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, and tubs of velvety matsoni (Georgian yoghurt) compete with chunky shards of briny white Sulguni cheese in the dairy section. 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 and dried fruit dipped in an unctuous syrup made from grapes – and plastic water bottles are repurposed for robust homemade wine.
Classic Georgian Dishes
Regarded as Georgia's unofficial national dish, khinkali are steamed dumplings filled with meat, cheese or vegetables. Appropriate decorum is to dust the khinkali with black pepper, pick them 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 are very similar to Shanghai's famed soup dumplings. Throughout Georgia, different regions have their own spins on khachapuri (cheese-filled pies), but the final flourish of melted butter and an egg has made khachapuri acharuli from the country's west a filling national favourite. Just break off the bread's pastry handles and get dipping into the molten swirl. More delicate are chakapuli, fragrant meat stews 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 t'one - a wood-fired oven very similar to an Indian tandoor – and the yeasty promise of fresh bread is one of Tbilisi's signature aromas. Join the throngs at the simple bakery downstairs opposite Tbilisi's History Museum for the city's best lobiani, a flaky flatbread crammed with smokey spiced beans.
Where to eat in Tbilisi
Rustic khinkali eateries are found throughout Tbilisi – a minimum order of four of the plate-filling dumplings usually applies – but two standout locations are Pasanauri just off bustling Rustaveli Avenue, and the laidback Sofia Melnikova's Fantastic Douqan (facebook.com/SofiaMelnikovasFantasticDouqan). Quite possibly the Georgian capital's most hard to find restaurant (you'll find it through the yellow door into the courtyard of the State Museum of Literature), Sofia Melnikova's khinkali are handmade to order in the style of the northern mountainous region of Khevsureti.
For khachapuri, explore the simple bakeries and food stands around the Deserters' Market, or venture to Machakhela in a tree-lined street on the edge of the Old Town. The singular menu is enlivened by a few token salads, but everyone here is lining up for Georgia's delicious combination of pastry, cheese and the occasional infusion of melted butter and egg. For a fascinating glimpse into the history of Georgian food, the menu at Barbarestan (facebook.com/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 Tekuna Gachechiladze, a Georgian chef who has returned from working in New York, Culinarium (facebook.com/Culinarium.ge) and Cafe Littera are both in the raffish Old Town neighbourhood of Solokai.
Faded apartment blocks frame Culinarium's corner location, and the compact restaurant acts as a test kitchen for Cafe Littera's glorious setting amid the hidden but spacious garden of an Art Nouveau mansion. Standout dishes include seafood chakapuli – with wild Black Sea mussels replacing the traditional protein of lamb or veal – and a silky roast eggplant hummus studded with pomegranate and olives. Both restaurants feature a stellar selection of Georgian wine, including varietals aged in beeswax-lined terracotta urns called qvevri, a traditional practice dating back 8000 years.
Meeting the locals one meal at a time
The best way to experience the diversity of Georgian cuisine is to learn from locals themselves. Companies such as Tbilisi-based Taste Georgia (tastegeorgia.co) can organise culinary tours and cookery classes with local chefs, as well as trips to vineyards in the nearby wine regions of Kakheti and Kartli.