Holy Khinkali!

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Khinkali served with barbecue and bread in Kutaisi

Okay, I’m not really into food photography and I haven’t been as adventurous when it came to exploring Georgian cuisine when I was in Tbilisi. The only restaurants I have explored alone (when I was not in the mood to ransack my hotel mini-bar or scrimp on whatever food the nearby grocery stores can offer) were those along Abashidze Street where most of the food offered were not traditionally Georgian.  I so lacked the enthusiasm to explore about food that the staff at a small place called coffee.ge, the closest to my hotel, have started to call me by my first name because it’s the only place I frequented.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Khinkali in 'watercolor'

The Supra

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Steaming Khinkali in 'watercolor'

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Adjarian kachapuri in 'watercolor'

I was obviously out of place when it came to food because Georgians love food — and wine (with emphasis) and this was best observed during a supra, an important part of Georgian culture. I have only heard of the supra, which is said to always feature a huge assortment of dishes accompanied by large amounts of wine.   It is said that “When God was distributing portions of the world to all the people of the Earth, the Georgians were having a party and doing some serious drinking. As a result, they arrived late and were told by God that all the land had been distributed. When they replied that they were late only because they had been lifting their glasses in praise of Him, God was pleased, and gave the Georgians that part of Earth He had been reserving for Himself.” (The Legend)

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Imeretian khachapuri, cheese and vegetable salad in 'watercolor'

But what I found most intriguing was the role of the tamada, a sort of a toastmaster nominated by the host to stage-manage the supra. The tamada must be a man of humour with ability for improvisation and a philosopher’s wisdom (tough job!). The tamada makes sure that toasts follow a strict never violated order so anybody who wants to say something must have the tamada’s consent otherwise the person who gave an unacknowledged comment will find himself in an awkward position.  The toasts include quotations and aphorisms from the works of poets and writers and as the party progresses, the supra gets accompanied by table songs and music and dance competitions.

And so I also missed the supra totally but my Georgian friends would not allow me to leave without at least having a good taste of traditional Georgian cuisine. I have had several opportunities to try them in my travels to Batumi and Kutaisi but, on my last day, my Georgian friend, Becka, who was to drive me to the airport, made sure that I have had a memorable experience on Georgian food.

My flight was scheduled for late in the afternoon and I managed to free myself in the morning so we first visited Georgia’s old capital, Mtskheta. Becka with his wife and two boys picked me up from my hotel at around 11:00 am. After visiting important places and taking photos mainly of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Jvari Monastery, the boys were obviously famished so we headed to a roadside restaurant just outside of Mtsketa.

A Cozy Place in Mtskheta

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Best in Town: Wooden stools and tables create a warm ambiance inside the Mtskheta khinkali restaurant

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Nameless: A place in Mtskheta where the best khinkali can be found

It was a neat and simple but cozy restaurant and it was apparently very popular. Most of the Georgians I talked to knew the place but, strangely, nobody was able to give me the exact name. I was told that this restaurant existed even before more popular restaurants in Tbilisi found their niche. People from Tbilisi used to drive out to this place especially on Sundays to enjoy the food with their family. It was almost 1:00 o’clock when we entered and only a few tables were occupied but, in a matter of minutes, the place was packed with diners. It was raining and the weather was quite cold but, according to Becka, in summer when the weather is warmer, even the tables and kiosks outside of the building get full. Becka did all the ordering of food while I and the boys patiently waited with excitement.

Starters

Lobiani: Seasoned kidney bean sauce and cottage cheese

First came the lobiani, circular bread served with seasoned kidney bean sauce and cottage cheese together with a vegetable salad. Becka showed me how to break the bread and dip it into the bean sauce but warned me not to eat too much because more food was coming.

Then came some sort of a spring roll (I didn’t catch the Georgian name) as a sort of appetizer. Both dishes were very tasty but I heeded Becka’s warning not to take too much.

The Kachapuri

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Adjarian Kachapuri in Batumi: Boat-shaped with crispy crust

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Most Popular: Imeretian khachapuri in Mtskheta

Then the khachapuri came. The khachapuri is a filled bread dish similar to the Turkish peynirli (pide). There are several varieties of kachapuri and we got the most popular variety, Imeruli khachapuri or Imeretian khachapuri, which is basically bread stuffed with cheese. When served whole, it is circular and looks like a pizza but only with cheese stuffed in it.

Other regions have their own versions of the kachapuri. The Mingrelian kachapuri has more cheese added on top. The Adjarian (Acharuli/Adjaruli) khachapuri, which I got to try in Batumi, has a unique shape and texture. The dough is formed into an open boat shape and the hot pie crust is topped with a raw egg and a pat of butter. Amiko, another Georgian friend, and I spent a good amount of time searching for the place in Batumi where they traditionally prepared the Adjarian kachapuri in a firewood oven.

I was quite surprised by the big difference between the common kachapuri which has soft, tender dough and the Adjarian kachapuri with its thin, crunchy crust but the common factor is the cheese, the quality of which almost defines the tastiness of the kachapuri.

The Khinkali

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A tray of steaming khinkali

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

My boy host patiently waiting for the khinkali

Becka’s boys were apparently as excited as I was and they almost clapped their hands when the khinkali finally came.

The khinkali is a sort of strongly peppered mutton dumplings, similar to the Mongolian budz. Pork, mutton or spits aubergines, depending on the season, is stuffed with fat of tail and tomatoes and steamed inside a thin dough wrapping. The “dumpling” is bag-shaped almost the size of a tennis ball and I was told that a medium-built Georgian can consume as many as 10 of these dumplings in one sitting. The technique in eating khinkali is by consuming it while it was hot and by making sure that the “juice” inside the dumpling, which carries its succulent taste, is not spilled. To the amusement of Becka’s boys, I tried hard not to look awkward biting small holes into one of the corners of the dumpling and trying to sip the contents while it was hot. By the time I finished my first khinkali, they have consumed three. But the khinkhali was really good and I congratulated myself after the meal for having consumed 4 of the dumplings for the first time.

Finishers

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Pork barbecue for the finale

When it came to food, Georgians like the dining table to be always excessively full and find it perfectly acceptable if a lot of food was still left on the table after the meal. So, to top it all, a final serving of pork barbecue was served. It was a tender and tasty meat cooked well-done and topped with onions. It was also very good and, being more familiar to my palate, I ate 3 more slices but I finally refused when Becka asked if I wanted some dessert.

My Supra

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Generous Hosts: Becka and his family enjoying the meal

Looking back, I would say that the meal was a huge feast and was as good as a supra to me. There was no wine involved but Becka deftly presided over the whole affair like a seasoned tamada with myself and his lovely family as his willing ward. And, in the end, they succeeded in giving me, an unadventurous tourist when it comes to food, an unforgettable  food adventure and a lasting appreciation of Georgian cuisine.

But it doesn’t mean I won’t go for a real supra next time. 🙂 🙂 🙂

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Khinkali and barbecue in 'watercolor'

‘Epilogue’: Can’t help but think of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” while processing the photos in this set, perhaps because many of them involved bread and the real last supper according to the Bible involved the breaking of bread. So I played with the photos and applied the watercolor effect in some of them and included those ones I liked in this post (those marked in ‘watercolor’). I must admit, I still love painting.