Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life ∼ Omar Khayyam
Note: Article mentions pork and alcohol
When we stopped for lunch by the roadside family style restaurant Kavtaradzes’ Khinkali in Pasanauri, we were half way through our family vacation in Georgia. I hadn’t planned this particular day to kickstart our Georgian sojourn in my blog. But there wasn’t any other way – as this lunch was the most memorable and inspiring meal amongst all our meals in Georgia – and trust me, each meal in this trip had been a supremely memorable one! So what made this one special? This was my second visit to Georgia, the first time had been two years back, with my bunch of travel buddies – Bohochicas, as we are known amongst our friends, and also with Debbie, my partner in food and grime at FoodeMag. I felt that I already knew quite a lot about Georgian food and the different regions in Georgia, but I was so wrong. Like any cuisine which has a historical backing of a few centuries, Georgian cuisine too was rich and vibrant in it’s many regional variations. I had so much to learn from the Kavtaradze family, who welcomed this Saha family, including me into their kitchen despite being busy. Moreover, this small town of Pasanauri in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region, about 90 kms from Tbilisi made for a stunning and a necessary stop. Stunning, because of the soft rumbling of the Aragvi river with the Caucasus mountains in the backdrop and jubilant cherry blossoms all around, and necessary, because Pasanauri along with the other towns in this region – Dusheti and Mtskheta, were particularly famous for their Khinkali.
The ladies in charge of the cooking inside looked unhurried and calm, trotting between tending to multiple dishes simultaneously, while the owner and her daughter hustled in and out carrying in the orders from the guests seated outside and rushing out of the kitchens to serve them food. Everybody lent a helping hand when required – chopping vegetables, stirring the broth, tossing the bread in the pan or simply rushing out to look after the guests. That food (and wine, but I will keep that for a future post) is a big part of the Georgian culture, was clearly evident in the way the meals were cooked and served – like any traditional home and guests were attended with utmost care, despite the language barrier in most places. The kitchen was spacious and welcomingly warm, more so because it was freezing outside. In the adjoining room, there was a separate room where the Kavtaradzes men butchered their own meat. The Kavtaradzes also had live fish tanks for the trouts that were caught fresh from the Aragvi river. The restaurant had more than sixty to seventy covers inside and claimed to serving guests the same food, at the same spot for more than five decades – a mighty meaty feat if I may add!
Khinkali – the Georgian dumpling of love
An 86-year old beautiful Georgian dida or grandma greeted us inside the kitchen. She would be showing us how to make Khinkalis, the Georgian dumplings and other traditional Georgian dishes. The Caucasus mountains around this region was where Khinkalis were born. We witnessed her making the original recipe, the khevsuruli, with a filling of minced meat, chopped meat and not grinded meat – 20% pork mixed with 80% lamb or beef. Learning to make and eat Khinkali in the region of its origin is a different experience altogether. Unlike Asian dumplings, the juice of the meat is delicately trapped inside the stomach or the k’uch’i of the pleated dough ball and has to be sipped first before breaking into the rest of the Khinkali, a sort of a rocket science that our travel guide Giorgi taught us later. Although we ended up eating the khinkali in whole, the tough top or the kudi was supposed to be discarded on the plate as a system of counting the number of khinkalis eaten by the diner! Our Kavtaradze grandma was used to making atleast 3,000-4,000 khinkalis a day and it felt like she could blindly pleat the dough into dumplings, after having put the meat and the broth filling inside. The Z-Sisters had a go at making these and all I hear was Lil Z snorting out continuously – ‘My gosh, my gosh, my gosh’ throughout the process! A big burner was kept ready in the corner with water boiling perpetually in an equally big aluminium container (below), waiting for batches of khinkalis to dive into it. It would take seven to eight minutes of steaming for the khinkalis to be done. In between, Grandma stirred the water with a wooden ladle vigorously once to make sure that the khinkalis don’t stick to each other.
In between making the Khinkali, Grandma started making the Pkhlovana (pronounced klovana) for us, a speciality of this region. This was a type of Khachapuri that we wouldn’t be coming across again in our entire stay in Georgia. Although the egg-topped boat shaped Adjarian Khachapuri, also called Acharuli, is one of the most popular Georgian dishes amongst tourists and outside Georgia, the Khachapuri is basically cheese (generally Sulguni cheese) filled Georgian bread ~ Khacha meaning cheese and Puri meaning bread. Khachapuri is considered to be Georgia’s national dish and each region seemed to have it’s own regional variation. The Pkhlovana was filled with salty Ossetian cheese and beetroot leaves and the recipe originated from South Ossetia. At the Kavtaradzes, the cheese was home made and the leaves plucked fresh from the beetroots that grew in their garden. The beetroots were used up to make the popular beetroot salad prepared with beetroot cubes marinated in plum sauce. The filling went into a bigger dough this time, and Grandma pleated and sealed the dough (above right), then she rolled it and flattened it to make it round shaped. It was then put on a thick pan and fried amidst generous pouring of white sunflower oil, the successive stages of which have been captured in my camera below. The Kavtaradzes also made their own sunflower oil – so ‘farm to table’ trend maintained strictly through and through in this modest restaurant!
This was the only day that we ate fish in Georgia, that too at Giorgi’s insistence – the trouts were supposed to be exceptionally good from the adjoining rivers. The reason for our fish-reluctance was the month long overdose of fish at our home with my in-laws’ visiting us, just prior to leaving for Georgia (which promoted me to write this – A-Z of Bengali fish!). We are fish-loving Bengalis, but we too needed a respite. However, the char-grilled trout (above) freshly caught from Aragvi river was much too tempting. Another thing that had been a constant through out all our meals in Georgia was barbecued pork (below). Pork is the most popular meat, followed by chicken. In fact, barbecued pork seems to be very popular wherever we went – mostly arriving at the table as a simple barbecue of pork cubes marinated in salt, pepper, garlic, onion and sometimes with the Georgian spice Ajika. It was always served with home made tomato sauce which tasted more like a light salsa sauce than the thick ketchup and the popular sour plum sauce Tkemali.
Apparently all Indian tourists looked for rice in Georgia… again those myths – most Indians liked their food to be spicy or were vegetarians! Although we didn’t ask for rice, despite Big Z being such a hardcore rice lover, rice was being cooked specially for us. Chashushuli, a Georgian veal stew made with tomatoes sat on the adjoining burner of the gas stove, cooking over a slow flame. The rice sat in the cooking pot as long as the veal got cooked, as a result the rice that stared back at us looked more like a sticky rice rather that the fine-grained rice that we are used to eating at home. Although rice isn’t a staple in Georgian homes and definitely not eaten separately as an accompaniment to any dish, there is a traditional soup, the Kharcho, made with beef, Tkemali, chopped walnuts and rice. Fresh coriander leaves and parslay, chopped finely seem to be a constant in many of the Georgian dishes that we tasted and used in abundance – either as a garnish or while a dish was being cooked.
Almost a Supra, the traditional Georgian feast
Supra, the traditional Georgian feast where the table is laid with various types of dishes and lots of wine, is an important part of Georgian social culture, even listed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Georgia. While Georgians celebrate festivities with a festive supra, called a Keipi, there’s also the tradition of a sombre supra that’s held after burials, called a Kelekhi. Traditionally, in every supra, there’s always a toastmaster or the Tamada who initiates the toast, irrespective of the size of the supra. On this day, we were in for nothing less than a Supra, with our guide Giorgi taking the role of the toastmaster. Actually, he would be the toastmaster almost on all our lunches, excepting the dinners as he took leave of us after a whole day’s sightseeing. Rewinding on his first toast at our first lunch in Georgia at Kvareli in the Kakheti region, in his exact words – ‘Welcome to Georgia once again Ishita, and this time with family! My job as a host is to make sure that I am responsible for your wellbeing here and that I can show my beautiful country as much as I can!’
Eggplant with walnut sauce
Rice with Chashushuli, slow cooked veal curry
The Pkhlovana Khachapuris arrive at the table, cut into slices – more like pizza slices
Steaming hot Khinkalis… Lil Z waiting for Giorgi to teach us how to gorge on these beauties!
The Bearded Biker handing over the freshly grilled trout
It was almost 4pm by the time we had our lunch, but what an incredibly memorable lunch. The rice with Chashushuli was the first to arrive at the table, along with the popular starter of eggplant and walnut sauce. The Chashushuli was hot and steaming, and just off the flame and reminded me of Mangsher Jhol, the Sunday goat curry that’s a speciality in most Bengal homes – the one that is cooked in a pressure cooker – a light gravy full of strong flavours pouring out of the tender and delicate pieces of meat. The outer crusts of Pkhlovana Khachapuri was crispy and flaky while the cheese and beetroot filling inside stood out in taste. Was this then the Georgian vegetarian version of our Bengali Moghlai Porota – soft fried crispy parathas with a filling of minced meat, egg and onion? The plate of khinkali was definitely the showstopper, that too it arrived like a tantrum-throwing-diva begging us, the onlookers, to wait anxiously so that the dumplings of love would cool down a bit to unravelling of the secret treasure inside! The freshness of the trout was incredible – soft flaky flesh dismantling effortlessly from its bone. About the barbecued pork – the Georgians seemed to have mastered the art of barbecuing the meat and made them consistently good across the country – tender and flavourful. The Bearded Biker opted for local beers with his lunch, while I opted for Georgian wines or Lagidze, the local flavoured soda lemonade. The locally brewed country vodka Chacha or the spirits that were often available by the roadside kiosks were so interesting (and potent) that it’s a topic that I may revisit in a separate post.
The Kavtaradzes’ kitchen was busy and yet we received such a warm welcome to see what went on inside the kitchen of a Georgian family style restaurant – and this will probably make that afternoon a memorable one. We could feel the love streaming inside. The beautiful Georgian grandma running from one side of the kitchen to the other, tending the Pkhlovana and stirring the khinkalis, the owners personally supervising to the diners, chopping vegetables if required or flipping the Pkhlovana if it was getting over fried, everybody was synchronised and glued onto each other in this random madness. And we were glued onto our food!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Make way for Khinkali
Apart from our food memories, another thing that will always stay in our memories are the insane giggles surrounding our anticipation of Khinkalis … as Lil Z mimicked the song from Disney’s movie Aladdin substituting Prince Ali with Khinkali, throughout our Georgia trip…
Hey you! Let us through! It’s a bright new star!
Oh Come! Be the first on your block to meet his eye!
Are you gonna love this guy! Khinkali! Fabulous he!
PS: Our lunch at Kavtaradzes Khinkali cost us approx 120 GELs for the five of us, including our drinks. Giorgi organised our visit to the kitchen. We had a fabulous travel guide in Giorgi Orjonikidze (email: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone/whatsapp: +995 577479947) whom I would like to recommend personally if you are travelling to Georgia.
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OTHER READS Georgia ~ Tearing a page from the books of art, architecture & history - A travel feature in FoodeMag (my first visit to Georgia with Debbie Acharuli, Adjarian Khachapuri - Alice Feiring's recipe in FoodeMag Chicken “Gia” Chkmeruli - Alice Feiring's recipe in FoodeMag Caesar Mushrooms Cooked In A Clay Dish - Alice Feiring's recipe in FoodeMag Tkemali, a sour plum sauce - Alice Feiring's recipe in FoodeMag Georgia | Khinkali - a first taste of Georgian food - by Coffee Cakes and Running Georgia – a guide to food and feasting - By My Custard Pie Georgia – shopping for food in Tbilisi - By My Custard Pie