Red Kidney Bean Salad Georgian Style (Lobio) : Flavor Recipe

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” said the great French epicure and gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. If I were to divine this via my great grandmother’s recipe books, the answer would not be simple. Contrary to the popular stereotypes of Eastern European food as dense and heavy fare of cabbage and potatoes, generalization are impossible to make. Certainly, 70 years of Soviet rule have made an impact upon the cuisine in all of the former Soviet republics, but even before the revolution of 1917, the regional differences were quite pronounced and the cross-influences distinctly felt. The picture is even more complex if one considers the class differences in terms of food preferences. The yellowed pages of the notebooks which my great grandmother kept ever since she got married in the 1930s contain a fascinating array: poppy seed rolls, plum stewed meats and sour cherry vareniki (boiled stuffed dumplings) reflecting classical Ukrainian fare; walnut cream tortes alluding to influences from the former Austro-Hungarian provinces of Ukraine; and spicy meat and eggplant dishes betraying the love affair with the vibrant cuisine of Georgia, an affair that started since Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century. What better way to understand the culture than to eat through it!

Although I never met my great grandmother, who passed away when I was still a baby, babushka Lena as she was called by my mother (babushka meaning grandmother in Russian) was always a strong presence in my life due to the stories of her and especially of her amazing cooking. Whenever my mother described the honey soaked pastries, weightless cheesecakes and tart soups made by babushka Lena, I felt as if it were really me who had eaten all of these delicacies, rather than my mother. Babushka Lena was ready to spoil her grandchildren, and my mother loves recalling how she and her sister, Yelena, would write individual menus for their dinners. Surely, if one wanted red borscht (made with beets), another would request green borscht (with sorrel and spinach). If one sister craved vareniki with red currants, another would demand vareniki with potatoes. Babushka Lena would be happy to treat them. After my great grandmother passed away, the deep nostalgia my mother and Yelena felt over their vanished childhood translated into cooking from babushka Lena’s notebooks.

“Every Georgian dish is a poem,” said Alexander Pushkin, the renowned Russian poet. The careful balance of spices and herbs in every dish is similar to that of a beautiful verse or a fine perfume. Red kidney bean salad called lobio (lobio means bean in Georgian) is one of the recipes that my great grandmother recorded in her notebooks, right next to the recipe for crumbly lemon biscuits and a tip for radiant complexion (mash a few ripe strawberries, thicken with sour milk and apply for 20 minutes to the face before rinsing). The earthy sweetness of beans is foiled in the tartness of pomegranate and the vivid green sharpness of herbs. The velvety walnut sauce grounds the combination lending it a deep and complex flavor. Lobio makes for a great main dish served warm with some flatbread and salty feta cheese, or as a salad alongside grilled salmon or meat. The preparation is rather straightforward, with the only time consuming thing being the cooking of the beans. The purist in me is deeply opposed to using canned beans, but if you do, just be sure to compensate for the flat taste of canned produce with extra spices.

Red Lobio (Kidney Bean Salad Georgian Style)

Ingredients
Serves 4 as a main course, 5-6 as a side dish or part of an appetizer spread

1 ½ cup of dried red kidney beans soaked overnight in 5-6 cups of water
1 ½ cup of shelled raw walnuts
2 medium onions, diced
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
2 cloves of garlic, pound into the paste with a bit of salt
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of dried summer savory
1 teaspoon of dried fenugreek leaves*
1/3 cup of minced herbs (such as basil, parsley, dill, cilantro or all of the above)
cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper to taste

Garnish (optional, but recommended)
1 cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons of minced herbs (see above)
¼ cup slivered sweet onions marinated in red wine vinegar to cover, a pinch of salt and sugar, then drained

Simmer beans for about 2 hours until they begin to fall apart. This step is important, because the finished consistency should be soft and velvety. If they absorb water before being finished, add extra hot water and continue to simmer the beans.

While the beans are simmering, sauté the onions in oil until they soften and turn transparent. Grind walnuts finely, add salt, pepper, garlic and the dried herbs.

Once the beans are ready, add onions and simmer for about 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to blend. Then add the walnut sauce and correct the seasonings. You can make lobio as hot or as mild as you like.

Remove from the heat and let the beans cool down slightly before adding pomegranate juice (or red wine vinegar), minced herbs. The tartness of vinegar depends on the brand, therefore start by adding 2 tablespoons, taste and only then add more if needed. Just be sure that the flavors are balanced—first the sweetness of the beans and the tartness, then the brightness of herbs, and finally the warm heat of spices. My family would usually serves lobio sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and onions marinated in red wine vinegar, salt and a pinch of sugar. The thickness of lobio depends on your personal preference. I like mine to have a little bit of sauce. Just keep in mind that lobio will thicken as it cools.

*An authentic addition would be a spice called utskho suneli in Georgian, which consists of dried tops of blue fenugreek (Trigonella Caerulea). It has a delicate aroma – green, resinous with a milky maple syrup note. However, unless you live near a Russian store, it might be difficult to locate. The best bet is to substitute dried fenugreek leaves available freely at Indian grocery stores and Kalustyan’s (also called kasoori methi). If all else fails, add a pinch of ground fenugreek seeds or just omit.

Photography © Bois de Jasmin. First photo: great grandmother’s recipe notes (click to read the recipes; in Russian.) Second: red lobio.

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21 Comments

  • Madelyn E: Dear Victoria,
    What a family heritage you have ! The photo of your great-grandmother’s cookbook is so poignant.. it makes her seem as if she is alive and cooking with you !
    I forward this article to 2 of my Russian friends .. one from Moscow .the other from Siberia. Both are excellent cooks.I feel like running out and buying th ingredients to prepare this mouthwatering salad. But, please forgive me. would canned (Shhh) red beans do ?
    As always Friday – flavors, food etc. is a special treat ! February 16, 2007 at 7:49am Reply

  • Marina: What a pleasure it was to read this post. I cried a little into my cup of coffee. Such beautiful pictures too.
    The ingredients don’t seem particularly hard to find to me, although I am ashamed to say that I don’t know what summer savory is.:-) February 16, 2007 at 8:11am Reply

  • newproducts: What a beautiful post. I wish I had a book of my grandmother’s recipes, let alone my great-grandmother’s. What a treasure that would be! February 16, 2007 at 8:43am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Madelyn, thank you! I have always loved this dish, and I could it eat it by itself. Warmed up slightly the next day, it is still great. Canned beans should work, but they tend to be a bit slimy, which might prevent you from getting the velvety sauce. However, please do try it anyway! February 16, 2007 at 11:13am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Marina, I often imagined the house that babushka Lena owned and the cherry trees surrounding it. My grandfather sold the house after babushka Lena passed away. She was such a presence in our family nevertheless. When it came time to choose which of the sisters will have her coffee cup and knitted throw, it was quite a drama, very uncharacteristically given the tender sisterly relations between my mom and Yelena! Nevermind that the cup was cracked and the throw was half eaten by moths. 🙂 Each wanted to have a piece that reminded her of childhood and could not decide which to pick.

    Here is the info about summer savory:
    http://www.culinarycafe.com/Spices_Herbs/Summer_Savory.html
    It is a herb, usually used in dry form. My great grandmother referred to it by a Georgian name, kondari. I see bottles of it on the spice shelves of my local supermarket. It should not be too difficult to find. February 16, 2007 at 11:30am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: N, thank you! I agree that it is a treasure. My other great grandmother passed away about 4 years ago. My great grandfather passed away 10 years ago. February 16, 2007 at 11:34am Reply

  • amandampc: This is great, Victoria! Thank you for such enchanting stories of your family and memories; these are really very truly special to read. I have to make this dish – what I particularly love about it is the walnut sauce. Is that a characteristically Georgian aspect? I once had a Lebanese (well, made by a person from Lebabon – don’t know if his food was representative of Lebanese cuisine as whole, but he was an outstanding cook in any case!) dish, very similar to this, in which the sauce was composed not of walnuts but tahini paste thinned with a bit of lemon juice. I was a kid when I first had it but its memory has never left me and I whip it up on a fairly regular basis, though my version never quite matches “Mr. Tamer’s” original. Have a fantastic weekend! February 16, 2007 at 11:55am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Amanda, thank you very much! I am so glad that they are interesting. Walnuts are a distinctive feature of Georgian cooking as well as herbs. It is a robust and vibrant cuisine. We visited Georgia often, and I still remember eating lobio at a small family-owned restaurant in Sukhumi. It was served with some warm flatbread and goat cheese, with full-bodied red wine (I took surreptitious sips from my mother’s glass), shashlyk (roasted lamb and beef cubes) and various pickled and raw vegetables. You could even smell the sea from the terrace. No wonder, my great grandmother loved this cuisine very much. February 16, 2007 at 12:14pm Reply

  • Cait: Truly delightful article and recipe. I’ve been investigating some recipes with this flavor palette from Paula Wolfert’s book on the Eastern Mediterranean, to which she adds some Georgian recipes. The cuisines of the world often send me into what seems a neverending string of associations when you consider the relationships. A few years ago, I interviewed a woman for a newspaper article who was writing a cookbook for her Eastern Orthodox Church. Her surmise was that many of the congregation’s members were descendants of subjects from the former Ottoman empire and that the conscripted labor had helped spread culture and cuisine. Who knows. It’s a tasty exploration, though, as your article proves! February 16, 2007 at 2:41pm Reply

  • violetnoir: V, this is absolutely darling. Your great grandmother was a treasure, wasn’t she?

    Thank you for posting your mom’s touching memories of this very special woman.

    Hugs! February 16, 2007 at 2:41pm Reply

  • Elle: What a beautiful piece! Your great grandmother sounds like the most wonderful woman and what a real blessing to have her notebooks. I’ve never added pomegranates to lobio before – sounds like a wonderful addition. February 16, 2007 at 3:26pm Reply

  • patchamour: Thank you for the wonderful recipe and for the memories of your family. This is one of my favorite parts of your site. February 16, 2007 at 6:26pm Reply

  • Fleur.de.Lys: How wonderful that you have Babushka Lena’s recipes. We are what we eat, but we are also in communion with those who created the dishes that get passed down from generation to generation, as you have illustrated in your editorial. The antidote to all foolishness in this life is great food; we all must eat and when we eat well, we nuture who we are and who we are meant to be. I raise my glass to you and Lena! February 17, 2007 at 12:13pm Reply

  • Madelyn E: Dear Victoria,
    Well, I just made this salad (with some minor variations ) ! It is delicious and refreshing. I used alot of chopped fresh cilantro , red onion, I added black olives .I did not have walnuts. I will be in Manhattan later for a french lessoon- will buy some fenugreek and summer savory . Thank you Victoria . My family will love this for a weekend treat ! February 17, 2007 at 2:41pm Reply

  • Katie: V, how lucky you are to have her cookbook. And thank you for sharing. (I haven’t my great-grandmother’s recipes, unfortunately, and have to go on memory alone. We’re an “add a handful of this and a pinch of that” type of people when it comes to cooking, and consequently we’re not much for transcribing, heh. I am lucky enough to have known her, and for that I do count my lucky stars.) Simply to have a hand-written document of her self like that is alone a priceless memento. Wonderful that you can recreate her memory from her own notations. That is truly a form of immortality you’ve given her by sharing her recipe with us… and that’s as nice a tribute as any monument. Cheers! February 18, 2007 at 8:40pm Reply

  • Ivoire: The hyperlink to Brillat-Savarin isn’t working, but it doesn’t really matter – here’s an URL leading directly to an English translation of his major work, the “Physiology of Taste”:

    http://tinyurl.com/2gasfy

    And here is the French original:
    http://tinyurl.com/2ex8tj

    Enjoy. 😉 February 21, 2007 at 5:46pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Ivoire, I fixed it! Thanks for the heads up. Sorry, I do not have active URL in the comments, but the article to which I linked has more information. February 21, 2007 at 5:54pm Reply

  • Lesia: Would you be willing to share your baba’s walnut cream torte recipes please. September 13, 2007 at 2:33pm Reply

  • Gulnara: SPASIBO !!! I’ve been looking for the recioe of red lobio pate ( that’s how we call it in Baku ) for years ! I will make it this weekend for my family and friends . Will be perfect addition to lamb kabob. Thank You ! June 28, 2012 at 1:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure, Gulnara! I hope that your family will enjoy it. It’s rare to find a bean preparation that can feel summery and refreshing, but lobio is definitely one of those dishes.
      Some of my family is also from Baku, by the way! June 28, 2012 at 3:14pm Reply

  • Mike Benayoun: Lovely recipe. I just made lobio for the first time a couple weeks ago as we were featuring Georgia for Independence Day (National Day of Unity). Everyone at home just loved it! I even found blue fenugreek (utskho suneli) at a local online store, which made this lobio really authentic. Made my own mchadi (Georgian bread) too. Easy and the real deal. I will definitely make lobio again! April 19, 2015 at 8:13pm Reply

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