Talk of the Table | A Savory Georgian Feast
Nestled between the shores of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, the country of Georgia is a land where different cultures and ethnicities have met and merged. Bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan, this melting pot, which historically has included a diverse Jewish community, has fashioned a unique national kitchen. That distinctive cuisine has served Georgians’ renowned hospitality well. For what better way of demonstrating hospitality than with food—a lot of food.
When a Jewish Georgian family hosts a holiday dinner or special celebration, the table is literally heaped with the best that Georgian cuisine has to offer: dips of walnuts and spinach, beets or eggplant; a variety of stuffed breads; rolls of fried eggplant; stews made with tamarind and pomegranate; dumplings filled with minced beef and onion; stuffed grape leaves and cabbage rolls. “They’ll put out their entire refrigerator,” says Dalia Heilpern, owner of the Georgian-style Supra restaurant group in Israel. And all of these flavorful dishes are enhanced by the many great wines that Georgia has to offer. Guests gathered for such celebrations will sit around for hours, drinking, toasting and talking. In short, having a supra (“feast” in Georgian).
Most Georgian Jews believe they are direct descendants of the kingdom of Judah, expelled by King Nebuchadnezzar after the destruction of the first temple in the 6th century BCE. Other Jews arrived after the destruction of the second temple, in 70 CE, and more came in the 15th century after their expulsion from Spain. “Mountain Jews,” also known as Caucasus or Tati Jews, trace their origins to the ancient Jewish community in Persia and make up yet another group. In addition, Georgia had a small Ashkenazi population, which arrived with Russian annexation during the 19th century. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, most Georgian Jews moved to Israel or the United States. Today, from a community that numbered around 100,000 in the 1970s, only several thousand Jews still call Georgia home.
The country’s cuisine has been shaped in part by Georgia’s diverse climate zones, which allow for the cultivation of a variety of produce for cooking, grapes for wine production and pastures for raising livestock. Over the centuries, invaders, including the Ottomans, Mongols and Persians, left their gastronomic imprint, and the country’s location along the ancient Silk Road brought in spices, produce and cooking techniques from India, China and the Near East.
Georgian food is especially known for its creative use of pomegranates, eggplants, walnuts, sour plums and red beans—and for never being shy about adding massive quantities of cilantro, tarragon and basil. Ground walnuts are used to thicken stews and soups, to create sauces called satsivi for meat and chicken, and to make the popular nigvziani badrijani, fried eggplant rolled around a filling made of ground walnuts, herbs, minced garlic and pomegranate molasses. Tamarind and pickled vegetables are used in abundance for flavor.
A variety of dumplings, most famously the khinkali—a pinched dumpling traditionally filled with ground meat, onion and spices—are quite popular. But the biggest hit of Georgian cuisine, at least outside Georgia, is its stuffed breads—and the king of those breads is khachapuri, which is filled with gooey cheese and topped with a runny egg. Other breads include ones stuffed with red bean stew or minced lamb.
Georgians will tell you that their country is the world’s cradle of wine production and that the wine grape was domesticated there eight millennia ago. There is, in fact, archaeological evidence to support that claim, and Georgian wine is a particular source of national pride. The country now grows more than 400 varieties of grapes. Many families make their own wine as well. Georgian Jews used to do so in order to keep the laws of kashrut, but as they emigrated to countries where kosher wine was widely available, that custom all but disappeared.
Jewish Georgian food draws heavily on the national cuisine, with minor adaptations for maintaining the separation of meat and dairy. According to an article by Eliyahu Birnbaum on the Daat website, which specializes in Hebrew texts, most of the Jews still living in Georgia keep kosher. There are five kosher butchers in Tbilisi (the capital) alone, plus a “traveling butcher” to help those in remote areas. Cheese is an integral part of most Georgian meals, but Jews had to keep it off the menu for meat meals. According to Darra Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia, the Jews of the city of Kutaisi in western Georgia make a special pastry called kartopiliani that is filled with potato and onion. The pareve dish was likely developed to accompany meat meals.
Temuri Yakobashvili, a Georgian Jew who served as his country’s ambassador to the United States from 2010 to 2013, told me that he and his wife, who is an Ashkenazi Jew, serve a mix of traditional Ashkenazi and Georgian dishes for the holidays. Their take on matzah-ball soup—khenaghi or tsvniani khenaghi—is made by adding ground walnuts to the matzah-meal mixture. Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food has a recipe for these dumplings made with ground walnuts, eggs and salt.
Another dish that appears on many Georgian Jewish holiday and Shabbat tables is sateni, fried fish (usually carp) in a walnut, tamarind and tomato sauce, with cilantro and coriander. A number of families will also serve khalia, a rich stew of meat seasoned with khmeli suneli, a traditional spice mix of coriander, fenugreek, basil and mint. According to The Georgian Feast, Jews make a special potato pancake for Hanukkah called labda that’s prepared by combining boiled potatoes, walnuts and parsley into one large pancake and cut into wedges before being served. And there’s the unique custom that some Georgian Jews follow of serving a simple wheat porridge called korkoti on the Shabbat when we read Parashat Beshalach, the Torah portion that discusses the exodus from Egypt. The porridge is similar to some historic descriptions of manna.
One culinary ritual that has almost vanished is the kabaluli cake dance, traditionally performed at Georgian Jewish weddings. During the reception, it was the custom for a female family member to dance holding a large braided cake called a kabaluli. The cake was topped with candles, and guests put money on the cake as a gift for the dancer. Georgian Jews in Israel still perform a variation of this ritual at engagement celebrations, says Supra group’s Heilpern. The intended groom arrives at the bride-to-be’s house holding a cake with coins stuffed into its braids. The bride and groom then exchange coins to seal the deal, followed, no surprise, by a celebratory Georgian supra. —Vered Guttman
Georgian Stuffed Eggplant Rolls
Regular black eggplants are the best choice for this recipe. A good eggplant is light as a feather and dark as the night. Pomegranate molasses is available at Whole Foods, Middle Eastern and Eastern European markets and online. You can use red wine vinegar as a substitute. Fenugreek is a spice that’s available in specialty markets and online.
3 regular eggplants
1/4 cup corn oil
11/4 cup walnuts
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 tbsp. chopped mint
1/2 serrano pepper, seeded and chopped
3 tbsp. pomegranate molasses (or red wine vinegar)
¼ tsp. fenugreek (optional)
Pinch of turmeric
2 tbsp. pomegranate seeds for topping
Directions for six servings
1. Peel eggplants and slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Arrange in a colander and sprinkle each layer with kosher salt. Let eggplant stand in the colander over a large bowl (to catch drippings) for a half hour as the salt helps get rid of its slight bitterness. Wash under running water and dry with paper towels.
2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray two large baking sheets with oil. Arrange eggplant slices on baking sheets in one layer and brush oil on both sides of each slice. Roast in the oven for 12 minutes, switching tray locations in the oven after six minutes, until slices are golden brown on the bottom. Flip slices and roast for another 12 minutes until slices are golden brown on both sides. Make sure not to burn the slices, and adjust oven temperature if eggplant browns too quickly. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.
3. Put walnuts, garlic, herbs, pepper, pomegranate molasses, spices and salt to taste in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to a paste. Taste and adjust salt, add more pomegranate molasses if you want more acidity, or a little water if the paste is too thick.
4. When eggplant has cooled down, spread a thin layer of the walnut paste on each slice, roll it up and transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and serve.