Khachapuri — cheese filled bread — is a staple that comes in dozens of forms. Regional varieties are now celebrated again, with chefs looking to the past to help shape the country’s culinary future.
“Everyone will tell you their granny made the best khachapuri in the world,” Maka Shengelia says, breaking up the bright orange egg yolk with her fork and stirring it into the bed of soft white cheese beneath. She dabs butter onto the crunchy crust of the boat-shaped dough that cradles the gooey mixture, and we dig in.
In Georgia, khachapuri is enjoyed at every type of occasion and any time of day, whether for breakfast, as a quick snack or as part of a lavish dinner feast known as a supra. Maka, a culinary guide in Tbilisi, has brought me to Retro, one of the capital’s many sakhachapures (khachapuri cafes), for a taste of the house speciality: Adjarian khachapuri, named after the Black Sea coastal region from which it — and Retro’s owner — hails. This is a classic sakhachapure, with a simple decor of bare walls and wooden picnic tables, plus traditional Georgian fizzy drinks on tap. Maka orders chocolate flavour, a childhood favourite, while I choose an electric-green tarragon lemonade whose fizzy sweetness and liquorice notes cut through the rich, salty cheesiness of the khachapuri. We eat with our hands, tearing off chunks of the chewy bread to scoop up the filling with.
I’ve come to Tbilisi to learn more about khachapuri, and with each meal I have, it becomes clear I’d need much longer than a few days to try every version of this classic comfort food. The common refrain is that there are as many recipes for khachapuri as there are kitchens in Georgia, and almost 50 distinct varieties have been identified. Some are round, others square. They can be open or closed, flaky or soft, cooked on the stove or in an oven, stuffed with everything from meat to wild greens, mashed potatoes and caramelised onions. One thing, though, is non-negotiable.
“If it doesn’t have cheese, it’s not khachapuri,” says Esma Kunchulia. A TV chef and founder of Pirveli, Georgia’s first culinary magazine, Esma has invited me to her home on the outskirts of Tbilisi, where she hosts dinners and cookery classes that celebrate and spread the word about her country’s cuisine. Today, the table is covered with a spread of Georgian classics. There’s a bowl of satsivi (chicken in a creamy walnut sauce). A plate of nigvziani badrijani (thinly sliced and fried aubergine rolls stuffed with a garlicky walnut-and-herb paste). A salad of tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. Smoky, salty sulguni (a brined cheese) on a bed of ghomi (a cornmeal porridge). And, of course, there’s khachapuri; two types, each from a different region: one Svanetian style — pillowy dough stuffed with a mix of soft cheese and green onions — and one flaky, crescent-shaped Gurian variety, filled with cheese and hard-boiled eggs.
Khachapuri’s name, Esma tells me, comes from the Georgian words for cheese curds and bread (‘khacho’ and ‘puri’, respectively). Different varieties are associated with different regions of the country: Svanetian originates in Svaneti, in the north west, while Gurian comes from the Guria region, north of Adjara.
Georgian food, Esma adds, is “a mix of Asia and Europe — our style of cooking comes from both our guests and our enemies”. In both categories, the list of culinary contributors is long. Georgia’s history dates back to the ancient kingdom of Colchis — the home of the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology — with periods under Roman, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman and Russian occupation or rule.
This blend of influences is evident on the streets of Tbilisi, which spreads along the banks of the Mtkvari River, overlooked by a fourth-century fortress. As I explore the city, I discover the architecture on Rustaveli Avenue — the main thoroughfare — ranges from imposing Soviet-era buildings to baroque and neo-Moorish edifices, while the nearby old town is a place of alleyways and cobbled streets, overhung by intricately carved wooden balconies. There are several bathhouses in this area, too, with domed roofs and lavish,Persian tiles, while the nearby Bridge of Peace — a modern, glass-and-steel construction — was a controversial addition to the cityscape when it was erected a decade ago.
The story of khachapuri
I head a few miles north of the old town, across the river, to Tbilisi’s Dezerter Bazaar, to explore the source of many restaurant larders. All the cornerstones of Georgian cuisine are laid out at this open-air market, where vendors hawk baskets heaped with walnuts and dried fenugreek, buckets of vividly coloured pickled vegetables and stacks of churchkhela (a candle-shaped sweet made from walnuts encased in grape must), alongside plastic bottles full of both homemade sauces and chacha (the fiery local grape spirit).
I walk past a line of men selling potatoes out of the back of vans and my nostrils fill with an intense, citrussy scent. Around the corner, I find tables laden with piles of coriander. The fragrant herb is such a key part of the nation’s cuisine that the Georgian politician, author and academic Levan Berdzenishvili once dubbed his compatriots ‘Homo corianderous’. It can be found in everything from lobio (a bean stew) to the vegetable pâté pkhali, while in dried seed form it’s one of the bases for khmeli suneli, a traditional spice mix.
The bazaar may be well stocked, but the war in Ukraine has had an impact on both Georgia and khachapuri, restricting crucial supplies of wheat from Russia, among other things. The ISET Policy Institute at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University compiles the monthly Khachapuri index, which tracks inflation based on the cost of the ingredients of Imeretian khachapuri (the most common variety, from the region west of Tbilisi) — specifically flour, cheese, butter, milk, eggs and yeast. Right now the index is showing an upward trend.
ut khachapuri is resilient and adaptable, a constant through often-troubled times. People I speak to in Tbilisi recall how, during the period of scarcity following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, their mothers would make the dish using oil instead of butter and just a smattering of cheese. Others who didn’t have money to buy cheese “were mixing chopped pasta with salt and stuffing that inside khachapuri”, according to Ia Katsia, an economist at the ISET Policy Institute. Meanwhile, migration from rural to urban areas gave rise to the now-common ‘city-style’ khachapuri, made with yoghurt and bicarbonate of soda instead of yeast, which takes longer to rise.
“Every khachapuri in every region has its own story,” says Dalila Tsatava, president of the Georgian Gastronomy Association, when we meet at Leila, a city centre cafe with a mostly vegetarian menu. In the northern highlands of Racha, for example, the square, flaky local version of the bread is baked with a walnut in each corner as a talisman for a good walnut harvest.
During the 70-year Soviet period, Dalila says, state-run restaurants all served a standard selection of 10 dishes, and while Imeretian khachapuri made the cut, many of the regional varieties and customs surrounding the eating of the dish — which has traditionally been served at festivals — risked being lost. “Whenever a dish is part of a ritual, you know it’s authentic,” Dalila says, as I nibble on spinach pkhali and pickled jonjoli — the buds of the Colchis bladdernut tree. “But a lot of this [history] isn’t written down, so even Georgians themselves sometimes don’t know what treasure they have in terms of gastronomy.” That, she adds, is how you end up with misnomers like ‘cheese boat’ or ‘Georgian pizza’ — the latter a term she particularly bristles at, telling me, “khachapuri existed long before pizza!”.
Old and new
While the full history of the dish remains murky, Dalila cites mentions by Greek writers in the fifth century BC of a khachapuri-like dish being made in the Colchis territory. The word ‘khachapuri’, however, didn’t appear in writing until 1725.
Perhaps because of its long history, and how close many regional variations have come to being lost, khachapuri doesn’t tend to be something many Georgians are willing to tinker with. But that’s not to say there’s no room for innovation within the country’s gastronomy as a whole. A few blocks south of Dezerter Bazaar, Barbarestan appears, at first glance, to be a traditional restaurant: embroidered table runners, vintage-style chandeliers, flower-patterned china. But in recent years, the family-run spot has been putting a new spin on Georgian cuisine.
I sit down with general manager Andria Kurasbediani and he explains how, after years of serving standard Georgian dishes, his family reimagined and renamed their restaurant in 2016, taking inspiration from the first-ever Georgian cookbook, The Complete Cuisine. In the 19th century, Duchess Barbare Jordjadze compiled the historic 800-recipe volume by travelling around the country, and Barbarestan’s menu refelcts this, featuring twists on many regional specialities. Racha-style lobio (traditionally, a kidney bean stew with smoked ham) becomes an explosion of flavour inside bite-size, fried balls of dough, the creamy bean filling seasoned with fenugreek, garlic and coriander. The Meskhetian noodle-and-yoghurt soup tutmaji, meanwhile, is prepared with homemade pasta stacked in a shape resembling the southwestern region’s traditional nested domes.
Beyond Barbarestan, many more Georgian chefs and restaurateurs are turning to traditional recipes, techniques and produce for inspiration. At Gunda, a bright, modern Tbilisi sakhachapure, owners Levan Qoqiashvili and Lali Papashvili seek out regional cheeses for their khachapuri. These include the soft, strongly flavoured narchvi, which is traditionally aged for up to a year in wooden boxes in the villages of Svaneti.
In Gunda’s open kitchen, Levan slips a piece of paper under the dough that a chef is rolling out to make puff pastry-style Meskhetian khachapuri. He tells me it’s a trick he learned from an old woman in a village in the region. “The dough isn’t thin enough until you can read the writing on the paper through it,” he says. This one is just the right thickness, so the chef folds it in thirds, adds more butter (“never too much for this dough,” says Levan) before folding it again in the opposite direction to make a square, cheese-filled parcel that’s ready to bake in the wood-fired oven. Unlike with pizza, a closed oven is needed to keep the steam inside while cooking, Levan explains. He and Lali were so committed to doing things right, they even rebuilt the restaurant’s outer wall to make room for a specially made, village-style oven.
Before opening Gunda in 2022, Levan and Lali worked with a team of researchers who combed all corners of Georgia to uncover as much as they could about khachapuri and its key ingredients. They documented 47 regional varieties, collectively using more than 80 types of traditional cheese and five endemic families of wheat. Most of these native grains were nearly lost under Soviet central agricultural planning, and the pair are doing their bit to bring them back — and in doing so, helping to reduce the country’s dependence on Russian wheat. They’ve partnered with a nonprofit organisation that distributes endemic seeds to Georgian farmers; Gunda buys the flour they produce for use in the restaurant kitchen.
As we tuck into the flaky, hot-from-the-oven Meskhetian khachapuri, stuffed with buttery, stringy cheese, while sipping glasses of crisp Chinuri white wine, Levan tells me he and Lali are lobbying to have khachapuri recognised by UNESCO as part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. “Georgia is such a small country, most people don’t even know where it is. We want to preserve our cultural uniqueness and identity while saying something new,” he says. “Khachapuri is much more than a food in Georgia — it’s a symbol.”
Gunda’s pan-fried Imeretian khachapuri
Georgian cheese can be swapped for 550g crumbled feta mixed with 250g mashed mozzarella.
400g strong white bread flour
50g wholewheat flour
350g sour cream
50g whole milk
5g caster sugar
600g Imeruli cheese, grated
200g sulguni cheese, grated
butter, to serve
1 Add the flours, sour cream, milk and sugar to a stainless steel bowl and mix until combined. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead for about 4 mins, or until the dough starts to stick. Add 10g salt and continue kneading for another 7 mins.
2 Divide the dough into 4 portions (200g each), wrap with cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 mins.
3 In another bowl, combine the cheeses and divide into 4 portions (200g each). Set aside.
4 Once the dough has chilled, take a dough ball and roll out to a circle 30cm in diameter. Place a cheese ball in the centre, then gather the dough in accordion folds over the cheese and pinch to seal. Now roll it out again to the same size. Repeat with the remaining dough.
5 Place a 32cm frying pan over a medium-high heat. When the pan is moderately hot, cook the khachapuri for 3 mins per side, until browned. Repeat for the remaining khachapuri.
6 Serve warm with butter.
Other Georgian favourites
Creamy, pâté-like pkhali (above) can be made from nearly any vegetable (spinach or aubergine are popular), pureed with walnuts, vinegar, garlic, coriander and spices. A mixed assortment of pkhali are often served in a gobi, a large bowl meant for sharing, the name of which is at the root of ‘megobari’, the Georgian word for ‘friend’.
These fist-sized soup dumplings are probably the most recognisable Georgian food abroad after khachapuri. Typically filled with a mix of beef and pork, they can also be made with mushrooms, potatoes or cheese. Eat them by holding the twisted top (traditionally left on the plate once the khinkali has been eaten as evidence of a hearty appetite).
Ground walnuts form the base of this chicken dish’s sauce, which is also flavoured with onions, garlic, vinegar, coriander, fenugreek, red pepper, cinnamon and cloves. A dish for New Year’s Eve feasts, it’s served either cold or warm.
This bean stew, spiced with coriander, fenugreek, garlic and onions, is baked and served in individual clay pots. ‘Lobio’ means ‘bean’, so any bean will do, but red or kidney beans are most commonly used.
Where to stay
Stamba Hotel, a luxuriously renovated former printing house, has doubles from 520 GEL (£169), including breakfast. Sister property Fabrika, a hip hostel, has private doubles from 170 GEL (£55), room only.
How to do it
Regent Holidays offers an 11-day culinary tour of Georgia from £2,425 per person. Includes flights, accommodation, meals, local transport and guide.
Source : National Geographic