Sometimes the most fun and unexpected things happen here. Such was the case when we visited Zugdidi, the largest city in the northwestern region of Samegrelo.
This was our first trip to Samegrelo. We didn’t know many people in the area nor did we have many contacts, so we weren’t sure what to expect. Sean had been communicating occasionally with a friend of a friend and experienced Georgian tour guide (Keti) who said we must meet with her friend Rusiko. Never mind that we actually hadn’t met Keti in person; off we went to meet Rusiko at her office in central Zugdidi.
As it turns out, Rusiko runs a long-standing and very successful non-profit called Atinati. Along with running all sorts of youth outreach programs, Atinati has its own radio station, seeking to (among other things) build connections between the people in Samegrelo and the nearby breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Rusiko is a bundle of energy. After sitting down, she ran her plan by us: we’d go to a local restaurant and learn a few regional specialties from their experienced kitchen staff. Her team from Atinati would film it, giving some free press to the restaurant in exchange for hosting us. Finally, we’d do a quick interview so her team could compile a short story for Atinati’s website. Mutually beneficial for all.
Forty-five minutes later, we were in the kitchen of Mendzel (მენძელ), which means “host” – not in Georgian, but in the local language of Mingrelian, which is spoken in Samegrelo alongside Georgian.
Like we’ve found all Georgian cooks to be, the ladies working in Mendzel’s kitchen knew their stuff. They slowed down their pace to teach us, but it was clear these ladies could churn out an incredible amount of food for their busy restaurant.
We started by making elarji (ელარჯი). We made two types: Mingrelian, which is a mixture of cheese and cornmeal, and Svanetian, which is cheese and mashed potatoes. The cheese is mixed with either cornmeal or mashed potatoes over a hot stove. Then comes the fun part.
We also made gebjalia (გებჟალია), which came together so quickly we weren’t able to get any in-process pictures. Sulguni cheese is heated in a pan until it’s flexible. It’s rolled up with mint and sliced, then covered in matsoni.
Of course, we had to have the local khachapuri. Mingrelian khachapuri is the same is classic Imerulian khachapuri, with cheese inside a soft crust, except it adds more cheese on top. Why not?
Kharcho (ხარჩო), a beef and walnut stew, is found all over Georgia, but the Mingrelian version is spicier and richer. (In general, Mingrelians are known for their love of spicy foods, especially adjika.) Our hosts boiled chunks of beef and blended in ground walnuts, then added in a hefty portion of adjika and several other essential Georgian spices. They let it simmer on the stove before heating up individual clay jars in which to serve the hot kharcho.
A good Georgian restaurant wouldn’t be complete without khinkali. Mendzel’s khinkali were juicy and delicious, like other khinkali we have tried, except – you guessed it! – spicier.
After eating all this, we got to eat it! Not a bad way to (unexpectedly) spend an afternoon.
We finished our day shooting extra footage for the Atinati piece and doing our best to answer their questions in Georgian. The finished piece is here.
They also created a video using some of the “B Roll” footage, which is pretty funny:
What an unexpected and fun day! We can’t say enough good things about Atinati and their great team. Our biggest thanks to Rusiko, Gia, Salome, Misha and the rest!