One of the best reasons to visit Georgia is for its food – diverse, fresh, imaginative and filling, it’s a joy and, to Georgians, one of the most important aspects of the national culture. Georgian cuisine is far closer to that of Turkey and Iran than that of Russia, with plenty of garlic, walnuts, cumin and coriander. Meat is central, but a Georgian meal is served with many dishes, including vegetable ones, on the table at once and everyone helping themselves to whatever they want. It's best to pace yourself, as it's likely to be a long evening with plenty of wine.
Georgian food is one of great subtlety and variety. Virtually unknown in the West, it combines a broad palette of ingredients and spices that share certain similarities with Mediterranean cooking but are ultimately as distinct as the songs that accompany every banquet. Freshness is the watchword in the Georgian kitchen, and given the incredible fecundity of the land, this goal is most often attained. Sauces do not mask primary ingredients as in some other cooking traditions; they highlight flavours and textures with the unexpected. Regional variations do abound, but the classic dishes, using lamb, chicken or fish, hazelnuts and walnuts, eggplant, plums, corn, pomegranates, kidney beans, coriander, scallions, hot peppers, mint, and basil, lill homes and restaurants throughout the country. While many dishes are highly seasoned, nothing is searingly hot.
Georgian hospitality reaches epic proportions, and the spirit of open-handed, huge-hearted generosity is nowhere better displayed than at the table. No matter what you do in Georgia, you will miss the essence of the place if you don't some-how manage to get invited home for dinner. (Given the great friendliness of the Georgian people, this should not be difficult.) You cannot help but be amazed by the sheer quantity of food. In Georgia the table must groan with plenty: a Georgian inextricably links abundance to his sense of self, his exuberance, his sense of community and sharing. With such a tradition, distinct courses do not exist. Heaped platters and plates and bowls vie for space amid bottles of wine, champagne, lemonade, and Borjomi mineral water. A roast suckling pig-generally carved in the kitchen rather than served whole-or the famous mtsvadi (shish kebab), cubes of lamb marinated in oil, vinegar, and spices and served on a skewer, or a variety of stews, might suddenly appear later in the meal. Most dishes served midway, however, merely replenish those you see from the start, so don't hold back! You can pay no greater compliment to your hosts than to stuff yourself with abandon.
One word about your hosts: Georgia has not yet embraced feminism. Your male host will remain seated at the head of the table acting as the tamada or toastmaster. His wife, and perhaps the daughters of the house, will cook and serve and may not have time to sit at the table during the meal.
Staples & Specialities
The great staple for everybody, travellers and locals, is the khachapuri, essentially a cheese pie. The second most common dish in Georgia is khinkali (meat dumplings). These are usually served without any accompaniment, but they are delicious. You are not supposed to eat the doughy nexus at the top of the dumpling, though this being Georgia, a few people do. It’s virtually impossible to order fewer than five of these at a time, even though they are quite substantial. More substantial Georgian dishes typically involve lamb, chicken, beef or turkey in various spicy, herby sauces or stews.
Traditional meat dishes include kharcho (a spicy soup of mutton with garlic, rice and vegetables); jigari (a stew of liver, heart, kidney, onion and parsley); ostri (a stew of beef, tomato and onion); chakapuli (a stew of lamb, scallions and greens in their own juices with tarragon); chakhokhbili (a drier but equally tasty stew, originally of pheasant, but now usually chicken, with herbs, diced tomatoes, garlic and onion); kupati (kidney stuffed with minced meat and spices); chanakhi (lamb with tomatoes, greens, garlic and green peppers, baked in a clay pot); and abkhazuri (a meat puree with onion, garlic, pomegranate, herbs and spices). Chicken is also much used, in the form of satsivi, pieces of chicken (or turkey) in a sauce of walnut, cornflower, garlic and saffron (a traditional New Year dish); tabaka, pressed fried chicken; chikitma, chicken soup with egg; and shkmeruli, roast chicken in garlic sauce.
Mtsvadi or mutton grilled on a vinewood fire (also known as shashlik) is very popular for outdoor feasts, although pork can also be used. Basturma is air-dried pressed mutton. Finally, in the meat department, khinkhali are pasta envelopes of dough (shaped like little money bags) stuffed with minced meat (or cheese), which are associated especially with villages near the Georgian Military Highway such as Dusheti. Fish is also popular, notably sturgeon and trout, such as kefalia, small fried trout from the mountains of Adjara.
Vegetable dishes include several with aubergine, for instance fried with walnuts, stuffed with hazelnut paste, or as ajapsandali, stewed with tomato and peppers. Bean dishes include lobio (kidney beans stewed with coriander), karabakh loby (green beans in sour cream and tomato sauce) and mtsvane lobio niguzit (a bean salad in a walnut dressing). Pkhali is a generic term for walnut and vegetable pates such as minced spinach with walnuts, spices, garlic and a topping of pomegranate seeds; similarly, shredded beetroot tops are served with red peppers and pomegranate seeds, and red beans with walnuts, garlic, celery and coriander. Phklovani is spinach and cheese; soko ketze is mushroom and cheese. Beetroot is also served with walnuts, or mashed with garlic. Salads include tarkhun (long green leaves with an aroma of aniseed, eaten with kebabs), and raw cabbage salad with walnuts, as well as the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad. Bunches of coriander (kinza) are used for sprinkling water over produce in markets, to keep it fresh, and it is eaten raw (for long life) as well as in cooking; dill is also popular. Food is spicier in western Georgia, and better for vegetarians, with more use of maize and nuts. Saying (me) khortss ar v-ch'am means I don't eat meat.
There's a range of pastes and sauces eaten with shashlik and other dishes; the best known is tkemali, a sour plum sauce. Others are adjika (a hot red pepper and coriander paste from the west of Georgia, which also comes in a green variety), and bazha (a sauce of crushed walnuts with a combination of spices with garlic and saffron known as tkhmali-suneli). Masharaphi is a pomegranate dressing.
More than anything, Georgians love to drink, and wine is a passion, particularly in Kakheti, where you will no doubt taste the unique homemade white wine made by fermenting the grape on the grape skin – a process used only for red wine in the West. The pinkishresult is a fine drop that tastes nothing like normal white wine. Most commercially marketed Georgian wine tends to be sweet to Western taste buds, although the Saperavi grape is reliably crisp and plummy.
Vodka is a common drink throughout the country, but trying the national firewater, chacha, is a real experience. The two commonest Georgian beers are Kazbegi and Natakhtari. Natakhtari is smoother and creamier than the slightly acidic Kazbegi.
Georgia’s favourite nonalcoholic drink is Borjomi, a salty mineral water which was the beverage of choice for every Soviet leader from Lenin on. It polarises opinion, and is certainly an acquired taste. Nabeghlavi is a less salty alternative. Georgians often claim that tap water is safe to drink throughout the country, a boast that is hard to verify. If you prefer bottled water, Borjomi Springs is a fine thirst-quencher: it’s neither carbonated nor salty, although it can be hard to find outside big towns.
Where to Eat & Drink
Georgians eat and drink at all times of the day, and restaurants tend to keep suitably long hours, typically noon to midnight (exceptions to this are noted in individual reviews). Breakfast can be the trickiest meal to get outside your accommodation. While some places may serve up eggs, bread and tea early in the morning, others will offer only khachapuri.
Outside Tbilisi, restaurants are almost universally cheap. Tbilisi has the best selection and variety of restaurants, but eateries around the country have improved a lot. The surly Soviet service ethic is dead and buried, and while Russian fare remains a popular alternative to Georgian dishes, more restaurants now display an openness to other foreign cuisines. For Georgian regional food, some of the best you’ll eat will be offered in homestays and guesthouses.
At the bottom of the Georgian food chain are the sakhachapure and the sakhinkle, cheap workers cafés where khachapuri or khinkali are literally the only thing served. Cafés tend to serve sweet dishes – Georgians make some excellent pastries and cakes for those with a sweet tooth.
Some better-quality Georgian restaurants are really party places, where people go for loud music, dancing and lots of drinking as well as eating. These can be lots of fun if you’re in company, but not very pleasant for the single traveller or even some couples. Staff will do their best to make everybody feel at ease, but if places like this are your only option, it’s a good idea to eat early, before the place fills up with revellers.