A platter of khinkali, doughy and steaming, can baffle the uninitiated. Georgians revel in watching puzzled foreigners warily eyeing up their first portion. How to approach the pleated mounds? Cut into them with a knife? Pick them up and bite? What of the plump stem in the centre?
Kindlier Georgians will spill the beans before the flustered outsider embarrasses themselves, revealing that the pale dumplings are grabbed by their chubby central stem (known as the belly button, or tchipi) and flipped upside down, sometimes dusted with a twist of black pepper. The first bite is a minute incision, through which the broth released by the filling of chopped meat, onion and garlic can be sipped, a little at a time, like a Shanghai soup dumpling. Using cutlery on the meaty packets is a cardinal sin.
Only when the filling is drained can you nibble around the stem, until nothing is left but the thumb-sized wad of dough wedged between your fingers. Most urban denizens stop there, discarding the bland, chewy stem. In the countryside, though, this practice is scorned as bourgeois: a waste of perfectly good calories. In the mountains of Tusheti and the plains of Kakheti, people scoff the lot.
Good khinkali are notoriously difficult to get right. The dough must be sturdy enough to seal in the juices but insubstantial enough to play second fiddle to the hearty filling. Chefs spend months perfecting their pleating technique and getting the flavour of the meat just so. A little water is mixed in with the chopped beef and pork (sometimes lamb in the highlands), which emulsifies with the fat released by the meat as the dumpling boils to form the dish’s signature broth.
Local legend has it that the dish was invented to feed warriors maimed after battles with the Persians, who subjugated eastern Georgia for centuries. A hearty serving of garlic served as a rudimentary antiseptic, while the broth was thought to have healing properties that would speed along the injured soldiers’ recovery.
The more likely truth owes less to Georgian exceptionalism, but is no less interesting. Khinkali were probably brought to Georgia by the Mongols as they marauded across Central Asia into the Caucasus mountains. They invented the dumpling as a portable snack for their warriors, who spread the basic idea of dough enclosing a filling across Eurasia, the peoples they conquered adapting the versatile format to their local tastes. A map of dumpling varieties across Europe and Asia fairly closely tracks the borders of the Mongol Empire. Korean mandu and Russian pelmeni are likely cousins of the Georgian snack.
On a visit to Pasanauri, a town to the north of the capital Tbilisi, where the dish supposedly originates, I sat down with Gocha Kavtaradze and Manana Aptsiauri, who run a restaurant serving probably some of the best dumplings in the country. Ask around for the tastiest khinkali in town and you’ll be directed to Chveni Ubani (“Our Spot”), on the northern end of Stalin Street. (The couple are related to a friend of mine, but this did not influence my judgement on their dumplings.)
The secret to good khinkali, they reckon, is using the fattiest meat from animals that have only grazed in the mountains. “If the cows graze in the lowlands even for a month, it changes the taste of their meat. We always use local animals,” Aptsiauri says. Chveni Ubani’s khinkali need nothing other than good beef, onion, salt and chili. The dough is sturdy and slightly tacky, the well-seasoned meat so fatty that it virtually melts on the tongue. My friend used a fork on the khinkali, prompting Kavtaradze to scornfully remark that even I was a better Georgian than his nephew.
The irony of Georgian food is that it is almost unknown in the West, which Georgia looks to politically, but is popular in Russia. In most European capitals there are no more than a handful of Georgian restaurants, a tragedy for what the Danish chef René Redzepi has described as the “last great undiscovered food cultures of Europe”.
By contrast, in Russia, which Georgia considers an occupier of two of its disputed territories, there is a Georgian restaurant in every neighbourhood: a legacy of the communist period during which Georgian expats spread their cuisine to every corner of the Soviet empire. “Georgian restaurants became known as places to celebrate special occasions during Soviet times,” says Erik Scott, the author of Familiar Strangers. “The popularity of Georgian cuisine in Russia survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the deterioration of relations between the two countries.”
Fittingly for a dish born of adaptation and cultural melange, Georgian and foreign chefs alike continue to experiment with khinkali. There is the khinkali soup at Culinarium, the restaurant run by taboo-defying chef Tekuna Gachechiladze, with five miniature dumplings bobbing in an herby, Japanese-inspired broth. Métis, a restaurant owned by a French expat, serves Gallic-inspired snail khinkali, while an Italian chef cooked up a chocolate version after a trip to the Caucasus. But modern spins on ancient recipes aren’t to everyone’s taste. “You can’t improve on perfection,” Kavtaradze grumbles.