11 January 2012

Puri, Khachapuri, Lobiani and Kubdari

It was our first, jet-lagged morning in Georgia, at the table of a Tbilisi hostel. A man named Benji, who was about to make us pankcakes, put a few flat loaves on the table with jam. They were rounded and puffy, with two points sticking out at each end. I asked if they were the pancakes and he laughed. “No,” he said. “This is puri, Georgian bread.”
Thus began a small love affair. Puri (პური in Georgian), in all its myriad forms, is delicious and different, a fluffy, cheesy, buttery, salty welcome to the region.
(As you can see, I can be forgiven for thinking that it was some kind of pancake. One point got ripped off this example before we had a chance to take a picture.)
Puri is often confused with the Indian bread of the same name, but there are real differences in the way the two loaves are cooked. While Indian puri (also spelled "poori") is deep-fried in oil, Georgian puri is baked in a traditional, vertical oven called a tone (seen at right in the picture - they're squat, primitive looking things).
Though electric tones exist, the traditional oven is heated by wood. A fire is lit at the bottom of the well-like, clay oven in the evening and left to burn all night. In the morning, the walls of the tone have absorbed enough heat to bake bread until about noon. Loaves are stuck to the inside walls for a few minutes, then removed with a long, hook-and-pole thing. Some tones are as deep as six feet, while others are only a slight recess.
The version of puri that is most famous, and perhaps the least likely to be forgotten, is khachapuri or, ხაჭაპური. Qacha means cheese; this is simply stuffed bread. It’s often served in lieu of plain bread, and many regions have their own styles.
In the mountains of the Svaneti region, our host mother was especially proud of her kubdari, the national dish of the Svaneti people. Kubdari is similar to khachapuri, but also filled with ground beef and herbs. While delicious, it really should have been considered a meal in itself – but it was served alongside our plate, like an extravagant dinner roll.
Above, a more sedate, normal khachapuri, snipped into quarters with long shears.
Bakery-cafes are probably the most popular eating spots in Georgia, especially in Tbilisi. Alongside sweets and little cakes, one is likely to find a wide array of savory baked goods - from regular breads to khachapuri to the indulgent adjaruli khachapuri, a dish-shaped loaf, the hollow of which is filled with a raw egg and melted butter in addition to cheese.
One of our favorite Georgian breads is called lobiani, which derives its name from lobio, or "beans." It's a wafer-thin pastry with a dry, bean and garlic paste baked inside. Delicious, and way less guilt inducing than some of the other options.
Georgian script is very tough to read without practice, and it's difficult to find a shop that's selling what you're looking for. Luckily, a lot of businesses will hang examples of their wares outside their door. We laughed the first time we saw a loaf on a string, but then found that it's common.
On feast days, like New Year's, bread plays an important role in the festivities, especially the traditional, cheese-less loaves. We actually had difficulty buying bread on New Years Eve - all the bakeries were packed, with lines out the door. This little girl had just secured her families supply, and was literally running home with it.
For some reason, most Georgian bakeries tend to be below street level. We were able to find this semi-subterranean (though the light from the window might suggest otherwise) place in Signaghi using our noses.
It seemed to be some kind of secret bread club - plenty of old women were buying bread at the counter, but we were initially turned away. It wasn't until one of the other customers admonished the baker that she went into the back room and emerged with a loaf for us. The cost, for a large, frying-pan-sized puri: .50 Lari, or about 30¢. We ate it with a can of sardines, standing up in a park - maybe the best lunch of the country.

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