Menu for a Georgian Feast, with Three Cookbook Reviews

My trip to Georgia was a culinary epiphany.  This small country in the Caucasus has one of the world’s most interesting cuisines, full of vibrant combinations of herbs, nuts, pomegranate and spices. It’s also one of the healthiest, offering a wide repertoire of vegetable dishes and herb rich stews (such as chakhokhbili, the chicken tomato stew I shared recently). Among my other favorites are pkhali, vegetable salads in walnut sauce, khachapuri, flatbreads stuffed with cheese, lobio, beans cooked with coriander leaves and walnuts, mtsvadi, grilled meat, and khinkali, juicy, peppery meat dumplings. It is a kaleidoscope of flavors. And just like the Georgian language is related to no other tongue, Georgia’s cuisine is uniquely distinctive.

Three Cookbooks

This fall gives me and other Georgian food lovers a reason to be happy, because there are three new Georgian cookbooks on the market, and all three are excellent. The first one I bought was Supra: A Feast of Georgian Cooking by Tiko Tuskadze. As an introduction to Georgian cuisine, it’s the ideal book. It contains recipes for most of the classics, including five types of khachapuri, the cheese stuffed flatbread, six types of pkhali, a vegetable dish that’s between a salad and a paté, and a wide array of meat, fish and poultry dishes.  I also liked discovering several recipes for adjika (also spelled as ajika), herb and chili pastes that function both as condiments and seasoning sauces. Tuskadze’s red adjika (p.30) is a symphony of chili, parsley, basil, coriander and celery leaves, with a basso profondo note of fenugreek.

When I plan my next trip to Georgia, I would be turning to Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus. It includes a detailed look into all regions, which despite Georgia’s size are quite diverse in their food and wine traditions. Wine, by the way, is another reason to make a trip to a region like Kakheti, because Georgia’s wine culture is among the oldest in the world (circa 6000 BC) and  wine continues to be produced in the ancient kveri (clay pot fermentation) method.

Capalbo includes routes and suggestions, in addition to history and stories of food producers she met on her journeys, but she also features traditional and modern recipes for Georgian favorites. I liked her recipes for a mushroom and red pepper side dish (p. 376), a walnut paste (p. 101) that I used as a condiment for grilled fish, and a novel twist on a herb stew, chakapuli, that substitutes mussels for the more traditional veal or lamb (p. 87).

What I especially enjoyed about Capalbo’s book is that it explains how each dish is eaten, what accompanies it and how one might plan a menu.  I wish more cookbooks explained food in context this well, rather than just present lists of recipes with no onbvious connection among them.

The third book that I wanted to highlight is Kaukasis: A culinary Journey Through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Beyond by Olia Hercules. Hercules is originally from Ukraine, and this is the most personal book of the three.  Like Ukraine, Georgia and other countries on Hercules’s itinerary were part of the Soviet Union. Although the experience left many scars in each country, it also left many ties. Hercules’s family has roots in Nagorno-Karabakh, an area over which a bitter war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the late 1980s, forcing them to move to Ukraine. In her journey Hercules retraces some of the old routes, but the result is neither nostalgic nor melancholic; it’s hopeful. By focusing on food and shared traditions, Hercules also creates new memories and tastes.

My favorite chapters in the book are the vegetable and flour-based dishes. Ukrainians share a love for dumplings and filled pastries with Georgians, and Hercules’s renditions of the classics shine. It’s worth buying the book for the recipe for Aniko’s tarragon pie (p. 94) alone! I also enjoyed Armenian lavash, barberry and chicken pie (p. 96), and Ossetian beet leaf and cheese pies (p. 80). The vegetable chapter has also several stars, such as serdakh, eggplant and tomato stew Azeri-style (p. 50), Azeri chestnut rice pilaf with a delectable walnut and pumpkin crust (p. 32), and numerous salad recipes combining fruit and vegetables.

The dessert chapters in all three books are the thinnest portions, reflecting the fact that Georgians typically finish their meals with fruit and nuts. I don’t miss sugary desserts when eating a Georgian meal because there are so many other exciting flavors to keep one’s interest.

Georgian food also doesn’t use hard to find or expensive ingredients. To cook it, you need to have access to fresh herbs, soft cheeses like mozzarella, spices like coriander, black pepper, caraway, barberries, sumac, marigold petals and blue fenugreek (utskho suneli). The last two might be harder but not impossible to find. (If you’re stuck, marigold petals might be omitted, and blue fenugreek substituted with a small amount of regular fenugreek. But I do recommend finding an online store that carries them, because they have such unique flavors.)

Creating a Georgian Meal

So, what would a Georgian menu look like? Georgian food is served on the table all at once on communal plates, apart from soups which are served as a first course in individual bowls. One of my favorite menus includes a big plate of cucumbers and tomatoes cut into chunks and piled high with chopped herbs and onions. The dressing is salt, pepper, wine vinegar and sunflower seed oil. Olives are not native to Georgia, but you can use any other light-tasting oil in place of sunflower.

Sometimes I don’t season the vegetables and leave the herbs whole, as in my photos above. There would also be a plate of pickles (cucumbers, cabbage, cauliflower, grapes) somewhere on the table, and here is where the whole herbs come in handy. You pick up a slice of pickle with a herb of your choice, wrap it in flatbread–and voilà, a delicious tidbit. For a Georgian meal, I prefer flatbread like lavash or even pita, although Indian naan and Iranian barbari and sangak breads are perfect too. And don’t forget a good baguette–like champagne, it goes with everything.

Georgians also keep a selection of sauces on their table (the ajika I mentioned above, tkemali made with plums or walnut sauces) to customize their food. The simplest is made from crushed raw blackberries with salt and garlic. It adds a bright top note to any meat dish.

I would then include a couple of cooked vegetable dishes, like lobio (my recipe is here), a spicy bean salad/stew, spinach pkhali (like the one on p. 14 of the Supra book), eggplant with walnuts (p. 291 of Tasting Georgia) or beets with plum sauce (p. 13 of Kaukasis). All of these recipes can be made in advance and they even improve as their flavors meld.

In the summer, I would fire up the grill for Georgian-style kebabs or trout with tarragon, but at this time of autumn, I turn to stews, and there are many to choose from. Should it be a lamb and plums, pork and red ajika or chicken with spices? Since the tomato season is not yet over, I take advantage of it and make chakhokhbili, the stew that calls for as much vegetables and herbs as chicken.

This kind of meal goes well with full-bodied wines, and in my experience, Italian wines, especially from Sicily, match it well. Of course, if you can find Georgian wines in your stores, you’re in luck.

The meal is best finished with a plate of fresh fruit. In the fall and winter, you can serve fresh walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds, which not only give a taste of the season but marry well to the last drops of wine.

Your Own Supra

The Georgian word “supra” means feast not only in the sense of a food-laden table, but also wine and music. It’s about generosity and hospitality, and as you create your own supra, focus on those elements, rather than specific dishes. Make what you feel comfortable to cook, depending on your time and inclinations. Raise your glass and drink to those present, those departed and to all of the things that matter–love, art, beauty, music. This, more than any other dish, captures the spirit of a Georgian feast.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin. The last image, also taken by me, is a painting by the renowned Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918), Family Picnicking.

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50 Comments

  • sandra: Are some of these cookbooks vegetarian friendly?

    I am going to say I have a “Victoria Bois de Jasmine Weekend”

    I made the Georgian Chakohbili soup, vegetarian style with the fried eggplant. I had to add come vegetable broth in the beginning, since there was no chicken juice. I recommend setting a few hours to make this, I had to do it while the kids napped, wearing Songes, and listening to Fields of Gold by Sting, a perfect fall song!
    Then I made your Persian cookies for a gluten free friend.
    Then I finished Border, the book you recommended.

    Now I have all these left over herbs! Anything anyone recommend I do with them for cooking this week? October 2, 2017 at 8:51am Reply

    • Victoria: All three have lots of vegetarian recipes, especially Kaukasis. Although Georgians love their meat dishes, it’s a great cuisine for the vegetarians, because there are lots of cheese, bean and vegetable dishes that require no adaptations. Georgians are Eastern Orthodox, and the Eastern church has long periods of fasts when all animal products are forbidden. Even if not everyone follows the fasting, the traditional cuisine with its numerous vegan and vegetarian dishes reflects it.

      Sounds like a nice weekend. 🙂 Now, the rest of the herbs you can turn into a chutney. Do you ever make green chutney? You can even freeze it whatever you can’t eat right away. Green chutney is great in sandwiches, on grilled vegetables and even on pasta with olive oil and pecorino cheese. October 2, 2017 at 9:12am Reply

      • sandra: I have never made any chutney, but willing to try. I can google a recipe unless you have one you recommend? October 2, 2017 at 11:07am Reply

        • Victoria: I put 2 cup of chopped cilantro in a blender, add 1/2 c chopped mint, 1 green chilli pepper, 1 clove of garlic or 1 shallot or 1-2 green onions, salt, toasted cumin seeds, lemon juice, a pinch of sugar. Blend into purée and taste to correct seasonings. You can change herbs, of course. October 2, 2017 at 11:23am Reply

  • Lynn LaMar: Wow, Victoria, once again, thank you for sharing!! Right now, I am in NYC until June 2019, helping out with the grandkids. Brighton Beach, little Odessa, to be exact. There are TONS of restaurants, street kiosks, and traditional Georgian bakeries and markets everywhere!! One prized store has every spice known to Georgian/Azerbaijani cooking available in individual bins so you can buy a half ounce or a pound!!! I am in LOVE with the food here and feel privileged to get to experience it right in my current neighborhood! We also have the best of Halah and a lot of other remarkable exotics…Right here in the US of A!!! October 2, 2017 at 10:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, Brighton Beach is a fascinating place, a good illustration how refugees and immigrants built such a vibrant community and brought their foods and more. I also love the Uzbek and Bukharian restaurants in Rego Park. October 2, 2017 at 11:26am Reply

  • KatieAnn: Wow! This is so fantastic! The fresh ingredients and especially the use of vegetables and fresh herbs is so appealing. I would love to take a look at these cookbooks and try some of the recipes. I love anything with lots of herbs and bright flavor. It sounds like you had a wonderful trip. I have heard the Georgian language is also very interesting. I bet it was a joy to listen to the conversations, even if you couldn’t understand what they were saying. I can get caught up listening to another language being spoken, as if I were listening to music. I need to put Georgia on my list of places that I must visit someday. Thank you for sharing this. The photos are gorgeous too. October 2, 2017 at 11:03am Reply

    • Victoria: If you ever go to Georgia, I recommend learning at least a couple of phrases. I learned enough to have simple conversations with people, and I’m telling you, in my lifelong learning of languages I have never had a more enthusiastic response to my halting attempts at Georgian. One lady was so touched she started crying. And of course, I couldn’t keep a stiff upper lip either, so here I’m hugging a stranger and crying in the streets of Kutaisi. Georgia was a totally amazing experience. October 2, 2017 at 11:30am Reply

      • KatieAnn: I love this story! It really made me smile. It’s so wonderful that you made a real effort to learn some of the language before going. I think such efforts are always genuinely appreciated, but it must have been so heart-warming to get a hug from a stranger. And you both cried! What a lovely, sweet experience!
        I will have to check out the links listed below too. Thank you! October 3, 2017 at 10:24am Reply

        • Victoria: It was definitely among the most touching experiences. In general, everything felt more intense and vivid in Georgia. October 4, 2017 at 4:14am Reply

    • Victoria: And speaking of Georgian language and music, the polyphonic singing is quite incredible.
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rg8xrdbnH8E

      And this one too:
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FLrrSHZVH8s
      It’s an Orthodox chant. October 2, 2017 at 11:39am Reply

      • AndreaR: And their folk dancing is intriguing with the men dancing on curled toes. October 2, 2017 at 11:56am Reply

        • Victoria: This clip of the Georgia National Ballet in performance is quite something:
          https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=j6q08fKUQBE October 2, 2017 at 12:11pm Reply

        • Victoria: And here is another clip to see and marvel. Notice the turns at 1:22!
          https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=apnNtpo81_g October 2, 2017 at 12:20pm Reply

          • AndreaR: Thank you so much for sharing both clips. They made my spirit dance and soul sing. The turns, oh my!!! October 2, 2017 at 2:10pm Reply

            • Victoria: And here is another one that left me speechless.
              https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dyDqDPu7Vko&utm_source=Viber&utm_medium=Chat&utm_campaign=Private October 2, 2017 at 5:06pm Reply

              • AndreaR: Speechless is right!! I saw a troupe of Georgian dancers from the(former) Soviet Union in Los Angeles in the 60’s or 70’s. The men did more toe dancing. I’m thinking that must be regional and the women did the gliding. The dancing was amazing then and amazing now. How i would love to attend one of their performances. You’d probably have to tie me to me seat:-)

                Any recommendations on a book of Georgian history? October 2, 2017 at 6:49pm Reply

                • Victoria: Charles King has a good book on the history of the Caucasus, which gives a good overview of the whole region, including Georgia. Thomas de Waal also has a book on a similar topic, which I liked (balanced, well-researched, engaging). October 3, 2017 at 5:09am Reply

                  • AndreaR: Thank you. I noticed that Thomas de Waal also writes about the Armenians, another culture that fascinates me. October 4, 2017 at 10:55am Reply

                    • Victoria: A couple of years ago I read a book by Meline Toumani called “There was, There was Not,” about an Armenian woman exploring her roots and trying to answer difficult questions about the past. Definitely recommended if you would like to read something about history from a personal perspective. Waal’s book on Armenia is also pretty good. October 4, 2017 at 11:32am

                    • AndreaR: I need to get busy with my reading:-) A book you might enjoy is the novel, Rise the Euphrates by Carol Edgarian, a contemporary story that connects the Armenian Genocide and a young woman’s coming of age. October 4, 2017 at 11:51am

  • AndreaR: The chakhokhbili was delicious. Loved all the layers of flavor. Definitely on board for more Georgian recipes, so thanks for sharing the cookbooks and the feast. October 2, 2017 at 11:07am Reply

    • Victoria: By the way, Georgian dishes fit well into a Ukrainian meal, and Georgian wines suit Ukrainian food perfectly. October 2, 2017 at 11:40am Reply

      • AndreaR: Off to find some Georgian wine:-) October 2, 2017 at 11:57am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Gosh, it all sounds quize amazing. I haven’t ever tasted Georgian cuisine yet, but the ingredients and dishes, as well as the combinations, remind me remotely of Iranian food. October 2, 2017 at 11:11am Reply

    • Victoria: The ingredients are similar and there are some dishes in common (after all, until the Russian empire annexed Georgia, the other contender to its territory was the Persian empire). Yet, the flavors and the dishes themselves are distinctive. Food, language, arts, culture was how Georgia tried to maintain its identity despite its location at the cross-roads, and it succeeded. October 2, 2017 at 11:43am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Which of the three books would you say is the most comprehensive, or complete? Good photos are nice but not my first choice. October 2, 2017 at 11:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Not that important to me either, but we are clearly in the minority on this. Anyway, Supra would be my pick. It has all of the traditional dishes and the recipes are good. Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean also has a number of Georgian recipes and spice mixtures (nevermind the geography). Another classical book is Goldstein’s. No pictures, just recipes. October 2, 2017 at 11:51am Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: Dear Victoria, thank you so much. Your recommendations are most helpful — as usual, I may add!!
        I never came around to thanking you on all those first class tips for Iran. Needless to say, I came back with cumin from Kerman; pomegranate molasses from Saveh; golpan from Shiraz; that strange body rub of which the name I forget. The only thing I unfortunately never really found was top grade rose water or rose oil from Kashan. I was offered very dubious liquids which barely smelled of rose. As my stay in Kashan was too short, I let go of the idea. The silk and wool weaves from Yazd more than made up for that loss!
        And yes: faloodeh ice cream with rose water and lime juice was just superb 🙂
        I can only October 2, 2017 at 3:02pm Reply

        • OnWingsofSaffron: sorry!
          … I can only recommend visiting Iran. Every now and then one encounters strange situations (i.e. the so called martyr cult of fallen war victims, mostly children, the obligation for women to wear a hijab) but on the whole it is magnificent country. October 2, 2017 at 3:05pm Reply

          • Victoria: Maybe because I was born in the USSR where WWII had a similar politicized martyr cult, it didn’t strike me as that strange. Then again, just like WWII in Eastern Europe, the Iran-Iraq war left many deep scars.

            I’ll tell you what drove me nuts–men cutting in line. There would always some guy with pomaded hair and tight jeans trying to jump the queue.

            On the whole, I also found Iran a fascinating place, and I would gladly return. October 3, 2017 at 5:06am Reply

        • Victoria: Ah, yes, sefidab! That’s the scrub. Have you tried using it? I only use it on my legs, and it does leave skin very soft, although it’s a pain to remove from the bathtub.

          Have you tried anything else particularly delicious? October 3, 2017 at 4:59am Reply

          • OnWingsofSaffron: I rather enjoyed an excellent “dizzy” in Shiraz. The whole drama of the dish was rather novel: an piping hot iron pot with the rather soupy stew; preparing the soup with chunks of bread immersed in the broth; then the waiter mashing the meat to pulp: smearing it onto lavash with a mis of fresh herbs; and a medley of mixed pickles! Quite a spectacle!
            However, just as satisfying: a short stop in Natanz at a roadside bakery. A flatbed baked on a bed of fire hot pebbles. The bread smells nd tastes so overwhelmingly delicious. And you can pick out left over pebbles, which weren’t brushed away before. Sheer and utter bliss! October 3, 2017 at 2:17pm Reply

            • OnWingsofSaffron: The bane of autocorrect: “dizi” not dizzy … October 3, 2017 at 2:18pm Reply

            • Victoria: I love sangak bread, especially the freshly made kind. In Shiraz would go to a bakery to get fresh bread (which came sold by meter and not by a piece) and then a bowl of hot soup. Such a good breakfast.

              My Azeri family makes a version of dizi, minus the theater and hot coal. In the Azeri version, fresh chestnuts are used instead of potatoes, and you can add sour plums too. I think that as the weather grows colder here, I need to make it. October 4, 2017 at 4:17am Reply

  • Maria: I’m happily surprised to see how georgian food uses coriander. In colombian food, coriander is always added to soups and stews, as a final touch, but I have to try it the georgian way, mixed with sumac, marigold and blue fenugreek. Thanks a lot Victoria! October 2, 2017 at 10:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: They definitely use copious amounts of it. When I cook Georgian food, we can go through several bunches of coriander in a single week! October 3, 2017 at 5:10am Reply

  • Jillie: Absolutely fantastic – I never realised how tasty Georgian cooking is and it is practically my ideal cuisine with all its herbs, nuts, dumplings and veggies.

    I’m really into walnuts at the moment and serving them in many ways (on top of salads with orange, watercress and pomegranate molasses is a favourite dish at the moment), and I have a lovely recipe for a sweet pie of pears in walnut pastry. Walnut marzipan is a brilliant change from traditional almond. And the bonus is they are so healthy! It seems that the Georgian people have a great appreciation of good, healthy, tasty produce.

    You’ve made me very hungry now and I am going to relish cooking the Georgian way. Yum! October 3, 2017 at 2:20am Reply

    • Victoria: They use walnuts in so many ways that it beggars belief. One of my favorite sauces is called bazha, and it can be used on fresh and cooked vegetables as well as to dressed lightly pickled vegetables. Fried eggplant slices stuffed with a paste of walnuts and garlic and rolled is another famous and very delicious dish. The fall is a good season to cook Georgian food, since it has a nice balance between freshness and richness. Plus, fresh of the season walnuts are available now.

      Walnut marzipan sounds so good! October 3, 2017 at 5:14am Reply

      • Jillie: Eggplant is another favourite of mine – I am definitely going to try that dish!

        I remember having a Lebanese sauce made with walnuts that was very versatile and served over vegetables and chicken – I wonder it it’s similar to the Georgian sauce?

        You’ve put me in the mood for cooking, and luckily I have two packets of walnuts in the cupboard! October 3, 2017 at 5:26am Reply

        • Victoria: The only Lebanese dish with walnuts I tried was muhammara, red peppers and walnuts spread. Usually, the sauces Lebanese use to dress vegetables are made with tahini.

          But either way, I doubt that it would be similar, because Georgian cuisine uses completely different spices and techniques. October 3, 2017 at 5:32am Reply

  • Danaki: Curious, the Levantine word for ‘supra’ is ‘sufra’!! And it means exactly the same thing. October 4, 2017 at 11:20am Reply

    • Victoria: In Persian a similar word is sofreh (سفره)، which means a tablecloth as well as a feast. October 4, 2017 at 11:29am Reply

  • SFSteve: This is an eye-opening post. Believe it or not, Georgian wine is a “thing,” even if it’s on the fringe. Pheasant’s Tears has made inroads among natural wine fans. As for the dance, I’m a regular spectator and never have I seen anything with such emphasis on the knees. Fascinating. Would love to see that live. Finally, Georgian musicians gain more recognition with every recording they make: violinist Lisa Batiashvili and pianist Khatia Bunistishvili are strikingly accomplished performers. October 6, 2017 at 10:30pm Reply

    • Annie: Count me among Lisa Batiashvili’s fans. I heard her live once and it was an unforgettable experience. October 7, 2017 at 4:23am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, this kind of dance is quite old and traditional. Professional dance like the kind I shared in another post is one thing, but going to a Georgian wedding and seeing regular men take the dance floor and start doing these complicated turns is an experience in its own league!

      In the US you have more chances to try Georgian wines than here in the EU, where the lobbying of the wine-producing member countries keeps the market effectively closed to many others. Visiting Georgia and doing wine tasting locally is the best thing, though. October 7, 2017 at 10:28am Reply

  • Natalja: We just come back from Georgia a week ago.What an anazing experience that was!I hope that one day we’ll be back to continue exploring this beautifull,ragged country. October 8, 2017 at 4:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: Ah, so envious of your recent trip. I can’t wait to return myself. October 10, 2017 at 11:31am Reply

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