Since its independence from the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago, the Republic of Georgia has gone through some tumultuous times. One thing that has remained constant, though, is the rich history of the Caucasus region, with its hospitable people, cultural traditions and especially cuisine. For a number of reasons explained below, Georgian food culture is one of the best kept secrets that is now exploding on to the world culinary scene.
The Evolution of Georgian Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Georgia, along with Azerbaijan, Armenia and the southern parts of the Russian Federation form the region that takes its name from the Caucasus Mountain range.
Georgia is flanked by the Black Sea to the West and the Caspian to the East. Its southern borders are occupied by Turkey to the West, then Armenia and Azerbaijan as you move east towards the south western shores of the Caspian.
Georgian cuisine grew through a series of cultural and political influences. Around the time of Christ, Georgia was occupied and influenced by the Greeks and the Romans in succession, modern day Georgia had several stops and starts after its beginning in the 11th century AD.
The various influences continued throughout the next thousand years. Georgia was on the fabled Silk Route, which led to early introductions of spices and culinary culture from China, India and the Far East. This was further exacerbated by Mongol invasions in the Middle Ages and the later fight between Ottoman Turks and Persians in terms of shaping the culture and cuisine.
The evolution of Georgian food culture and cuisine can be viewed through the lens of the following eras:
- Antiquity: The Caucasus region has been populated since 1.8 million years ago (making it the second oldest human habitation beyond Africa), and started appearing in historical records around the 12th and 13th century BC.
- Prehistoric Period (Early Kingdoms): During this period, the regions of Western and Central Georgia were occupied by two kingdoms – the Colchis kingdom on the Black Sea Coast, which started around the 13th century BC and peaked between the 6th and 1st century BC, and Iberia which began around 300 BC. Colchis was a well-known culture with strong Greek influences between 1000 and 550 BC, as is seen by it being the home of the Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts went in search of. Iberia was a frequent target of invaders, including Alexander the Great, the Iranian Median Empire, the Armenians and the Romans. In the latter part of this era, starting around 36 BC, Colchis was annexed into the Roman Empire where it remained for over 600 years. Many regions of Georgia adopted Christianity following the Council of Nicaea in 327 AD. Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the earliest such institutions.
- Medieval Period (Unification, Seljuk Invasion; Golden Age; Mongol Invasion): This age, also called the High Middle Ages, began with the formation of a unified Kingdom of Georgia under the Bagrationi dynasty in 1008 AD. During this period, there were several upheavals, beginning with the invasion by the Seljuk Turks in the latter half of the 11th century. The kingdom stabilized under King David IV the Builder and especially Queen Tamar the Great, whose reign (1184-1213) was characterized as the Golden Age. This stability continued for a while, till Mongol invasions by Tamarlane and others in the 13th and 14th century (in concert with their Turkish allies) brought things crashing down.
- Early Modern Period (Ottoman & Iranian Domination; Russian annexation): The Mongol invasions decimated what centralized power existed in the region of Georgia, a situation which was further exploited by the Ottoman Turks and successive Iranian dynasties. Finally, Georgia began to look toward Russia as a possible ally – this too proved futile since Russia annexed Georgia in the first decade of the 19th century.
- Modern Era (Russian Empire; Russian Federation; Independence): Georgians continued to vie for independence from the Russian Empire, a goal that was realized by the formation of the First Georgian Republic between 1818 and 1921. Unfortunately, at that point, Georgia was re-annexed by the Russian Federation and became a part of the Soviet Union. The final chapter – formation of an independent Georgia – did not occur till after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Georgia gained independence in 1991.
Throughout the evolution of Georgian cuisine, some fundamental traditions remained. Georgians are among the most ancient people who have continuously adhered to the same cultural heritage over 3000 years – even though many of the 5 million people of Georgian descent are now spread over the globe.
Traditional Georgian Food Culture is Driven by Geography and Regional Cuisine Influences
As described above, Georgia is a crossroads between European, Asian and Mediterranean culture and how the forces of history and nature that have come together to shape the cuisine of the country. In many cases, dishes common in the other countries of the Caucasus are consumed as voraciously in Georgia, same goes for sauces, spices and flavorings.
Here are brief reviews of factors that have helped influence Georgian cuisine.
Six of the major culinary influencers, region wise, are listed below:
- Mingrelia: The Black Sea coastal province of Mingrelia has perhaps the richest culinary history in Georgia. The subtropical, rainy climate has spawned a bounty of fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits – plus the seafood is plentiful. Among famous dishes from Mingrelia are the famous Ghomi, Mingrelian Khachapuri, Kharcho and Kupati, all described below. The famous adjika sauce also originates from Mingrella.
- Abkhazeti: Abkhazeti, like Guria and Imereti, is known for its heavy use of walnuts. However, they also produce some of the spiciest cuisine in Georgia. Some of the famous dishes from this region include Abysta (Corn Porridge similar to Ghomi), Achash (a Abkhaz version of chudu, with cheese) and Apyrpylchapa (pepper skin stuffed with walnut sauce).
- Guria and Imereti: The cuisine from Guria and its neighbor, Imereti, is distinguished by the heavy use of walnuts, both in fresh (ground) form or added as bajhe. Some of the well-known dishes include Satsivi, Badrijani Nigvzit and Pkhali, all described below.
- Adjara: Adjara’s cooking is influenced by diverse influences due to its rich history as well as the topography – it has a seaside as well as mountains. Some of its varied dishes include Chirbuli (omelet with walnuts and tomato), Khavisti (corn porridge with ghee) and paklava (version of Turkish baklava).
- Kakheti: Kakheti is well-known as a wine region and for its meat-based dishes, such as Mtsvadi, Chakapuli, Khinkali and Khashlama, all described below. There are also famous desserts, such as Churchkhela (candy from grape juice and walnuts) and Pelamushi (grapefruit dessert).
The regions not covered specifically above, such as Kartli, Mtianeti, Khevi, Lazeti, Khevsureti, Pshavi, Tusheti, Racha-Lekhchumi, Samtskhe-Javakheti and Svaneti, each have their own distinctive cuisines as well.
Georgian Food Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
As mentioned before, Georgia has many differentiated cuisines due to the different indigenous people and the waves of invasions and cultural traditions that have been passed down by the Greeks, Romans, Turks, Persians, Mongols, Arabs and the other nations of the Caucasus – namely, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russian influences are also present, as is the impact of spices from South and South East Asia, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, during the spice trade that was conducted along the Silk Route.
Food for Major Georgian Holidays and Special Occasions
Georgians love food, and holiday and religious celebrations vary widely from region to region, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint specific food that is eaten during a specific time across the country. More generally, any occasion to eat, drink and be merry is embraced by one and all in Georgia. There are some exceptions, of course. For example, on Christmas Eve and New Year, the main servings include either Turkey or Chicken with Satsivi, described below. Gourian Pie is served in mountainous regions. Ghomi is eaten in Samegrelo. During the Georgian New Wine festival in the spring, many types of newly made wine is served with Mtsvadi, fresh bread, cheeses and other delicacies.
List of 10 Popular Georgian Cooking Styles, Customs and Preparations
Georgian food style varies from region to region, but the one constant is family style servings. Some of the common styles of dishes are as follows:
- Yogurt and Porridge: Georgians love milk and custard-based products and dips (such as Tahini), as well as porridges – such as the cornmeal based Ghomi described below.
- Salads – Fresh Georgian salads, with tomatoes, basil, onions, cheese and other ingredients are very much like Greek salads.
- Steak, Barbecue and Kebabs: Georgians love kebabs due to the Turkish and Iranian influences. Examples are Mtsvadi, Kofta and Kupachi described below
- Soups and Stews: There are a rich variety of stews and soups including Kharcho, Chakapuli, Chakhokhbili and Qovurma described below.
- Fruits and Nuts: The Georgians prefer fresh fruit and nuts as snacks, as ingredients in sauces and sprinkled on salads. Besides the usual varieties, the two specialty items used in Georgian food are walnuts (used in a wide variety of pastes, sauces and dishes, as described below) and pomegranates.
- Vegetables and Salads: A wide variety of vegetables, such as potatoes, tomatoes, beans, carrots, zucchini and other squashes, bell peppers, mushrooms and assorted leafy and salad greens are common, either as core ingredients or garnish.
- Pilaf (Rice): Georgians eat rice pilaf the same as their neighbors such as Iran, Turkey and Greece.
- Khachapuri (Bread): Described below, the many different regional varieties of Khachapuri are a unique Georgian creation.
- Cheeses and Wines: Georgia boasts some unique cheeses, the best known among which are Sulguni, Temili and Imereti. Some popular Georgian wines include Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, Kindzmarauli and Mtsvane.
- Desserts and Candy: Georgia has a number of unique sweet dishes and candies.
List of 23 Georgian Spices, Ingredients, Sauces, and Condiments You May Need
The best expressions of Georgian cuisine often come from home cooked food which blend the rich traditions and culture of using spices that the Caucasus inhabitants learned over centuries.
Many of the spices used in India, Turkey, Iran and even China, Italy and Greece have found a home in Georgia.
To best understand the traditional spices, it is important to understand some of the driving forces. Walnuts and pomegranates are two for sure.
The list below highlights some of the spices that are used repeatedly in the cuisine, including quite a few spices and herbs that are similar to what is found elsewhere but are made from plants native to the Caucasus.
The second part refers to fabulous spice mixes which are to date not well-known but are just awaiting discovery to take their rightful place among savory and sweet mixes.
- Basil: Georgians use basil grown locally, both the green leaf and the purple leaf varieties. Basil is frequently used in salads and in dishes such as Chashusuli.
- Garlic: Garlic (including wild garlic that is native to the Caucasus) is used extensively in Georgian cooking, across a wide range of dishes such as Shkmeruli and Ham Chashushuli, as well as Chakapuli, described below.
- Onions: Onions and scallions can be used as garnish or main ingredients.
- Bay Leaves: Bay leaves, whole, ground and flakes, are used in a number of Georgian dishes.
- Coarse Red Pepper: Dried, coarse red chili pepper is used in spicy Georgina dishes like Chakhokhbili and Tolmas, described below.
- Caraway Seeds: Caraway seeds are a popular addition to Georgian food. They grow locally and are usually crushed and ground. Khinkali, the most popular dumplings, are made with spices including caraway seeds.
- Dried/Crushed Berberis Berris (Barberry): Georgia grows large crops of native, edible berries that are used in cooking. The close substitute is ground sumac powder used in Turkey. Crushed Barberry is used in dishes like Ojakhuri (Pork with Potatoes) and barbecued pork.
- Dried Marigold Petals or Crushed Marigold Powder – Dried marigold petals are used in bazhe while marigold powder is used in dishes featuring walnuts and other spices.
- K’indzi Tovebs (Caucasian Coriander Leaves/Cilantro): Whole leaves and shoots of cilantro are frequently chopped up and used as garnish in salads, soups, syrups and liqueurs, as well as some meat dishes. Dried coriander, both seeds and ground, are used extensively in Georgia.
- Herb Hyssop: A semi-woody, aromatic spice with a minty flavor is widely cultivated in certain areas of Southern Georgia. It is used as one of the key ingredients in khmeli suneli and in a host of salads, soups and dishes as seasoning or garnish.
- Blue Fenugreek: This particular species of fenugreek, used in Ajika and many other preparations, is native to the Alps and Caucasus. A variation of Ajika is prepared with tomato paste and consumed in Russia and Ukraine. Usually prepared moist, dry ajika is also used at times.
- Summer Savory: Dried summer savory herbs are used to spice meats and vegetables, it is used extensively in mixes such as tkemali.
- Other Common Herbs and Spices: Other common flavorings, herbs and spices used in Georgia include lemon, lime, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, carum, parsley, mint, marjoram, fennel, celery, rosemary, tarragon, purslane, satureja, black and white pepper and turmeric.
- Khmeli Suneli (Georgian Allspice Seasoning): This powerful spice mix is Georgia’s answer to curry powder, a rich mix of dried herbs, seeds and spices, mostly from the Caucasus region. The standard ingredients include blue fenugreek (seeds and leaves), dried marigold petals, marjoram, coriander seed, hot pepper, hyssop, dill and basil. Various other aromatic spices are added based on regional specializations or secret recipes. Pretty much every Georgian kitchen will stock and liberally use khmeli suneli, since it covers so many of the standard spices that go with Georgian cooking.
- Svanetian Salt: This fragrant salt mix is prepared in the mountainous Svaneti region in the north-western part of Georgia. The mix uses regular salt, garlic, marigold, coriander, blue fenugreek and other aromatic spices. It is used for a variety of meat, fish, potato and sweet dishes.
- Megrelian Salt: Megrelian cooking is much spicier than many others in Georgia, and accordingly, Megrelian Salt is very spicy compared to Svanetian Salt, mainly through the addition of hot chili peppers.
- Ajika: Ajika is a hot and spicy paste made from peppers, salt, garlic, herbs, spices (coriander, dill, blue fenugreek) and walnuts. It originated in Western Georgia but is used all over the Caucasus.
- Matzoon (Fermented Milk): This is similar to yogurt elsewhere in the world, a concoction eaten in Georgia and Armenia.
- Narsharab (Dried Pomegranate Juice): This Persian preparation is commonly used in the Caucasus. Fresh pomegranate juice is left to dry and thicken, after which sugar, coriander, basil and cinnamon are added. Black or red pepper can be added for spice.
- Bazhe (Runny Georgian Walnut Sauce): Used as a dipping sauce for boiled or fried poultry, bazhe is made with walnuts, garlic, vinegar, a combination of hers, cayenne pepper and salt mixed with water. The end result is similar to hummus.
- Satsivi (Thick Walnut Paste): This Georgian sauce, made from walnuts and served cold, is used in a wide variety of poultry, fish and vegetable dishes. Ingredients mixed in with walnut include onions, garlic, blue fenugreek, dried marigold, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, red pepper and salt with white wine vinegar.
- Tkemali (Cherry Plum Sauce): This tart and pungent sauce, used in grilled meat, poultry and potato dishes, is used in a way reminiscent of ketchup in Western cuisine. The main ingredients are red or green cherry plums, with garlic, pennyroyal, cumin, coriander, dill, chili pepper and salt. A sour version of tklapi (pureed fruit roll-up leather) is made with tkemali.
- Cooking Oils: One of the unique aspects of Georgian cooking is its use of Walnut based sauces and oils for cooking. Besides Walnut Oil, Sunflower Oil and Corn Oil are also common. Olive oil is usually used for dressing, even though it is occasionally used to cook. Butter and ghee (clarified butter) are occasionally used. Balsamic vinegar and white wine vinegar are also used as dressings or drips.
Many of the condiments above are used in combinations, as can be seen from the large variety of spice mixes and sauces outlined above.
List of 21 Popular Georgian Dishes Around the World
Georgian cuisine, with its list of haute cuisine and regional fares, has too many variations to capture in one list. The ones listed below are representative fares that many will recognize.
1. Ghomi (Corn Porridge)
This Samegrelo dish is made from coarse cornmeal and topped with strips of Sulguni cheese and butter.
2. Kharcho (Beef Soup)
This traditional soup contains beef, rice, cherry plum puree (taklapi or tkemali) and chopped walnuts (Juglans regia). The soup is garnished with chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) and a mix of spices that vary by region – typically cerulean, paprika and Turkish smoked red pepper.
3. Chakapuli (Lamb or Veal Stew)
This is one of the most popular Georgian stews, made from Lamb Chops or Veal, garnished with onions, tarragon leaves, tkemali, dry white wine, fresh mix of parsley, mint, dill and coriander, garlic and salt. A variation calls for beef and mushrooms.
4. Chakhokhbili (Chicken with Herbs)
This classic Georgian version of stewed chicken is cooked with khmeli-suneli. Other spices and herbs include garlic, onions, basil, diced tomatoes, cilantro, black pepper, red chili pepper, salt and sugar to taste.
5. Qovurma (Lamb Stew)
A cooked stew with meat, qovurma is similar to the Iranian ghormeh sabzi. It is cooked with green herbs, dried fruits and vegetables. The meat is fried in butter and verjuice (or sour grape juice) may be used as flavoring. Lemons, pomegranates and dried apricots are other additions in regional versions of the dish.
6. Kofta (Georgian Meatballs)
The Georgian version of kofta is similar to what is found all around the region (e.g. Turkey, Iran, Mediterranean) but with some local touches. The recipe calls for ground beef, kosher salt, yellow onion, garlic, lemon juice, breadcrumbs, Berbere spice blend, parsley, cilantro, mint or dill, kosher salt and ground black pepper mixed with olive oil. The dish is usually served on bread with fresh tomatoes and onions with a side of Tahini sauce (mint-yogurt dip).
7. Mtsvadi (Grilled Meat Skewers)
The Georgian version of shashlik, these skewers are made from well-marbled pork shoulders – so the fat sizzles over the open fire (often the embers of grape vines). The pieces are often finished off with a drizzle of fresh pomegranate juice. They are traditionally served with tkemali, and sides of khachapuri, pkhali and eggplant and walnut rolls would make a full meal. The other ingredients are simple, usually wine vinegar and black pepper, plus salt to taste.
8. Kupaci or Kupati (Pork Sausage)
This classic Georgian sausage from the Mingrelia region is made from ground pork, intestines or chitterlings, pepper, garlic (occasionally) and onions.
9. Pikhali or Mkhali (Vegetable Mix)
A traditional dish from Guria and Imereti, Pikhali is a dish with chopped and minced vegetables, including cabbage, eggplant, spinach, beans and beets, which are seasoned with ground walnuts, vinegar, onions, garlic and various herbs. The base is made out of bazhe.
10. Nigvziani Badrijani (Fried Stuffed Eggplant)
This traditional Georgian dish is made with fried eggplant roll-ups stuffed with a walnut filling and pomegranate sauce. The filling contains garlic, coriander, cayenne pepper, blue fenugreek and vinegar besides walnut. The dish can be garnished with red onions, coriander or pomegranate seeds.
11. Chicken Satsivi (Chicken with Walnut Paste)
This traditional dish is made from poultry (turkey can be substituted for chicken) that is prepared with satsivi sauce that is either served on the side, or with the meat served in the sauce. The dish originated in the Guria and Imereti regions and is popular in winter holiday feasts.
12. Lobio (Georgian Kidney Beans)
This kidney bean dish can be cooked in many ways. One classic version uses garlic, onions, bay leaves, dried mint, dried and fresh coriander, dried Summer Savory, fresh parsley and salt to taste. Eggs are mixed into the classic recipe at the last stage.
13. Khinkali (Dumplings)
This dish is found in Georgian mountain regions, it is similar to the Turkish or Armenian manti or the Tibetan momo. The main ingredient is spiced meat (beef, pork or lamb), a mix of herbs, carum, cumin, satureja, chili pepper, onions and garlic. Non-meat fillings such as cheese, potatoes or mushrooms can also be used.
14. Tolmas or Dolmas (Stuffed Vine Leaves)
The traditional Turkish creation is very popular in the South Caucasus region as well. Stuffed vine leaves (alternatively cabbage) are filled with ground meat, cucumber, eggplants, apples or quinces, along with sauteed mint, rice and saffron. In Georgia, tolmas are often prepared with tkemali or other traditional sauces.
15. Ojakhuri (Meat and Fried Potatoes Meals)
This family meal is made in classic Georgian style. A whole chicken, potatoes, onions, a fairly substantial amount of dry marigold, oil and salts are the main ingredients. The chicken pieces are arranged on top of the fried potatoes in a deep dish. Onion rings are put on top and dried marigold sprinkled.
16. Khachapuri (Georgian Cheese Bread)
Khachapuri is the classic cheese filled bread from Georgia. Every major region has its own variation – since the core bread is baked into various shapes and sizes before the cheese is filled into the central dip. For example, Imeretian Khachapuri is made by pastry infused with yeast and white Imeretian salted cheese, Adjarian khachapuri is a boat shaped bread with cheese, butter and egg yolk in the middle, Ossetian (Osuri) khachapuri has potato and cheese filling and is commonly called Khabizgini. Gurian khachapuri, also called Gurian Pie is a traditional calzone style Christmas dish with potato filling.
There are regional variations of many of the dishes outlined above, with deep crossovers with cooking styles from neighboring countries such as Iran, Turkey and Russia – which means that you can enjoy the same dish in a dozen different styles as you travel through Georgia. Here’s a recipe.
The Verdict … Georgian Food Culture is the “Next Big Thing!”
The best way to describe Georgian cuisine is perhaps a fusion of Turkish, Russian and Caucasus regional influences, but as discussed above, the influences of cultures and cuisines far and wide, from India to Mongolia and Italy, Greek and Arabia have left indelible marks of Georgian cuisine. One advantage of the widespread diaspora of Georgian expats is that it won’t be too difficult to locate a restaurant if you are in a major city. Go check out the food – you will never be disappointed with the rich variety and taste of an authentic Georgian recipe.