A molten canoe of carbohydrates and dairy, the quantity of sulguni cheese alone in khachapuri Adjaruli is enough to land a lactose-intolerant friend in the ER. But the decadence doesn’t end there. Seconds after the bread is pulled from the toné, a baker parts the cheese to make way for a final flourish: hunks of butter and a cracked raw egg. When the bubbling mass is placed before you, you must wield your spoon fearlessly and, working from the yolk out, vigorously swirl the ingredients together until hypnotizing spirals of orange and white begin to appear. At this point—and God forbid the mixture get cold—tear off a corner of bread and dunk with conviction.
Perhaps the most eye-catching Georgian food of all, churchkhela are the lumpy, colorful confections hanging in storefront windows, which tourists often mistake for sausages. Making churchkhela takes patience and practice: Concentrated grape juice (left over from the yearly wine harvest) must be poured repeatedly over strands of walnuts. Each layer is left to dry until a chewy, waxy exterior envelops the nuts.
They say you can judge a good khinkali, or Georgian soup dumpling, by how many folds it has: Tradition dictates that fewer than 20 is amateurish. But when a platter of pepper-flecked khinkali hits the table, counting pleats is never anyone’s first priority. Eating the khinkali is, and it requires urgency and exacting technique; without learning the latter, you risk being teased if you’re in Georgian company. First and foremost, khinkali is finger food: Make a claw with your fingers and grab onto the dumpling from its topknot.
Among the many riffs on ratatouille served throughout Europe and the Middle East, west Georgian ajapsandali stands out. For one, it’s unapologetically spicy, with garlicky adjika taking a central role. And unlike its Mediterranean counterparts, in which the vegetables are too often reduced to mush, ajapsandali is an oven-roasted medley of firm eggplant and crisp bell peppers, lightly bound at the last minute with fresh tomato purée and livened up with a flurry of chopped cilantro.
Mtsvadi is Georgia’s catchall name for meat impaled on a stick and cooked over an open flame. Variations on this theme abound in the region, but, in contrast with Turks and Armenians, Georgian cooks tend to be purists, eschewing elaborate marinades and rubs in favor of a liberal dose of salt. The preferred protein here is beef or lamb, cut into chunks and threaded onto a skewer, either on its own or with alternating slices of vegetables. But let me be clear—mtsvadi are anything but bland, especially when accompanied by tkemali, the sour plum condiment that Georgians pour over everything, from potatoes to bread to fried chicken.