TBILISI, Republic of Georgia – Whatever you can make with flour, water, eggs, and cheese the Georgians make. That includes many turnovers in different shapes, crepes, and a variety of flatbreads, something like pizza, called khachapuri. This national dish is so popular, that in some family restaurants, where three generations might be dining together, you see waiters carrying trays heaped with half a dozen.
Khachapuri is hearty, as is most Georgian food. The country, which divides Europe and Asia, is a former Soviet republic located in the Caucasus, south of Russia (Georgia gained independence in 1991); the Black Sea is on Georgia’s west coast, Turkey and Armenia are to the south, and Azerbaijan to the east. The pizza-like specialty comes flat and round or turnover-shaped, always with cheese (the name khachapuri blends the words for “curds” with “bread”). One of the most popular versions is a boat-shaped pie called Adjaruli khachapuri, originally a specialty of Adjara on the Black Sea. Now the dish is on some New York menus and gaining popularity in Israel, brought there when Georgian Jews emigrated in the 1970s.
What distinguishes Adjaruli khachapuri from the other varieties is its shape and a bright golden egg (often just the yolk) that sits on the melted cheese filling, ready to be broken and swirled into the hot fondue. The pie is addictive. It comes to the table looking like it would be a generous serving for two, and you find yourself, as I did many times on a recent visit, devouring the entire thing.
Adjaruli khachapuri begins with a rich dough rolled into an oval, spread with a white cheese-and-egg filling, then shaped into a boat. In the oven — Georgian restaurants typically have wood-fired ovens — the cheese melts and the crust chars on the bottom. The pies are pulled from the heat, topped with an egg yolk, sent back to the oven for a minute or two, and served with a big nubbin of butter. At the table, you mix the piping hot cheese with the yolk and break off pieces of the crusty exterior to dip into the cheesy center. It’s buttery, salty, lightly smoky, and crunchy.
The only downside of this exceptional dish can be the soft seams inside at the point where the dough is folded up. In its short stay in the hot oven, the dough cannot cook through those thick areas. Some people prefer the doughiness and order Adjaruli khachapuri “tsomis” (with the dough). Others like edges that are just as crisp as the interior, so they order “gareshe” (without the dough). In that case, the cook bakes the boat, then takes a small spoon to scoop out and discard the doughy inside seam. When the pastry goes back into the oven with an egg on top, the cheese spreads right to the firm, crusty walls of dough.
Georgians typically use two cheeses in this khachapuri. One is fresh cow’s milk Imeretian, from the Imereti region in the middle of the country. The other is Sulguni from Samegrelo. This salty cheese, which is slightly sour, is made from cow’s, buffalo’s, or goat’s milk, and melts well. To make khachapuri in this country, the best combination of cheeses is aged mozzarella and feta.
The yeast dough is simple enough to form. A little milk makes it tender, and olive oil in the dough allows you to roll it easily. Even if you’ve never seen khachapuri in its place of origin, you can shape it easily. After rolling the dough to an oval, mix grated or crumbled cheese with an egg and milk to make a chunky paste, spread it in the center so it comes to within an inch of all sides. Use your hands to fold up the long sides a couple of times, turning the edges into shallow walls to hold the filling. Take the ends of the folded dough and twist them together to form the boat’s ends. Then send to the oven.
Around the corner from the Georgian National Museum, we found No. 1 Sakhachapure restaurant, which specializes in khachapuri. I watched the cook make them again and again – his Adjaruli khachapuri were the kind with the extra dough removed and I couldn’t get enough of them. Some days I ate them wherever I was for both lunch and dinner.
I had the feeling I was doing what the locals do.
NO. 1 SAKHACHAPURE Rustaveli Ave. 5, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, 955-322-22-52-23Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian