Issue 3, 2015. June-July

   

NEW FRONTIERS FOR GEORGIAN CUISINE

Could khinkali and khachapuri become the next street food for Washington, DC?

Jenny Holm

Jenny Holm (Photo by Hanna Lundgren)

It's been an exciting couple of months for Georgian food and wine in the Washington, DC area, where I live. In an indication of just how hot khachapuri has become on the local dining scene since it was first introduced on the menu at a "global street food" restaurant called Compass Rose just over one year ago, The Washington Post recently described it as "that delicious cheese bread concoction that is the reigning it food to name drop at D.C. gatherings." Georgian Embassy chef Irma Japaridze recently showcased it (along with spinach pkhali and eggplant rolls with walnut sauce) at a cooking competition among the in-house chefs of various embassies. (She was beaten out by the chef from the Embassy of Venezuela.)

Compass Rose plans to debut khinkali dumplings on their menu this summer, which would again make them the first restaurant in the U.S. capital to do so. There's no question that local diners are going to fall hard for them: besides being delicious and fun to eat, they're the perfect match for one of Washington's favorite beer styles: American-brewed India pale ales, which are pleasantly sharp and herbal thanks to the extra-generous addition of hops during the brewing process.

I'm looking forward to the time when khinkali, too, have become so commonplace in Washington that I'll be able to refer to them in passing, barely stopping to define them, as prominent Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold does in arecent post, "Looking for Khinkalis? Old Village in Glendale has them," about a Georgian restaurant in Glendale, California.

Local importer and distributor Georgian Wine House celebrated its ten-year anniversary importing Georgian wines to the U.S. near the end of May, with a tasting at Georgian-owned Batch 13 wine shop. They imported their first bottles from Teliani Valley in 2005, not long before the Russian embargo forced a sea change in the Georgian wine industry, leading to better quality vintages and significantly boosting U.S. and European interest in Georgian wines. I recently wrote an article for The Washington Post chronicling that process (and the similar one that is underway in Moldova).

There's a lot of familiarization that remains to be done before that can happen, though. In an effort to move this process forward, I co-hosted a Georgian food and wine event in April with a chef friend who runs her own food consultancy firm.

She and I had traveled to Georgia together in October and wanted to introduce DC residents to Georgian dishes beyond the Adjaran khachapuri they already know and love. We planned the event as a standing reception with passed appetizers and free-flowing wine, so our challenge was to design each dish to taste Georgian yet be edible as "finger food."

This wasn't easy: traditional Georgian dishes don't lend themselves to being eaten with one hand while standing up. The supra, or feast meal, is designedby definition to make tables groan under its weight. (The word "supra" literally means "tablecloth.") I struggle under the strictures of that tradition sometimes, caught between competing urges to provide an "authentic" experience while also drawn towards my desire to blend this foreign culture I love with the one I grew up in and inhabit.

Though we in the United States tend to pride ourselves on adapting to innovation quickly, that same spirit doesn't always extend to the foods of cultures other than our own. The quest for "authenticity"—to find the food that tastes just the way it did when you ate it on a street corner in some far-flung city across the globe—is never-ending. People often get upset when you tinker with something they've come to know in a single form.

Tekuna Gachechiladze of the restaurant and cooking school Culinarium has spoken about this dilemma. "People here sometimes don't like me because I encourage them to experiment with dishes that have been done the same way for centuries," she told me. "I might suggest making chakapuli (a meat stew with tarragon and white wine, traditionally made with lamb) with mussels instead. It's not a big change, but people can be scared to try something different."

As Georgian food continues to make inroads into Washington's dining scene, my hope is that the public here will eventually become familiar enough with classics like khachapuri and khinkali that variations will become not only permissible, but welcomed. I hold a similar hope for restaurants in Georgia itself—that pioneers like Gachechiladze will be able to push the definition of what constitutes "Georgian cuisine" further out and expand the space for creativity and experimentation with flavors in the kitchen.

Photo by Sally Maggard

Georgian Chicken Salad

Serves 6

This dish represents a fusion of Georgian and American traditions. Chicken salad is commonplace in both cultures, but serving it on a bed of greens or in a sandwich is an American habit. Georgians typically use only the celery greens whereas Americans use only the stalks: this recipe calls for both. American chicken salad often contains grapes, but I've substituted pomegranate seeds here.

4 chicken breasts or about 1.5 lbs. of boneless, skinless chicken
1 ¼ tsp. kosher salt, divided
2 stalks celery, finely sliced
3 scallions, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced or mashed
4 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
¼ tsp. black pepper
Juice of half a lemon
1 ½ Tbsp. white wine vinegar
½ cup plain yogurt (not Greek-style)
½ walnuts, ground
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
½ cup chopped fresh dill
(or 1 cup of any combination of chopped fresh herbs including flat-leaf parsley, mint, tarragon, summer savory, basil, celery greens, etc.)
½ cup pomegranate seeds
Lettuce, arugula, spinach or other greens (if desired)

1. Put the chicken in a pot with enough water to cover the pieces by one inch. Add ¼ tsp. salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer 15 minutes or until cooked through.Remove the chicken to a plate and cool completely. Reserve the broth for another use.
2. When it has cooled, shred the chicken into thin pieces. In a large bowl, mix the chicken with the rest of the salt, and all the other ingredients except the lettuce or other greens. Adjust seasonings to taste. Cover the bowl and chill the salad in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving to allow the flavors to meld.
3. Serve the salad on a bed of lettuce, arugula, or other greens. For a sandwich, layer the chicken salad and greens on slices of crusty baguette or stuff inside a pita. Alternatively, hollow out halves of tomato and stuff the cups with chicken salad.