Georgian food is quite appropriately an expression of the culture. Warm, gooey comfort food like khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) finds balance with matsoni (sour yogurt). Herbs like tarragon, flat parsley, dill and coriander combine with walnuts and garlic for rich fillings and sauces.
Eating, hospitality, toasts and the supra bind family and friends and snare visitors into long, table-bound interludes. Georgian food and hospitality surrounds you…and can sometimes suffocate you under its weight.
We developed a deep appreciation for Georgian food during our travels there, particularly due to helpful friends and host families who enjoyed providing us a quick and tasty education in Georgian cuisine and dishes.
Words of wisdom from Lali, our host and instructor in Kakheti resonate: “Onions take parsley; garlic needs walnuts and coriander.”
The following is just a taste of Georgian food and some of our favorite dishes and recommended restaurants in Georgia.If you do visit Georgia, just ask people where you can find a specific dish and people will be more than happy to help you discover their cuisine. And, you'll likely have a great story to tell about that experience and meal.
Favorite Georgian Dishes and Snacks
No visit to Georgia would be complete (or possible) without a few tastes of khachapuri, the warm, gooey cheese-stuffed bread that oozes and drips with heart-stopping goodness. In addition to the standard round pie stuffed with cheese, other variations include egg-topped (Adjarian khachapuri), the four-fold filo dough pocket, and tarragon, mushroom and rice-stuffed pies.
Arguably the best khachapuri can be found at a home stay when it’s made fresh for breakfast (for us, in Tbilisi and Kisiskhevi). Or in Svaneti, where you may also find it stuffed with leek. If you aren’t staying with a family, don’t despair – you can find khachapuri stands on almost every street corner in Tbilisi.
Beautifully twisted knobs of dough, usually stuffed with meat and spices (served boiled or steamed). The trick: to eat without making a mess of yourself with the hot broth inside. Sprinkle with black pepper and grab the dumpling by the handle and turn upside down. Take small bites from the side, slurping broth as you go.
Lali taught us how to make khinkali from scratch when we stayed in Kakheti. After a few disastrous attempts, we finally got the hang of how to turn and tuck the dough around the meat. Remarkably, our dumplings maintained their form as they boiled and the broth remained inside. We’re told our khinkali-making certificate is in the mail.
Although traditional khinkali includes meat, vegetarian fillings of mushroom, and cheese/curd are often available if you ask for them.
Puri (Tonis Puri)
The Georgian bread staple. Baked in a ceramic circular hearth oven with the dough stuck to the side (like Indian naan), puri comes out moist and sourdoughy, perfectly tainted with black bits from the oven. Its edges are browned and taste faintly of matzo. The best we found was in Borjomi, next to the bus station.
Roasted eggplant strips, served flat and topped with walnut paste. Sweet and savory, this dish is one of Audrey’s favorites.
A paste made from spinach, walnuts, and garlic. Excellent with tonis puri or khachapuri. Another favorite.
Khachapuri-like bread stuffed with bean paste. Just slightly healthier than the original cheese khachapuri.
A cross between bean soup and refried beans. Its consistency and taste varies widely, bears a resemblance to Mexican bean dishes and is almost always satisfying. Eat with mchadi (Georgian corn bread) for full effect. We were always on the search for lobio, finding it in some unusual locations.
As far as we could tell, *the* national cheese. A salted water-soaked cheese with a stringy shell and moist middle. Eat by itself or with a round of tonis puri bread and a plateful of herbs and tomatoes.
A rather sour yogurt that usually shows up topless (well, without a lid) at the table. Trial and error usually works to suit your taste – with warm meat, vegetables, khachapuri, or blend with fresh honey or fruit.
After matsoni straight from the farm, store-bought yogurt will never taste the same. Made from boiled fresh milk and a bacterial starter, matsoni is certain to have medicinal qualities.
Grilled minced meat sprinkled with sumac and onion slices, wrapped in a thin lavash-like bread. In some small towns, this was the only dish available. We were surprisingly never disappointed by it.
Taken in small doses alongside cheese, khachapuri, or meat, this sour plum sauce is said to be a cleanser. Whenever we had a meal with a family, out came the canning jar of tkemali sauce.
Brown rubbery truncheons made from strings of walnuts dipped in tatara and dried. Sometimes referred to as “Georgian Snickers.” Don’t eat the string!
A juicy, persimmon-colored fruit about the size of a walnut. It’s dark, shiny seeds look like tiger-eye jewels or something you might play Mancala with.
Confection made from boiled, pressed grape extract. Think fruit roll-up without the added sugar.
Steamed, roasted, or boiled vegetables or leaves stuffed with minced meat, herbs and rice. Though we don’t especially associate dolmas with Georgia, Rusiko’s rendition with fresh grape leaves from her garden was something special.
Herbed lamb stew from Kakheti, normally eaten at holidays (e.g., Easter)
Fire-roasted chunks of pork, salted. Cut some fresh onions and put in a metal bowl over a fire. Among some of the best barbecued meat we’ve ever had.
Be careful, chunks of the prized chalahaji (or back meat) are usually in limited amounts and meant to be shared with the group. Audrey learned this after unknowingly taking the whole skewer for herself to shrieks of objection. She then shared.
Spicy Indian pickle-like paste. We were always served this with cucumber and tomato salad.
Khachapuri-like dough stuffed with small chunks of meat, spices and onions. A Svanetian specialty. The place to get it is the restaurant/stop between Zugdidi and Mestia or at a home stay along the route from Mestia to Ushguli.
A perfect complement to vegetables, cheese or salad. Made from various spices and herbs. You’ll think you’re inching closer to Persia or India when you smell it.
Mashed potatoes and lots of cheese
Svanetian farmer food. We’ll never forget waking up to a giant plateful (for each of us) of the stuff in Adishi. We took just a few spoonfuls and could barely move.
Cheese corn bread (a Svanetian version of mchadi with cheese)
Poultry (chicken or turkey) served with a thinned paste of walnut, garlic and herbs. Considered a winter dish (“sivi” implies cold in Georgian) and eaten often around the Christmas holiday and the New Year, particularly in the region of Adjari. Though we’ve enjoyed this at Georgian restaurants abroad, we unfortunately didn’t have an authentic opportunity to try it this time around.
In no way does Georgia suffer from a lack of alcohol…or the endless toasts to go with it.
Georgia is believed to be the birthplace of wine, with the oldest evidence of winemaking at 8,000 years. Traditional Georgian winemaking uses qvevri, terra-cotta containers, that are buried underground to store and ferment the grape juice after it has been pressed and stomped.
Georgia has many different unique and ancient grape varietals, but go for the Saperavi (red wine). This is the most famous of all Georgian varietals and when it's of quality, it can be really good. But Saparavi often needs a bit of time to come into its own, so be sure to decant it in advance and let it breathe for a bit of time.
Surprisingly smooth and easy to drink. Though Armenian brandy gets a lot of press, Georgian brand is worth a taste.
The drink of sadists and masochists throughout the Georgian countryside. Oddly enough, it’s common practice to have a small drink of the stuff in the morning, apparently to ease the effects of a heavy morning meal.
A lower octane hooch/moonshine that makes frequent appearances at the table and in the streets of Svaneti.
Where to Eat in Tbilisi
Many of our eating experiences took place with friends or host families. Below are a few restaurants and cafes worth a visit in Tbilisi.
- Chashnagiri Restaurant (25 Leselidze street): Used to be called Shemoikhede Genatsvale Restaurant, but changed its name in the last couple of years. Khinkali as art – some of the nicest looking khinkali we've had. Very tasty.
- Salobie: Located near Mtskheta, this large outdoor restaurant is a Georgian institution. Apparently, it’s always been dishing out great lobio, even during the civil war of the early 1990s. Our friend, Lena, and her family introduced us to many of the greats of the Georgian table here – khinkali, lobio, qababi, mchadi.
- Hole-in-the-wall deli and bakery (Vashlovani street): That's not really its name, but we know it's located near the Chinese restaurant Picasso between M. Kostava and G. Akhvlediani streets. Offers trays of pkhali, badrijan and tomato ratatouille dishes to go. Each dish is 3 lari. Next door is a bakery with lobiani and various forms of khachapuri. Perfect for assembling a picnic or light evening meal.
- Mitropane Laridze on Rustaveli: The site of our first khachapuri experience. Once a Tbilisian institution, this underlit mosaic-lined soda fountain on Rustaveli makes for an inexpensive mid-afternoon break of khachapuri and gaz voda (egg cream-like syrupy soda).