe, post a comment. We are collaborating with a Georgian friend to gather a batch of recipes and we’ll publish what’s of interest.
Khachapuri – no visit to Georgia would be complete (or possible) without a few tastes of khachapuri, the warm, gooey cheese-stuffed bread that oozes and drips with heart-stopping goodness. In addition to the standard round pie stuffed with cheese, other variations include egg-topped (Adjarian khachapuri), the four-fold filo dough pocket, and tarragon, mushroom and rice-stuffed pies.
Arguably the best khachapuri can be found at a home stay when it’s made fresh for breakfast (for us, in Tbilisi and Kisiskhevi) or in Svaneti, where you may also find it stuffed with leek. If you aren’t staying with a family, don’t despair – you can find khachapuri stands on almost every street corner in Tbilisi.
Khinkali – beautifully twisted knobs of dough, usually stuffed with meat and spices (served boiled or steamed). The trick: to eat without making a mess of yourself with the hot broth inside. Sprinkle with black pepper and grab the dumpling by the handle and turn upside down. Take small bites from the side, slurping broth as you go. The traditional khinkali includes meat, but vegetarian fillings of mushroom, and cheese/curd are sometimes available.
Lali taught us how to make khinkali from scratch when we stayed in Kakheti. After a few disastrous attempts, we finally got the hang of how to turn and tuck the dough around the meat. Remarkably, our dumplings maintained their form as they boiled and the broth remained inside. We’re told our khinkali-making certificate is in the mail.
Puri (Tonis Puri) – the Georgian bread staple. Baked in a ceramic circular hearth oven with the dough stuck to the side (like Indian naan), puri comes out moist and sourdoughy, perfectly tainted with black bits from the oven. Its edges are browned and taste faintly of matzo. The best we found was in Borjomi, next to the bus station.
Badrijan Nigzit – roasted eggplant strips, served flat and topped with walnut paste. Sweet and savory, it’s one of Audrey’s favorites.
Pkhali – a paste made from spinach, walnuts, and garlic. Excellent with tonis puri or khachapuri. Another favorite.
Sulguni – as far as we could tell, *the* national cheese. A salted water-soaked cheese with a stringy shell and moist middle. Eat by itself or with a round of tonis puri bread and a plateful of herbs and tomatoes.
Matsoni – a rather sour yogurt that usually shows up topless (well, without a lid) at the table. Trial and error usually works to suit your taste – with warm meat, vegetables, khachapuri, or blend with fresh honey or fruit. After matsoni straight from the farm, store-bought yogurt will never taste the same. Made from boiled fresh milk and a bacterial starter, matsoni is certain to have medicinal qualities.
Lobio – a cross between bean soup and refried beans. Its consistency and taste varies widely, bears a resemblance to Mexican bean dishes and is almost always satisfying. Eat with mchadi (Georgian corn bread) for full effect. We were always on the search for lobio, finding it in some unusual locations.
Qababi (kebabs) – grilled minced meat sprinkled with sumac and onion slices, wrapped in a thin lavash-like bread. In some small towns, this was the only dish available. We were surprisingly never disappointed by it.
Mchadi – Georgian corn bread so dense you’d think it was a paperweight. Eaten with lobio.
Tkemali sauce – taken in small doses alongside cheese, khachapuri, or meat, this sour plum sauce is said to be a cleanser. Whenever we had a meal with a family, out came the canning jar of tkemali sauce.
Lobiani – khachapuri-like bread stuffed with bean paste. Just slightly healthier than the original cheese khachapuri.
Mushmala – a juicy, persimmon-colored fruit about the size of a walnut. It’s dark, shiny seeds look like tiger-eye jewels or something you might play Mancala with.
Tatara – confection made from boiled, pressed grape extract. Think fruit roll-up without the added sugar.
Churchkhela – brown rubbery truncheons made from strings of walnuts dipped in tatara and dried. Sometimes referred to as “Georgian Snickers.” Don’t eat the string!
Dolmas – steamed, roasted, or boiled vegetables or leaves stuffed with minced meat, herbs and rice. Though we don’t especially associate dolmas with Georgia, Rusiko’s rendition with fresh grape leaves from her garden was something special.
Chakapuli – herbed lamb stew from Kakheti, normally eaten at holidays (e.g., Easter)
Mtsvadi (Shashlik) – fire-roasted chunks of pork, salted. Cut some fresh onions and put in a metal bowl over a fire. Among some of the best barbecued meat we’ve ever had. Be careful, chunks of the prized chalahaji (or back meat) are usually in limited amounts and meant to be shared with the group. Audrey learned this after unknowingly taking the whole skewer for herself to shrieks of objection. She then shared.
Adjika – spicy Indian pickle-like paste. We were always served this with cucumber and tomato salad.
Kubdari – khachapuri-like dough stuffed with small chunks of meat, spices and onions. A Svanetian specialty. The place to get it is the restaurant/stop between Zugdidi and Mestia or at a home stay along the route from Mestia to Ushguli.
Svaneti salt – a perfect complement to vegetables, cheese or salad. Made from various spices and herbs. You’ll think you’re inching closer to Persia or India when you smell it.
Mashed potatoes and lots of cheese – Svanetian farmer food. We’ll never forget waking up to a giant plateful (for each of us) of the stuff in Adishi. We took just a few spoonfuls and could barely move.
Cheese and mint – small bits of moist cheese served with chopped mint (and other herbs). A surprising treat at the opening of the Svaneti Tourism Center in Mestia.
Chvishtari – cheese corn bread (a Svanetian version of mchadi with cheese)
Satsivi – poultry (chicken or turkey) served with a thinned paste of walnut, garlic and herbs. Considered a winter dish (“sivi” implies cold in Georgian) and eaten often around the Christmas holiday and the New Year, particularly in the region of Adjari. Though we’ve enjoyed this at Georgian restaurants abroad, we unfortunately didn’t have an authentic opportunity to try it this time around.
In no way does Georgia suffer from a lack of alcohol…or toasts to go with it.
Georgian brandy – surprisingly smooth and easy to drink. Though Armenian brandy gets a lot of press, Georgian brand is worth a taste.
Cha cha – the drink of sadists and masochists throughout the Georgian countryside. Oddly enough, it’s common practice to have a small drink of the stuff in the morning, apparently to ease the effects of a heavy morning meal.
Rachi – a lower octane hooch/moonshine that makes frequent appearances at the table and in the streets of Svaneti.
Wine – go for the Saperavi. We discuss it a bit more here.
What we didn’t eat:
“Mushrooms with brain and tongue in the pottery,” an actual dish on offer that reminded us of dishes like “pork sweat and sour” from our days in Southeast Asia.
Where to Eat in Tbilisi
Many of our eating experiences took place with friends or host families. Below are a few restaurants and cafes worth a visit in Tbilisi.
Shemoikhede Genatsvale Restaurant (25 Leselidze street): Khinkali as art – some of the nicest looking khinkali we’ve had. Also very tasty.
Kronenburg Restaurant (corner of Leselidze and Diuma): Home-made boiled khinkali. Try the mushroom. Good lobio and badrijan. Friendly waitresses will wrap everything up for you if you order too much.
Salobio: Located near Mtskheta, this large outdoor restaurant is a Georgian institution. Apparently, it’s always been dishing out great lobio, even during the civil war of the early 1990s. Lena and her family introduced us to many of the greats of the Georgian table here – khinkali, lobio, qababi, mchadi.
Rasta Café (right behind Sioni Cathedral on the river): Rasta refers not to Rastafarian, but to the name of the market (rasta, from the Persian meaning “narrow”) that once thrived behind the cafe. Photos line the walls and tell the history of old Tiflis (Tbilisi). Aleko, one of the owners, possesses an amazing knowledge and passion for Tbilisi and is happy to share. We became regulars here and always felt welcome. Georgian and continental cuisine, with 38 varieties of coffee on offer.
Hole-in-the-wall deli and bakery (Vashlovani street): That’s not really its name, but we know it’s located near the Chinese restaurant Picasso between M. Kostava and G. Akhvlediani streets. Offers trays of pkhali, badrijan and tomato ratatouille dishes to go. Each dish is 3 lari. Next door is a bakery with lobiani and various forms of khachapuri. Perfect for assembling a picnic or light evening meal.
Lotus Café (Pushkin Street and Freedom Square): Inexpensive vegetarian restaurant with a visually delightful selection of savory and sweet bites on display in a deli case – stuffed eggplant, soy kofte (meatballs) in a rich gravy, khachapuri and much more.
Mitropane Laridze on Rustaveli: The site of our first khachapuri experience. Once a Tbilisian institution, this underlit mosaic-lined soda fountain on Rustaveli makes for an inexpensive mid-afternoon break of khachapuri and gaz voda (egg cream-like syrupy soda).
If you have a high-speed connection, stick around for the slideshow below.