Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Eat (and Drink!) in Georgia, Part 2: When in Doubt, Put Mayonnaise on It

It’s finally time for part two of my Georgian culinary series. Last time, I discussed how to handle your liquor at a party with a bunch of Georgian men. Today, you get to learn a new Georgian word: tchame!

The bane of every volunteer trying to keep a slim figure, you will probably hear “tchame” as much as the traditional Georgian greetings. These people love to make you eat almost as much as they want to hear your horribly broken Georgian. After two and a half months, it’s starting to get a little wearing, I admit, but at least I never go hungry.

There’s basically two kinds of Georgian food. There’s the authentic cuisine that they’ve been making for hundreds of years, like khatchapuri and kebabi. Then there’s what I like to call “Failed Georgian Interpretation.” It must be the Russian influence or a complete lack of Georgian communication with other countries, but any time a Georgian restaurant tries to do European or North American cuisine, it winds up being just a little…off. For example, I had a “burrito” in Tbilisi that came out as a deconstructed platter, with beans, rice, and chicken separated on a skillet and tortillas folded next to them (the salsa was pretty good though).
Something as easy as pizza, once put through the Georgian Interpretation Filter, winds up with loads of mayonnaise and a distinct lack of sufficient cheese or sauce. Maybe that’s how they do it in Italy, and if so, I like what we get in the states a lot better.

In fact, the only thing that feels like home in terms of cuisine is McDonalds. I know that’s practically a sin to say at this point, but McDonalds is the only real mark of globalization that seems to have hit Georgia (aside from some internet cafes and an overabundance of cellphones). Ah well, I guess when you commit to teaching abroad in a foreign country, you can’t expect to get the food you’re used to at home. But how I miss Slurpees, California Tortilla, and good Chinese food.

Georgian food is pretty fantastic though. The staple, khatchapuri, comes in several forms. Imerelian khatchapuri is sort of like a pizza: eggs and cheese are folded into dough which is flattened out a bit and baked for a while and then slathered with butter. This is the traditional way to do the dish since it’s easy to serve up to many people (just cut it into slices). Adjarian* khatchapuri, however, is my favorite. It’s sort of like a bread bowl that you get at Panera, but a little shallower and stretched out to look kind of like a boat. In the hollowed-out center, the cook dumps cheese and about half a stick of butter. The whole concoction is baked enough to cook the bread on the outside but leave it gooey toward the center. As soon as they pull it out of the oven, they crack an egg right on top which cooks on the molten cheese. It’s like a heart attack in bread boat form.

Khinkali is essentially dumplings with minced meat in the middle (other less common varieties include cheese and potato). Usually you want to eat these by biting a hole in the middle and sucking out the juice. Then, you eat your way around the little tie at the top, which you leave on your plate at the end. Not everyone does it this way, but it’s a safe bet that you should try to eat khinkali with your hands. And vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.

A lot of what we get here is pretty fresh. They do fried potatoes, kebabi (which is actually ground meat on a stick and the closest thing I have gotten to a hamburger here, aside from the Big Macs), and cucumber and tomato salads. Georgia hasn’t quite grasped the concept of lettuce in salads, but at least I can eat mandarin oranges right off the tree in front of my family’s house. That’s become my customary breakfast, actually, and I’m really happy about it.

Less thrilling is the meat in Georgia. Unfortunately, it’s become a running joke with some of my friends that Georgians really need butchering lessons. I haven’t gotten a cut of meat, whether on a stick or in a bowl, that did not have to be wrestled with; while everything tastes good, you often have to fight with gristle, fat, and bone. And where in the world did they get the idea that everything needs mayonnaise? I had a hotdog the other day that had mayonnaise on it, yet ketchup is strangely absent from most of the smaller stores’ shelves.

All in all though, you’re bound to find something you like here. Homemade is always better, of course, and Georgians are big on guests and particularly making Americans fat with butter and cheese. Mmmm. Now if we could just teach them a bit more about bacon...

*This was caught by a reader and I fixed it. I'm pretty sure I've seen "Mingrelian" on a menu before but I get the different types of khatchapuri mixed up, clearly. Thanks for the correction!

7 comments:

  1. oh! the Mingrelian khatchapuri sounds delicious! But mayo on everything might make me sick haha

    Also - caltor when you come home?? haha I haven't been all year.

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  2. Hey there Adam and Stefanie -

    We would love to buy your burritos when you come back to the states. We miss you but are excited to read more about your adventure.

    E-mail skane@caltort.com for the hook up.

    Stacey Kane
    Director of Marketing

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  3. oh man, I want burritos too! signed, Adam's Dad.
    (just kidding. cool offer though.)

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  4. what if you ate so much mayo you went into a coma? it would be a mayo kayo.

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  5. > Mingrelian khatchapuri, however, is my
    > favorite. It’s sort of like a bread bowl that
    > you get at Panera,

    Adam, a little bit of correction - this is Adjarian khachapuri, in the form of a boat.

    You have not yet tried Abkhazian khachapuri, it is also called A'ch-makaroni. It is different then other Georgian khachapuri because is made by different layers and is quite time consuming to make.

    Have you tried Georgian soft drinks - like Nagebi (cream-soda), Tarkhun, Pear and so on? Locally they are called 'lemonade' which is totally different then lemonade in States. I am not into soft drinks here in States but Georgian Nagebi is my favorite then I come there.

    Once again, thanks for the great post. Please keep writing.

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  6. Thanks for the catch. Duly noted and corrected.

    I've had Natakhtari's soft drinks, but mostly I stick to diet coke and Fanta, because they are so much better over here (actual cane sugar rather than the high fructose corn syrup).

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  7. Mingrelian khatchapuri is flat like regular khatchapuri, but also has pools of cheese on top.

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