Georgian food is like a great sitcom. A classic one. Sure, it's formulaic and mostly predictable, but there are enough little surprises, enough zest, a guest star now and then to keep you hooked. When it's "bad," it may feel uninspired and laid on too thick, but when it's good it's damn near brilliant. The cast of characters include: walnuts, garlic, cilantro, pepper, mushrooms, eggplant, pomegranate and beans. The lead, the cornerstone of all Georgian food, is khinkali.
In small eating joints, it may be the only thing on offer. At restaurants with a scroll of a menu, they are still often the only thing ordered. Khinkali are a lot like Chinese soup dumplings. You have to get the hang of eating them, as the doughy sacks are filled not only with a ball of spicy meat, but also some great liquid. You grab them by the nub (which remains uneaten) bite and slurp out the juices, then go about eating the rest of it with your hand or a fork. When they're stuffed with mushroom or potato, there's not quite the same half-filled water balloon experience, but they're still a treat. Some were satisfying, some were great, some were transcendent. All were ordered in bulk, as asking for less then five khinkali is basically impossible.
The thing is - Georgian food is just absolutely packed with flavor. Sometimes to a fault, but mostly to sheer pleasure. This was another ubiquitous menu item - badrijani nigvzit, eggplant with walnut paste, topped with pomegranate seeds. Here's where that hard-to-complain-about predictable formula comes in. Just about everything, especially every vegetable, is prepared with crushed walnuts and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. The walnut puree is so garlic enriched, so flavorful, that you'll swear it's some sort of cheese. But Georgians just know how to work wonders with the nut.
And they make them so hard to recognize! What are these, you ask? Candles? Sausages? (My guess and Merlin's, respectively). They're churchkhela, strings of walnuts dipped into a flour and grape juice paste. Think: nut-filled fruit roll up on a string. Mostly, they were brown or deep burgundy, but these festive ones ran the full gambit of grape varieties. On the side of almost every road were churchkhela stands. Many of them were covered with a plastic tarp or a piece of lace to shield the gummy creations from kicked up dust.
Probably my favorite walnutty dishes were pkhali, veggie pates most often made from spinach, beet or cabbage. Oh, the mounds of spinach walnut mash I consumed. Every now and then one would be just a little more garlicky or salty or... do I taste dill? Scallion? No two tasted exactly the same and they were always a pleasure. Merlin and I commented that the pkhali in Georgia were like the paprikas in Hungary, dishes that were introduced to us on this trip and will likely be incorporated into our lifelong cooking. Here, a veggie plate is rounded out by "peasants salad" (tomato, cilantro and cucumber), eggplant w/ walnut, kidney beans and mchadi, a dense cornflour cake.
Speaking of kidney beans, lobio was the chameleon of the menu's main players. Sometimes it was cold, but most often it was served "in a clay pot." This could mean anything from plump, crisp-skinned beans with or without liquid to a mash to a stew. This bowl of lobio was incredible with a heavy dose of cumin, a bay leaf at the bottom and a biting black pepper spice. Georgia's really only the second country on our trip so far (after Hungary) to kick things up with spice. Here, it wouldn't be surprising to find a dried chilli pepper somewhere in your dish or to discern that the heat culprit was just a heavy dose of raw garlic or one strong red onion.
With all these flavor explosions and the sad, but common, occurrence of over salting, dishes like shredded beets in mayo (with a dusting of crushed walnut, of course) and "fresh greens" came in handy. The latter was a plate full of cilantro, scallions, parsley and radish. People chewed on these herbs to help with digestion and drank neon green soda water infused with tarragon. The plate often signaled a respite for us, a break before the next round of dishes came. And they always came.
You see, it is just too easy to order way too much. Food is very inexpensive in Georgia, menus are big and servers just keep saying "and..." until you've exhausted the list of things you know how to say in Georgian or can successfully charade. I have to mention the one food I probably ate more of in Georgia than anything else, but isn't really all that photogenic. S'oko - mushrooms. Saying the word alone would bring a sizzling cast iron skillet of whole mushrooms in oil and spices. Another alternative was to get the same preparation but filled with sulguni, smoked cheese. The best, though, were "stewed mushrooms," which came in so many different variations of yumminess.
Meat can be ordered in any number of sauces, with common bases being tomato, yogurt, garlic or walnut. Sausages, like the one above which had pomegranate seeds mixed into the filling, are usually served in a sizzling pan with potato and onion. Stewed veal was almost always on hand, as was the delicious tabaka, a flattened (or spatchcocked, if you will) whole chicken, fried. The simplest of meats, the almighty kebab, which could be seen grilling on any and all fires, can be ordered with an array of sauces: chilli (ajika), plum (tqemali) and pomegranate (masharaphi) being the most popular.
Sure, we almost always left a Georgian dinner with a certain amount of stomach pain. Yes, the covert walnut infusions probably had a lot to do with it. And the irresistible bread. But it was all worth it. Most restaurants in Georgia are located in cellars, below a sidewalk with no windows. Walking downstairs and opening a door, you never know exactly what you'll find... except you always kind of do. It'll be Georgian food, served with Georgian hospitality and devoured with Georgian vigor by the Georgians seated all around you. If Georgian food is, indeed, a classic sitcom - your fellow diners are the laugh track.