Hachapuri (Georgian Cheese Bread)
"Georgia is as fertile a country as any can be imagin’d, where a man may live both deliciously and very cheap. Their Bread is as good as any in the World; their Fruit is delicious and of all sorts. Neither is there any part of Europe that produces fairer Pears and Apples, or better tasted, nor does any part of Asia bring forth more delicious Pomegranates. Cattel is very plentiful and very good, as well the larger sort as the lesser. Their Fowl of all sorts is incomparable, especially their Wild-Fowl; their Boars-Flesh is as plentiful and as good as any in Colchis… The Caspian Sea which is next to Georgia and the Kurr, that runs through it, supplies it with all sorts of salt and fresh Fish, so that we may truly say that there is no country where a Man may have an Opportunity to fare better than in this.”
-The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East-Indies (1686)
Clinging to the east coast of the Black Sea and tucked into the southern folds of the craggy Caucasus, the Republic of Georgia is a lush, mysterious land. Despite being no bigger than Ireland, the country’s frontiers encompass everything from subtropical rainforest to alpine glaciers to desert plains, and thanks to its strategic location along the fabled silk road to Asia, has played host to travelers, traders and tourists alike for the better part of a millennium. Unfortunately, Georgia is better known these days for its turbulent recent history, and has achieved more than its fair share of notoriety for being the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s most despised and tyrannic despot. Finally though, fifteen years after regaining its own political identity, Georgia is beginning to emerge from the shadows of its past and is being recognized for what it really has to offer. This is, of course, its cuisine.
There are two legends that Georgians tell to explain the creation of their country, and fascinatingly, both involve food. In the first, the Georgians claim that when God was distributing land to all the peoples of the Earth, they were too busy feasting and drinking to show up at the appointed time. When they finally arrived, they were dismayed to learn that all the land had already been given away. They explained to God the reason for their delay, and God, obviously recognizing the value of a people who would rather be feasting than fighting over land, took pity on them and gave the Georgians the part of the Earth that he had been reserving for himself – naturally, the most beautiful part. In the second legend, God took a supper break while creating the world, and became so involved with his meal that he inadvertently tripped over the high peaks of the Caucasus, spilling his food onto the land below. This land blessed by heaven’s table scraps was Georgia.
I bought my first cookbook on Georgian cuisine on a whim; since I pride myself on the breadth of global coverage contained on my bookshelves this seemed like an obvious gap to fill. I had never actually had Georgian food, I didn’t even really have an idea what might set it apart from the cuisines of its more well-known neighbors, including Turkey, Russia and Iran. I imagined it must be some kind of pan-Eastern European/Middle Eastern fusion where you might get dumplings and beetroot with your shashlik. Why else would it be so obscure? I had barely finished the book’s introduction, however, before I was convinced I had just stumbled upon my most exciting culinary discovery of the decade.
Precious few books on Georgian cuisine exist in the English language. Paula Wolfert devotes some of her excellent Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean to an exploration of Georgian cuisine, arguing that despite the fact that the country doesn’t touch the Mediterranean, it is in flavor and spirit similar enough to deserve an honorary inclusion. Darra Goldstein, whose book The Georgian Feast expertly combines anthropology, history and a comprehensive gastronomic survey of the country, is the one who best sums up my own impressions: "Georgian food is reminiscent of both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tastes, the result of a rich interplay of culinary ideas carried along the trade routes by merchants and travelers. Today their cooking represents more than a melange of the flavors of other regions. Georgian cuisine stands distinct among the foods of the world, a vibrant, inspired interpretation of indigenous ingredients."
The thing that appealed to me instantly about Georgian cuisine is both its familiarity and its exoticness. The foundations of the cuisine are all well known to the European palate: hazelnuts, walnuts, cheese, yogurt, plums, corn, peaches, apples, cherries, cilantro, basil, tarragon, dill, mint, cinnamon. What is not familiar are the preparations: beets with sour cherry sauce; beans with pomegranate and fenugreek; eggplant with walnuts and saffron; chicken with cilantro, dill and plums; rice with raisins and honey. It’s as if the familiar flavors of Europe had been handed to someone who was instructed to forget everything he knew about the continent’s gastronomic heritage and instead reinvent the wheel, which somehow he managed to do with subtlety, sophistication and finesse.
Perhaps the most iconic Georgian dish, and the one I was eager to try first, is a savory cheese bread called hachapuri (or khachapuri). The dough for this bread is traditionally unyeasted, instead leavened with baking powder and soured with yogurt, and the cheese inside is either the soft, crumbly imeruli, or in the western part of Georgia, suluguni, a creamy, slightly rubbery cheese akin to a ripened mozzarella. It’s purposefully quick, so that it can be whipped up in a hurry when unexpected guests arrive, and rich, so they won’t leave hungry. Strangely enough, I found the most compelling recipe for this dish in Nigella Lawson’s most recent book, Feast, in which she dedicates a full chapter to her enchantment with Georgian food. What captivated me about Nigella’s version was its background story. She recounts how she first tasted an extraordinary hachapuri one night in a Georgian restaurant in St. Petersburg, an experience which prompted her to spend the next several years trying to duplicate the recipe. After dozens of failed attempts, she says she stumbled into a Georgian cafe in East London by chance, ordered a cheesebread, and had a truly Proustian moment as she came face to face with exactly the bread she had been trying to recreate. Her recipe is called Nana’s Hachapuri, after the kitchen matriarch of that small cafe who consented to allow Nigella to witness and document the recipe for the best cheesebread this side of St. Petersburg.
I can’t say tasting it caused a Proustian moment for me, but rather the opposite: upon first bite I saw, stretching out before me, the vision of many, many Georgian feasts to come.