As you may already know, this year I’m taking on a food challenge every month. The challenges are about trying new things, shaking up my routine, learning new skills, and spending time doing things that I love – eating and cooking.
In February, because I was about to embark on my first trip to the Republic of Georgia, I set a regional foodie challenge for myself: try 10 of Georgia’s top classic dishes.
To come up with my list of dishes to try, I turned to the wisdom of the internet, gathering up suggestions from top-10 lists and local Facebook groups. And by the time I arrived in Georgia mid-month, I was ready to hit the ground running.
Which is when things went extravagantly wrong.
First, I discovered that Tbilisi can be difficult to navigate. My first few attempts at finding recommended restaurants ended with me wandering up and down empty streets scratching my head. Nothing was where Google Maps said it would be. Opening times turned out to be suggestions more than actual opening times. And I realized that my challenge wasn’t actually going to be as easy as it sounded.
And then things got worse. Two days into my stay, I went to the dentist for some recent and escalating tooth pain. It turned out, I urgently needed a root canal. It also turned out that after said root canal, I was unable to eat solid foods for about four days and unable to fully and normally chew without discomfort for about 10 days (something I now know is unusual and an indicator that something was not done correctly – oy vey).
Even better, 10 days just happened to be how long we stayed in Georgia. Which meant that we only managed a handful of meals out – and I had to be very careful about what I tried to eat.
I still gave the challenge my best effort, but ultimately, I was only able to try six of the classic dishes on my list.
Here are the six that made the cut.
By far, the dish I heard about most before visiting Tbilisi was khinkali.
They’re supple Georgian dumplings (usually) filled with ground meat and broth. You eat them by picking them up by the knot at the top, holding one side in your fingers, biting a hole in the other side, and sipping out the broth before eating.
According to Culinary Backstreets, the most authentic version is made with hand-rolled dough and ground lamb, but most of the khinkali you’ll find in Tbilisi are made with dough machines and ground beef or pork. Unfortunately, the day we went in search of khinkali, they were out of lamb, so we tried the beef-pork-greens mix instead.
The dough was stickier and about three times as thick as the more familiar eastern Asian dumplings I’ve tried in the past and the interior was salty with a tang of green onion.
Lobiani (bean-filled bread)
This flatbread stuffed with bean paste was a simple, satisfying snack, if a little heavy (which is to be expected: Georgian food runs heavy in general).
The bread was clearly home baked, soft, and flaky, but had a flavor that reminded me strongly of saltine crackers. The bean paste was mild (though that may be because it was under-salted), so don’t expect the strong flavors of Mexican refried beans here.
Chkmeruli (garlic chicken)
I didn’t know what to expect when I added chkmeruli to my list via a suggestion from a blogger. It was described as garlic chicken, but did that mean in garlic sauce? Roasted? Shredded? Bone-in?
It was a bit of a surprise when it turned out to be an enormous pile of chicken in strong, under-salted garlic broth with no rice or veggies in sight. And there may well be a better version out there, but this was my least favorite speciality I tried in Georgia. The garlic broth was somehow bland and strong at the same time. The chicken was dry. And supposedly this was the best spot in town to try it.
To make churchkhela, locals string nuts and dried fruits together and then dip them into thickened grape juice. If I only tried two things in Georgia, I wanted them to be the khinkali dumplings and this colorful dessert, its strings hung by the hundreds along the stall-fronts of the Dezerter Bazaar.
We chose a wine-colored one at the bazaar and brought it home and, for me, it wins the award for most surprising Georgian delicacy. Where I expected a tart pop of flavor from the outer grape coating, I found a light sweetness very quickly overpowered by the nuttiness of the walnuts within.
Tklapi is fruit leather in its purest form – fruit pureed and spread on a sheet to dry in the sun. I’m told it runs the gamut from sour to sweet depending on the type of fruit used. The most local version uses local plums and tastes very tart indeed. I think the version we bought was the plum (though since we don’t speak the language, I can’t say for sure) and it was tart and sassy.
This briney white cheese full of air bubbles had a flavor (though not a texture) reminiscent of mozzarella. We bought one of the large wheels pictured above at the Dezerter Bazaar for 13 GEL (about $5) and ate it by the slice at home.
Other Georgian specialties
My internet research yielded 15 popular specialties I was curious to try. I made it through six. Here are the other nine:
:: Khachapuri (cheese bread)
:: Kharcho with gomi (meat stew)
:: Chakapuli (herby stew)
:: Pkhali (walnut paste with fresh herbs served on veggies)
:: Ajapsandali (spicy veggie soup)
:: Lobio (beans, also often served in soup form)
:: Elarji (cornmeal with sulguni cheese)
So, what’s Georgian food like?
Despite the rave reviews food and travel writers having been giving Tbilisi, none of the specialties I tried wowed me. Savory dishes were heavy and mostly under-salted. Sweet treats were fine but nothing I’d write home about.
I did my best to try the specialties at places known for them and lauded for their authenticity, but that doesn’t mean my experience is representative. After all, I only tried a single version of each specialty.
My favorite experience of Georgian food was actually an unusual one. It didn’t include any of the classic dishes. It wasn’t at a market or in a tucked-away family-run restaurant. It was at Barbarestan – a fine dining restaurant built around the cookbook of a feminist Duchess.
Did you join the challenge? How did it go?
When I first announced my February Georgian food challenge, I invited readers to join in – find a Georgian restaurant nearby and try some traditional dishes or attempt a Georgian recipe at home. If you did your own challenge, I’d love to hear how it went. Let me know in the comments!