Thanks to a primordial urge to consume bread filled with copious amounts of melted cheese, khachapuri has inadvertently become the "national dish" of Georgia, the country in between Russia and Turkey. Most Georgian restaurants in the States—like Brooklyn's aptly named Cheeseboat—serve it as a canoe-shaped slab of dough with a crater in the middle, filled with melted cheese and a raw egg that cooks upon stirring the steamy filling. Yet, in my travels throughout Georgia's interior, I never encountered this particular "cheese boat," a dish native only to the country's Adjarian region near the Black Sea. More significantly, I discovered that this "national dish" isn't the focus of the Georgian meal at all, despite what Instagram may tell you.
"Think about Japanese food as it's been exported, like sushi restaurants. Unless you're in a special place, it's like Mexican food or Italian food, where they selected the 15 top dishes and they just crank them out," John Wurdeman, a restaurateur who's helped spearhead the resurgence of Georgia's 8,000-year-old winemaking process, says.
Wurdeman, along with forward-thinking chefs across the country, is part of a culinary renaissance bringing attention to real Georgian cuisine and away from cheese- and carb-laden tourist fare.
Khachapuri takes a back seat to many flavorful, Mediterranean-like mezes: tomatoes and cucumbers that soak up the nuttiness of unrefined sunflower oil, plates containing eggplant or freshly foraged leeks, morels or stinging nettles. Roast chickens are often served with creamy satsivi, a tahini-like sauce made with ground walnuts, while lamb and veal find their way into chakapuli, a tarragon-based stew. On a Georgian table, there's also almost always a plate of jonjoli, a pickled local flower sprout, which is so ubiquitous locals forget it may be unique to a visitor.
Throughout my tour of the country's areas, chefs prepared their own renditions of local fare, expanding the repertoire of Georgian cuisine I've only known from abroad. In the capital city of Tbilisi, chef Meriko Gubeladze of Shavi Lomi served me balls of sulguni cheese smothered in a minted yogurt sauce. At Sormoni in the Imereti region out west—where I dined in a patskha, an airy cabana made of hazelnut branches—the saltiness of roast suckling pig was complemented with tkemali, a sour plum sauce. Meanwhile, its offal was chopped and served on a hot plate akin to Filipino sisig. Traveling east in Kakheti—a place of rolling vineyards—my lips puckered up for Alazani catfish, pickled in cilantro and vinegar. And in the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains of the north, hearty tashmijabi fused together mashed potatoes and cheese, similar to aligot from the French Midi-Pyrénées.
I dined on the classics as well, like khinkali, the Georgian contribution to the global vocabulary of dumplings with the size and shape of droopy garlic bulbs. Khinkali fillings differ by region—one rendition from the area of Mtskheta-Mtianeti is soupy like Shanghainese xiaolongbao, with beef, mutton and caraway interiors. They're sprinkled with black pepper and eaten by hand, held with your fingers by the dumplings' tips—which are then left on the plate.
Though, I confess, I also ate my fair share of khachapuri. I never had the Black Sea-shore version shaped like a dinghy, but the renditions I did sample came in forms resembling New York slices, stuffed pizza and skewer-baked breadsticks. Because after all, there is always that primordial urge for bread with copious amounts of melted cheese.
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