Spanning the Silk Road between Europe and Asia, there's a solid argument to consider Georgian food the world's original fusion cuisine. Across the centuries, traders and armies transited both east and west through this compact area bordered by the Black Sea, and the culinary influence of historical empires, including the Mongols, Ottomans and Persians lingers in Georgian kitchens.
Understanding Georgia's key ingredients
Negotiating Tbilisi's Deserters' Market is a fascinating way to discover the fundamental ingredients in Georgian cuisine. Named after deserters from the army who sold their equipment here in the 1920s, the market is a gritty and authentic affair packed with the freshest of produce. Walnuts and pomegranates sit next to colourful plastic buckets overflowing with vibrantly-hued spices. There are tubs of velvety matsoni (Georgian yoghurt) compete with chunky shards of briny white Sulguni cheese in the dairy section, but beware that the quality varies, with some made from milk powder instead of real milk.
Crouching on stout stools, Azeri traders sell fresh herbs including the Georgian essentials of dill and tarragon. Upstairs, butchers cut meat to order – lamb, pork and veal – for use in stews and dumplings or to be grilled mtsvadi-style on skewers over charcoal. Family-owned stalls offer knobbly strings of churchkhela – nuts dipped in an unctuous syrup made from grapes – and plastic water bottles are repurposed for homemade sour and spicy sauces.
Classic Georgian dishes
Regarded as Georgia's unofficial national dish, khinkali is a boiled dumpling filled with meat, cheese or vegetables. Appropriate decorum is to dust the khinkali with black pepper, pick it up by hand, and carefully slurp the steaming broth inside before devouring the remainder of the silky goodness. Travel further east via the echoes of ancient trade routes, and khinkali is very similar to Shanghai's famed soup dumplings.
Throughout Georgia, different regions have their own spins on khachapuri (cheese-filled pies), but the boat-shaped one with a final flourish of melted butter and an egg has made adjaruli khachapuri – from the country's western region – a filling national favourite. Mix the filling first, then break off the bread's pastry handles and get dipping into the molten swirl. More delicate is chakapuli, fragrant lamb stew flavoured with dill, tarragon and sour plums, and tinged with the distinct influence of nearby Iran.
Simple neighbourhood bakeries awaken early to prepare fluffy flatbreads baked on the curved clay walls of a tone – a wood-fired oven very similar to an Indian tandoor – and the yeasty promise of fresh bread is one of Tbilisi's signature aromas. Head to a branch of Keria bakery to try lobiani, a flaky flatbread crammed with smokey spiced beans.
Where to eat in Tbilisi
Rustic restaurants serving khinkali are found throughout Tbilisi, but there are a few standout locations. Try Pasanauri at Old Town's Gorgasali Sq (formerly Maidan Sq), semi-basement Klike's Khinkali, with its unique variety made from sun-dried ham, and Zodiago with its nadughi (ricotta-like cheese) khinkali. A minimum order of five of the plate-filling dumplings usually applies.
Go to Café Stamba for a crispy crust of adjaruli khachapuri, or Puri Guliani next to Moxy by Marriot at Dry Bridge for traditional khachapuri. For a fascinating glimpse into the history of Georgian food, the menu at Barbarestan is based on a cookbook penned by 19th-century noblewoman Barbara Jorjadze. Standout dishes include eggplant in walnut sauce, and the table-covering selection of dips, served with crunchy wafer-thin lavash bread, hints at flavours from neighbouring countries including Turkey, Armenia and Iran.
The 'New Georgian' culinary wave
Tbilisi's dining scene is anchored in tradition, but recently opened restaurants are offering innovative spins on local flavours. Helmed by Georgian chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, Cafe Littera
Culinary tours and cooking schools
The best way to experience the diversity of Georgian cuisine is to learn from locals themselves. Companies such as Tbilisi-based Living Roots can organise authentic, customised culinary tours, as well as trips to vineyards across the country.
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Article first published in July 2016, and last updated by Baia Dzagnidze in January 2020