Food & Drink
Georgian food is a unique expression of the land and its people – diverse, fresh, imaginative, filling, often spicy – and with the hospitality and drinks that often go hand-in-hand, eating is a central part of Georgian culture. The cuisine is based entirely on the rich produce of Georgia's fertile soil, and Georgia's location on ancient spice routes has contributed a unique range of flavours and textures. Many staple dishes are vegetarian and some are vegan.
Georgians eat and drink at all times of the day. Restaurants keep long hours and have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. But some of the best Georgian food you'll eat will still be in guesthouses, where you can enjoy home-cooked fare with that genuine touch of Georgian hospitality.
Georgian menus often look daunting, even if there’s an English translation, but this list explains a lot of the items you'll find io most menus.
|ajapsandali||stew of aubergines, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and herbs|
|ajika||a paste of chilli or paprika with garlic and herbs|
|badrijani (nigvzit)||aubergine (in slices with walnut-and-garlic paste)|
|chakapuli||stew of veal or lamb with tarragon and plums|
|chakhokhbili||stew of chicken, turkey or sometimes pork with tomatoes, onions and herbs|
|chakhrakuli||lamb ribs stewed with tomato, herbs and spices|
|chanakhi||a lamb stew with layers of potatoes, aubergine and tomatoes|
|chashushuli||spicy stew of meat or mushrooms with veggies|
|churchkhela||string of walnuts coated in a sort of caramel made from grape juice|
|kababi||doner kebab, shawarma|
|kharcho||soup with rice, beef and spices|
|khinkali||spicy dumpling with a meat, potato or mushroom filling|
|kuchmachi||stewed chicken/pig/calf innards with spices, herbs and usually walnuts|
|lobio||bean paste or stew with herbs and spices|
|mkhali or pkhali||beetroot, spinach or aubergine paste with crushed walnuts, garlic and herbs|
|mtsvadi (ghoris/khbos)||shish kebab (from pork/beef), often just 'barbecue' on English-language menus|
|ostri||spiced meat in a tomato-based sauce|
|satsivi||cold turkey or chicken in a spicy walnut sauce, traditionally a New Year dish|
|shkmeruli||chicken in garlic sauce|
|sulguni||a salty cheese, sometimes smoked|
|suneli||a spicy paste|
Eating Price Ranges
The following indicators are for the price of a single main dish:
$ less than 9 GEL
$$ 9 GEL–16 GEL
$$$ more than 16 GEL
Staples & Specialities
A great staple for everybody is the khachapuri, essentially a cheese pie.
Equally beloved are khinkali – big spicy dumplings which most Georgians adore and most visitors find they like too.
A great snack-on-the-go is churchkhela, a string of nuts (usually walnuts) coated in an often-pinkish caramel made from grape juice. You’ll often see bunches of it hanging, sausage-like, at roadside stalls or markets.
Starters to a larger meal may include assorted salads, the delectable badrijani nigvzit (aubergine slices with walnut-and-garlic paste), lobio (bean paste or stew with herbs and spices) and mkhali (or pkhali), which are pastes combining vegetables with walnuts, garlic and herbs. The finest fresh bread to accompany a Georgian meal is shotis (or tonis) puri – long white loaves baked from wheat flour, water and salt (no fat or oil) in a round clay oven called a tone.
More substantial Georgian dishes include the mtsvadi (shish kebab) and a variety of chicken, pork, beef, lamb or turkey dishes in spicy, herby sauces or stews, with names like chakapuli, chakhokhbili, kuchmachi, ojakhuri, ostri or shkmeruli). Georgia's favourite spices and herbs include coriander, blue fenugreek, tarragon and ground-up marigold leaves.
Many dishes contain walnut, often ground up as an ingredient in sauces, dressings or pastes. A sprinkling of pomegranate seeds is a tasty and pretty-looking garnish. Wild mushrooms are also a favourite, and Georgia has a wonderful variety of local cheeses.
Religious-minded Georgians may abstain from meat, eggs and dairy products on Wednesdays, Fridays and during certain periods such as before Christmas and Easter. The 'fasting menus' offered for them by many restaurants make life easier for year-round vegetarians too.
Know Your Khachapuri
An excess of khachapuri is not the thing for slimmers, but Georgia’s ubiquitous cheese pies are the perfect keep-me-going meal, as well as playing a part in many a feast. They're sold at street stalls and bakeries as well as in cafes and restaurants. Different regions have their own varieties, but you’ll find many of them all around the country:
Khachapuri Acharuli The Adjaran variety is a large, boat-shaped calorie injection, overflowing with melted cheese and topped with butter and a runny egg.
Khachapuri Imeruli Relatively sedate and the most common Georgia-wide, these round, flat pies originating from Imereti have melted cheese inside only.
Khachapuri Megruli Round pies from Samegrelo, with cheese in the middle and more cheese melted on top.
Khachapuri penovani Square and neatly folded into four quarters, with the cheese inside the lightish crust – particularly tasty!
Khachapuri achma A large Adjaran concoction,with the dough and cheese in layers, lasagne-style.
The Supra & Toasts
While strictly speaking the word supra (feast, literally ‘tablecloth’) applies to any meeting where food and drink are consumed, the full works means staggering amounts to eat and drink. A selection of cold dishes and maybe soups will be followed by two or three hot courses as well as some kind of dessert, all accompanied by bottomless quantities of wine and rounds of toasts.
Bear in mind that Georgians toast only their enemies with beer. Wine or spirits are the only drinks to toast your friends with. However, at a supra you shouldn't drink them till someone proposes a toast. This can be a surprisingly serious, lengthy and poetic matter, even at small gatherings of a few friends. Larger gatherings will have a designated tamada (toastmaker), and some complex supras will involve an alaverdi, a second person whose role is to elaborate on the toast. If you are toasted, do not reply immediately but wait for others to add their wishes before simply thanking them – then wait a while before asking the tamada if you can make a toast in reply.
Wine is a national passion and Georgians have been making and drinking it for at least 8000 years. Vodka is also common, and beer is a popular thirst-quencher: local brands include Natakhtari, Kazbegi and Argo.
Georgia’s most famous nonalcoholic drink is Borjomi, a salty mineral water that was the beverage of choice for every Soviet leader from Lenin on. It polarises opinion. Nabeghlavi is a less salty alternative. Tap water seems safe to drink throughout the country: we have never heard of anyone getting sick from drinking it. Various uncarbonated bottled waters are also available.
How to Eat a Khinkali
Arguably Georgia's most beloved hunger-killer, the khinkali is a small bag of dough twisted into a hard nexus at the top, with a filling of spiced, ground-up meat, or potatoes or mushrooms or sometimes vegetables – and plenty of juice. You'll have a plate of at least five khinkali in front of you (it's impossible to order fewer). Many people like to sprinkle a good dose of pepper over the khinkali before starting.
Once they're cool enough to handle, pick one up by the hard nexus at the top, and bite a small hole just below it. Suck the juice out through the hole. Then eat the rest, except for the nexus, which you discard. Yum yum!
Wine (ghvino) is a national passion. After all, Georgians have been making and drinking it for at least 8000 years. Wine may well have been invented here, but perhaps more importantly, Georgians have continued to make wine by basically the same method ever since they started – fermenting it along with grape skins, pips and often stalks, in large clay amphorae known as qvevri, buried in the earth. This 'skin contact' is why traditionally made Georgian whites have a more amber/orangey tint than other white wines. 'European-style' winemaking – fermenting the grape juice without the pulp – has also been around in Georgia since the 19th century, but the basic local method practised by tens of thousands of families throughout Georgia has remained unchanged. It also yields the potent, grappa-like, firewater chacha, distilled from the pulp left after the wine is eventually drawn off.
Qvevri wine (also sometimes called 'unfiltered' wine) is beloved by followers of the fashion for 'natural wine' because it contains little or none of the additives (such as yeast, sugar or sulphur) commonly put into wine today. Qvevri wines certainly taste different from the wines most of the world is accustomed to. If there's one word that embraces their varied tastes, it could be, yes, 'natural'.
In Soviet times, larger-scale winemaking in Georgia was geared to the Russian taste for strong wine with lots of sugar, resulting in a decline in quality. Since the Soviet collapse Georgian commercial winemakers have been steadily upgrading their operations. The result is a wider and much better range of European-style wines, many of which are exported to the West and Asia. Today many winemakers produce both European-style and qvevri wines.
Wine is made all over Georgia, but more than half of it comes from the eastern Kakheti region. Over 500 of the world’s 2000 grape varieties are Georgian. Most commonly used for wine today are the white Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane and Kisi, and the red Saperavi.
Appellations of origin, such as Tsinandali and Mukuzani from Kakheti or Khvanchkara from Racha, denote the provenance of many of the country's better wines. Bottles of good commercially produced Georgian wine start at around 10 GEL in Georgian shops. Names on labels may denote the appellation of origin, or the type(s) of grape, or the producing company. You’ll find further helpful information at Georgian Wine Association and National Wine Agency.
Georgians are an incredibly expressive people. Music, dance, song, poetry and drama all play big parts in their lives.
Music & Dance
Georgian polyphonic singing is a tradition of multi-voice a cappella song that goes back thousands of years. It used to accompany every aspect of daily life, and the songs survive in various genres including supruli (songs for the table), mushuri (working songs) and satrpialo (love songs). It's still alive and well. Mostly male ensembles such as the Rustavi Choir perform in concert halls and at festivals such as Art-Gene, Tushetoba and Shatiloba, but polyphonic song is most electrifying when it happens at less formal gatherings such as around the table at a supra (feast), when the proximity, intimacy and volume can be literally spine-tingling. There are varying regional styles but it's typical for some singers to do a bass drone while others sing melodies on top.
Sagalobeli (ethereally beautiful church chants) have been part of Georgian life for at least 1500 years. Excellent choirs accompany services in the most important churches: the best time to catch them is Sunday morning between about 9am and noon.
Polyphonic singing may or may not be accompanied by some of Georgia's numerous folk instruments, which include the panduri and chonguri (types of lute), the garmoni (accordion) and various bagpipes, flutes and drums (check www.hangebi.ge for a rundown). For an easy introduction to Georgian folk music check out popular folk or folk-fusion artists such as groups Bani, Gortela and 33a, and singer Mariam Elieshvili.
Georgia’s exciting folk dance ranges from lyrical love stories to dramatic, leaping demonstrations of male agility. Top professional groups such as Erisioni and Sukhishvilebi often tour overseas, but don’t miss them if they are performing back home.
Jazz is also popular, with young pianist Beka Gochiashvili the rising star. Tbilisi and Batumi host annual jazz festivals. Minimal techno is still the optimal beat for many Tbilisi and Batumi clubbers: Gem Fest (Georgian Electronic Music Festival; http://gem-fest.com), which launched with a stellar international DJ line-up in 2015, may become an annual event.
Georgia has produced many outstanding classical artists too. Nina Ananiashvili, artistic director of the state ballet, is one of the world's top ballerinas, while leading contemporary composer Gia Kancheli, born in 1935, has been described as ‘turning the sounds of silence into music’.
Many Georgian churches are adorned with wonderful old frescoes. The golden age of religious art was the 11th to 13th centuries, when Georgian painters employed the Byzantine iconographic system and also portrayed local royalty and saints. There were two main, monastic fresco schools: one at the Davit Gareja and the other in Tao-Klarjeti (modern southwest Georgia and northeast Turkey). During the same period artists and metalsmiths were creating beautiful icons and crosses with paint, jewels and precious metals that remain among Georgia’s greatest treasures today. You can see them not only in churches but also in museums in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Mestia and elsewhere.
Perhaps the last major artist in the fresco-painting tradition was one who painted scenes of everyday life in restaurants and bars in Tbilisi. The self-taught Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) expressed the spirit of Georgian life in a direct and enchanting way. After his death in poverty and obscurity, his work was acclaimed by the leading, Paris-influenced Georgian modernists Davit Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili and Shalva Kikodze. Pirosmani, Kakabadze and Gudiashvili are well represented in Tbilisi’s National Gallery. The Sighnaghi Museum has another good Pirosmani collection.
Georgia's contemporary art world is again blossoming after a depressed post-Soviet period. For copious information on artists, galleries and exhibitions, see www.art.gov.ge. The biggest names include Rusudan Petviashvili, painter and drawer of densely packed mythological/imaginary images by an unusual one-touch technique. She has her own galleries in Tbilisi and Batumi.
For a language with only a few million speakers, Georgian has an amazingly rich literature. In the 12th century Shota Rustaveli, a member of Queen Tamar’s court, wrote The Knight (or Man) in the Tiger’s (or Panther’s) Skin, an epic of chivalry that every Georgian can quote from.
Nikoloz Baratashvili (1817–45) personified the romanticism that entered Georgian literature in the early 19th century. Some later-19th-century writers turned to the mountains for inspiration – notably Alexander Kazbegi, novelist and dramatist, and Vazha Pshavela, whom many consider the greatest Georgian poet after Rustaveli.
Mikheil Javakhishvili (1880–1937) brought the Georgian novel to the fore with vivid, ironic tales of city and country, peasant and aristocrat in tsarist and Soviet times, including Arsena Marabdeli, based on a real-life Georgian Robin Hood figure, and the picaresque Kvachi Kvachantiradze. Javakhishvili was executed by the Soviet regime. Nodar Dumbadze (1928–84) portrayed post-WWII life with humour and melancholy, and is one of the most popular Georgian novelists: The Law of Eternity and Granny, Iliko, Ilarion and I are among his novels available in English.
Leading post-Soviet writers include novelist Aka Morchiladze, whose Journey to Karabakh (1992) tells of two young Georgian men who suddenly, bewilderingly find themselves in the midst of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; and novelist, playwright and travel writer David Turashvili whose Flight from the USSR (2008) is based on a real-life attempt by a group of young Georgians to escape from the USSR by hijacking an Aeroflot plane.
Georgian cinema enjoyed a golden age from the late 1960s to the 1980s, when Georgian directors created dozens of films distinct from the general socialist-realist run of Soviet movies. They won international awards with brilliant visual imagery, lively characters and use of allegory, fable and dreams to provide a platform for people’s real concerns without upsetting the Soviet censors. Italian director Federico Fellini was a noted fan, praising Georgian cinema’s ability to combine philosophy with childlike innocence.
Perhaps the greatest maestro was the Tbilisi-born Armenian Sergei Paradjanov. Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (1984) was a ground-breaking opening up of the Soviet past – a black portrait of a dictatorial politician clearly based on Stalin’s Georgian henchman Lavrenty Beria. Other leading directors included Otar Iosseliani (There Lived a Songthrush; 1970), Eldar Shengelaia (The Blue Mountains; 1983) and Giorgi Shengelaia (Pirosmani; 1969).
Today home-grown Georgian cinema is making a comeback after the grim post-Soviet years, despite still-minuscule budgets. It gets a reasonable amount of screen time among the Hollywood stuff at Georgia’s few cinemas. The tragic conflicts of the 1990s figure, directly or indirectly, in films such as Zaza Urushadze's Tangerines (a 2015 Oscar nominee), Levan Tutberidze’s A Trip to Karabakh (2005) and Giorgi Ovashvili’s enigmatic, Oscar-shortlisted Corn Island (2013).