There's a popular joke in Georgia that goes like this:
In the beginning, all the people of Earth lined up as God divvied up the land. The French got France, the Japanese Japan, the Brazilians Brazil. One group, however, was not paying attention at all and didn't get in line.
Instead, they were marveling at simply being alive, with so many others, and all of these strange and wonderful foods. There were tangy grapes to turn into wines, red grains to bake into breads and rich walnuts and sour plums to crush into sauces. All the while they talked and laughed and sang.
Suddenly, no one else was around; no land would be theirs. Troubled, they ran to God but God could only shrug. Sorry, I've given everything away. But the people begged and God relented. Well, God sighed, I had saved a place just for me, but you can have it. And that became the Republic of Georgia.
If you're ever so lucky to make it to Georgia, that land sandwiched between the mighty Caucasus, the Black and Caspian seas, Russia and Turkey, it may take you a week to hear that joke but only a day to believe it.
The country of 3.7 million people brims with towering peaks and meadows splashed in wildflowers. Its cities and villages spring from fables. And the people, still gracious and gregarious, have only honed their love for merrymaking.
In no other tradition is the spirit and bounty of Georgia so neatly presented as in the Georgian dinner party, called the supra, an experience against which all other dinner parties must be measured. Sit down to a Georgian feast at a table groaning under so many culinary marvels, surrounded by singing and laughter, and before long, the rest of the world may fall away for you, too.
Here are some Georgian dishes and rituals to try at your next feast with friends.
Khachapuri, soup and a jug of wine are typical Georgian fare — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / format35
There are three key things required to make the greatest dinner party on earth and only one of them is hard – great food. The other two are people assigned specific roles. The first is the merikipe, the person in charge of pouring the wine. You can help the merikipe by bringing a bottle or two, but after that you must surrender your fate.
A good merikipe will read the crowd like a symphony and know which diners to keep well lubed while giving others just enough – or none at all. The merikipe's job becomes most critical right before the toasts, which are often involved, emotional and controlled by the tamada.
The tamada is often the host or some other eloquent master of extemporaneous speech appointed by the host. This person often makes all of the speeches but he or she can also select someone to go next. When a toast is near, all chatter stops and everyone stands.
Georgians generally toast to big topics first – peace, ancestors, love – but after that you can toast to pretty much anything. These aren't short cheers-and-you're-done moments but heartfelt oratorical essays that can stir a crowd to tears. After the toast you may link the arm of your cup-holding hand around the arm of your table neighbor's cup-holding hand and drink. Of course the Georgians have a word for this: vakhtanguri.
At some point you can bet the singing will begin. Georgians are renowned for belting out hauntingly gorgeous polyphonic songs, even during a regular night out at the bar.
Georgians are some of the world's oldest winemakers, with vineyards dating back more than 8,000 years. Over the centuries, the practice and some of the region's unique varietals, like kisi, koloshi and tchvitiluri, were nearly wiped out by various invaders. The stories say Georgian warriors saved the day by hiding rootstocks under their shirts before fleeing more powerful armies like, most recently, the Russians.
The Soviets nearly let some grapes go extinct but now small producers like Danieli Winery and Oda Winery are bringing those grapes back. Wine here is not traditionally aged in barrels but in large underground amphorae. To taste how it's progressing, vintners will carefully remove the lids and dip long ladles into the wine below.
Colorful churchkhela hang in Georgian shops — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / bruev
The Georgians, having had so many millennia to make wine, have found all sorts of uses for all of the byproducts, too. The woody vines may fuel the fires to bake bread but the leftover skins and juices form the central ingredient of the Georgian Snickers. Churchkhela look like candy kebabs, with various nuts stacked on a skewer and then dipped into a sticky, caramelized grape juice concoction. The skewer is then hung upside down to dry, creating an irresistible snack that will make your dentist cringe.
The Georgians are also bread-making masters. The more popular types of delicious carbs you might find include shotis puri, a canoe-shaped bread cooked in a traditional, open-top circular stone oven called a tone (pronounced tone-ay).
To make this bread, bakers will often get the tone blazing hot by burning the leftover dried, woody vines from making wine. They wet the skin of the ready dough slightly and then slap it against the interior wall of the tone, where it sticks and the high heats bakes it to crispy-soft perfection in minutes.
The other type of bread you'll find everywhere is khachapuri, a rich, cheese-filled, flattened leavened bread. The best versions feature a blend of two local cheeses, sulguni and Imeretian, that yield a gooey, decadent center. Other versions, called kubdari, come with meat.
An appetizing khachapuri — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / NoirChocolate
With any Georgian meal, you are bound to get a salad, which for some could be a meal on its own. Typically, the salads are simple, like something you might find in the Balkans of southeast Europe – chunky slices of tomatoes, thin slices of onions – but then there's the bazhe sauce.
Georgia grows a lot of walnuts and no other recipe lets them shine the way this dressing does. Made with walnuts crushed to form a paste, bazhe comes alive with blue fenugreek, coriander and marigold. It is so impossibly perfect you may want to bathe in it.
It is nearly impossible to come to Georgia and not have a meal focused on enormous amounts of savory khinkali. These traditional flour dumplings are cheap and plentiful, which makes them a popular, scrumptious filler for those times when you may have had too much chacha, the national moonshine.
No forks or coordination required; khinkali are finger food. The trick to eating them like a Georgian is to pinch the dumpling by its gathered top, flip it upside down and take a small bite out of the bottom – just big enough so you can slurp out the liquid inside. Then eat everything but the doughy handle, sprinkling on plenty of pepper if you choose.
Another great hangover cure: salty French fries doused in a tangy, mouth-puckering green plum sauce called tkemali.
If that '80s TV show Alice had ever been dubbed into Georgian – one of only a handful of languages in the world that uses its own, unique alphabet, and the only other official language besides Russian under the Soviets – one the show's main characters, a diner waitress named Flo, would not have told surly customers to kiss her grits.
They would have been told to kiss her gomi. Made from coarsely ground cornmeal, gomi looks and tastes almost exactly like grits, though the Georgians will enhance it with lots of tangy cheese. Chef Meriko Gubeladze at one of Tbilisi's most acclaimed restaurants, Shavi Lomi, adds spinach to turn the dish from a pasty white to an enticing green.
Not to be confused with gomi, gobi is not a single dish so much as a platter of Georgian-style tapas. A gobi platter at Shavi Lomi would be worth the airfare to Tbilisi alone. Ours came with pinto beans with walnuts, baked beetroots with baby walnuts, jonjoli (close to a caper) and baked pumpkin with cornelian cherries that happened to be in season.
A traditional Georgian feast — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / Fascinadora
The highlight, however, had to be the badrijai nigvzit, slices of cooked eggplant wrapped around a rich, creamy walnut paste. It's all meant to be shared. In fact, the word gobi comes from megobroba, the Georgian word for friendship.
After God took pity on the Georgians and gave them their land, as the joke goes, it's easy to imagine a corollary scene. To give thanks, the Georgians could have brought the Almighty one big bowl of chakapuli. This soup often comes with lamb but it rises to heavenly status thanks to a spectacular mix of wine, tarragon, spices like coriander, and tangy green plums. A single slurp is all it takes for you to crave it for eternity.