Anne and Erik’s Georgian Feast
Over the course of the past decade, my friend Anne and her husband Erik, who works for the State Department, have lived in Peru, Ukraine, and most recently, Georgia, with their three children. Anne invited my family and some other friends over recently for a Georgian feast, or supra, to showcase the regional cuisine she learned to cook during her three years living in Tbilisi. Most of us had absolutely no idea of what to expect of Georgian cuisine, but boy, were we in for a treat.
Anne had shipped this traditional pot home from Georgia and she cooked a traditional lobio, or bean, dish in it for the feast. The red kidney beans are cooked with ground walnuts, prunes, an ajika spice mixture, vinegar, and olive oil.
The ajika spice mixture is worth a special mention since it figures so prominently in Georgian cuisine and was a blend Anne prepared with a great deal of forethought. She borrowed her recipe from her babysitter who is of Megrelian descent. The main ingredients are cilantro, parsley, coriander, a “yellow flower” that Anne has only found in Georgia (and which Erik brought back with him from a recent trip to the region), fenugreek, dried red chiles, garlic, and salt. She found the fenugreek at the Mediterranean Bakery on Pickett Street in Alexandria.
It’s tradition for a lot of wine to accompany the Georgian feast and Georgia is known for its wines. Anne served us Georgian wine made with grapes that are unique to the region — a saperavi (red), a mukazani (red), and a tsinindali (white).
Georgia also has a booming mineral water industry. This brand, Borjomi, is named after the region in Georgia from which the water comes. Some think it has an almost saltwater-like taste. The Nabeghlavi brand is milder.
Each region in Georgia has its own type of khachapuri, a cheese-filled yeast bread. In Georgian, khacho is a type of farmer’s cheese and puri is bread. Although you can use many types of cheeses, Anne used sulguni, a well-known Georgian cheese from the Imereti region. The khachapuri can then be baked or fried and is sometimes served with an egg on top.
This was the kind of party where you start eating the minute you arrive and never stop, which is how it’s meant to be at a Georgian feast. We stuffed our faces gladly and oohed and aahed as she brought out dish after dish.
Eggplants also feature prominently in Georgian cuisine. This dish, badgrijani, is thinly sliced fried eggplant wrapped around a walnut paste and topped with pomegranate seeds. To the right of the eggplant dish are mushroom caps filled with a pickled Georgian cheese called sulguni.
Why so many pomegranate seeds? In the Caucasus, pomegranate trees are in abundance and have significance in Christianity and specifically in neighboring Armenia as a symbol of fertility and marriage. Pomegranates are not only found in many dishes but are also represented in artwork, like this mosaic Anne and Erik brought home with them.
Anne put her husband Erik in charge of grilling the meat she used in shashlik, what we know as kebabs. The meats used in kebabs are usually beef, pork, and chicken and are served with a variety of sauces. Once again, Anne sprinkled pomegranate seeds over them.
Here is one tart sauce that we could pour over the kebab made from green, tart plums called tkmeli. The sauce is as common in Georgia as ketchup is in the U.S.
Anne prepared one of the most common Georgian household dishes for us to try — the Georgian pork stew or ojahouli. Anne’s stew included carmelized onions and fried potatoes. Besides the pork, the mainstay of this stew and what makes it taste distinctively Georgian is, again, the ajika spice mixture. And you guessed it, Georgians often sprinkle pomegranate seeds over the stew before serving it.
Though known for its wine, if you’re offered sparkling wine in Georgia, it’s usually sovietskaya champagnski, a Russian champagne that is sweeter than the true French champagne. Anne poured some for us toward the end of the feast, just before serving the sweet dishes.
These oddities were definitely the conversation starter of the evening. A common sight at Georgian roadside markets, they’re called churchela or “walnuts on a string.” The walnuts are repeatedly dipped in a boiled down mixture of white grape juice, sugar, and flour and then left to dry. Georgians jokingly refer to them as “Georgian Snickers”. Anne started preparing the churchela days ahead.
While we looked on, she pulled them off the rack…
And then after cutting them into small pieces with a sharp knife, she served them to her most adventuresome of guests. Even though they look like caramel, they actually taste a lot like extremely tart fruit leather.
It was so nice and generous of Anne and Erik to introduce us to the wonderful flavors of Georgian cuisine, all in one fun and festive evening with friends. She said that she found many ingredients locally at the Russian Gourmet market on Slater’s Lane.
Do you prepare ethnic food in your home, passed down from family or a cuisine you learned abroad?