Saotsari

If you’ve been following this blog, you know about some of the experiences we’ve had eating, cooking and drinking our way through this culinary playground of a country: salty and rich smoked pork in Racha; spicy adjika sauces in Samegrelo; grape desserts (and wine, of course), in Kakheti; and so many more.

But what we haven’t written about much are restaurants. Specifically, Tbilisi restaurants.

Over the last three months, we’ve been able to explore the culinary scene in Tbilisi like never before. Living in the city for the first time gave us ready access to dozens of restaurants that have been on our must-try list for years as well as new recommendations from friends.

We’ve been to the highly acclaimed restaurants like Culinarium, Cafe Littera and Black Lion. Chain restaurants like Machekhela/Samikitno and Shemoikhede Genatsvale. Cozy and stylish cafes like Ezo and Cafe Leila. Places named after beer brands, like Stella Artois and Hofbrauhaus. Places without any distinguishable name at all. European/American places like Pipe’s Burger Joint and Mukha. And dozens more, including, yes, even Wendy’s and Subway (which was exactly the same as in the US, if you’re curious).

We’ve also clinked glasses at some of the best wine bars in the city. Vino Underground is excellent, as are gVino, Rooms Hotel and the beautiful Vinotel.

We were ready for some amazing (საოცსარი – saotsari) experiences.

But the truth is, the word “amazing” gets thoughtlessly tossed around a lot, especially when talking about food and wine. This pizza is amazing, their pasta is amazing, the bacon tastes amazing, it was an amazing bagel…

But I think it is actually very rare to find a dish, a meal or a glass of wine that instills within me a sense of amazement. As in, “I am astonished by this khinkali,” or “these beans are startlingly impressive,” or “I am experiencing feelings of surprise and wonder over the taste of this khachapuri.”

More often than not, in Georgia (as in the US and, in my experience, everywhere else), the food is usually “fine.” Sometimes “good,” and even rarer still, “great.” “Amazing” takes something special.

It is also, of course, entirely subjective. So here are ten Tbilisi dining/drinking experiences that we found to be far better than “fine” and “good,” unquestionably “great,” and perhaps even treading near that elusive “amazing.”


 

Everything at Barbarestan
Using recipes borrowed from and inspired by Barbare Jordadze (a 19th-century Georgian duchess who had assembled a cookbook, which was discovered in recent times at a flea market), Chef Levan Kobiashvili and his team have created, in our opinion, one of the top dining experiences in Tbilisi. Every time we’ve been there, it has been a delight. The food is well-executed: pkhalis made out of pumpkin and even kohlrabi; a savory warm cherry soup; tender roast beef in red wine sauce; beet salad with plums… The list goes on. The interior is rustic and charming, the wine list stocks some of our favorite all-natural qvevri-made wines, the service is impeccable and Chef Levan himself is as friendly and gracious as they come.

 

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Everything at Azarphesha
This is the other gem that, in my opinion, is one of the most exceptional dining experiences in the capital city. Partly owned by wineman, artist & entrepreneur John Wurdeman (whose wife is at the helm in the kitchen), Azarphesha sources only local, seasonal and organic ingredients. From the best kupati (Georgian sausage) and chivistari (Georgian cornmeal & cheese) we’ve had, to fusion dishes like a baked corn casserole with green chilies and Georgian cheese, everything we’ve had is completely alive with flavor. Of course the wine list is impeccable, and its location just a few blocks from Freedom Square means it’s always bustling.

 

The Value at Samikitno
Value is the intersection of price and quality, and in our opinion, no other restaurant in Georgia consistently offers a better value than Samikitno. The menu is huge, they do everything well, and two people can feast there (including drinks and plenty of leftovers) for under $20. But consistency is the key: Samikitno is a chain restaurant. While some people have no love for chains, I appreciate (and in fact admire) the ability to consistently produce good food and experiences at more than one location (and there are several throughout Tbilisi). It doesn’t happen by accident. It takes systems, training, monitoring and management. Samikitno gets it right most of the time. Is the food chef-driven? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t claim to be. It’s just good, solid food. And even though it’s definitely a draw for tourists, most of the time it’s packed with locals. As an added bonus, they brew their own brand of beer (some of the best in Georgia) and fruit sodas, and push the envelope a little by stuffing Georgian stews inside breads traditionally filled with cheese.

 

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Lobio with Rachuli Ham at Paulaner Fan Club
I love lori, the intensely rich ham that comes from the highlands of Racha. While spending a long weekend up there, I ate several clay pots full of lobio — Georgian bean stew — with big chunks of this smokey & fatty deliciousness swimming about. I also ate it at a few places in Tbilisi. My very favorite? At a small soccer bar in Saburtalo on Nutsubidze’s Plateau, within walking distance of our apartment. Perfect seasoning, perfect consistency, the perfect amount of meat… perfect.  One of my favorite dishes, period.

 

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Lobiani at Keria
Keria, also in Saburtalo, has taken everything I love about lobio with Rachuli ham and stuffed it inside bread. Their lobiani shebolili (smoked bean bread) is wafer thin but still decadently rich, and perhaps the best in the city.

 

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Chicken Chkmeruli at Tabla
Take a whole chicken, spatchcock it, fry it in a clay pan, and then pour over a thin sauce made out of milk and garlic. That’s it. It’s called chicken chkmeruli, it’s as simple as can be, and it is flat out delicious. We ate it in restaurants all over the country and even made it at home, but our favorite may be the very first one we had: at a restaurant in the upscale Vake district called Tabla. Everything at Tabla was excellent, and the ambiance is cozy and warm. But the crispy chicken skin and mountain of fresh garlic in their chkmeruli makes it downright addictive. We had to order extra bread to soak up every last drop of sauce.

 

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Acharuli Khachapuri at Retro
Ask anyone where to get the best Acharuli khachapuri — the one with the egg in the middle — and Retro is bound to come up. An institution in Batumi (where we ate as well), the chef has also opened an outpost in the Saburtalo district. Nobody does it better. From the soft crust (which can be hollowed out for those of you on a diet but unwilling to give up all your vices), to the not-too-salty cheese, to the huge creamy egg, it’s everything that you want in this sinfully luxurious dish.

 

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Mountain-style Khinkali at Amo Rame
Next door to Azarphesha, a few streets up from Freedom Square, is a cozy cafe that serves a small selection of mostly European-inspired dishes. Except on weekends. On Saturdays and Sundays, those who know come here for the khinkali. You won’t find them on the menu, but get yourself a liter of house wine, put in your order and settle in for some of the best you’ve ever had. They’re small (maybe two bites), not very juicy and simply seasoned, but somehow they’re addictive. We ordered twenty, and within a few minutes had sent back an order for twenty more.

 

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Achma at Sakhachapure No. 1
Seemingly every place and everyone makes khachapuri in Georgia. Fewer make achma, a style that comes from Adjara and Abkhazia and is actually closer to lasagna than to khachapuri. Sakhachapure No. 1, on Rustaveli Avenue behind the movie theater, nails it. Layers and layers of thin noodles, Georgian cheese and butter, baked to perfection. Unstoppable.

 

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Wine at 8000 Vintages
Unlike most other Tbilisi wine shops, 8000 Vintages caters not to tourists but to Georgians. None of the signs are in English, and it’s in a part of town that you don’t just stumble into. The selection is solid and ever-growing, made up of both natural qvevri and factory-made wines. There are meat and cheese boards if you’re hungry, and you can get many wines by the glass or just pick up a bottle to enjoy inside or outside, or to take home. They even deliver. But perhaps what they do better than any other wine shop or wine bar in the city (and we’ve made the rounds, believe me) comes down to the service. Every time we went, the staff greeted us with smiles. It sounds simple, but it’s rarer than you might think. They were knowledgeable, helpful and happy to help us discover new favorites. The owner is young, motivated and incredibly generous with both his wines and his time.


 

Did you know that Kargi Gogo has the largest selection of Georgian spices in the United States? From hard-to-find essentials like blue fenugreek and crushed marigold flowers, to flavorful seasonings like adjika and Svanetian salt, to ready-to-cook mixes & recipes like khinkali and lobio, our spices are 100% authentic, only the finest quality and FDA-approved. Shop now at kargigogo.com/spices. (Bulk sizes also available for restaurants — contact us for details!)  

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Kerdzebi, Part 3

Gozinaki (გოზინაყი)

If you don’t like nuts and honey, you may have a hard time finding dessert in Georgia. Both are an integral part of the country’s culinary identity, and the two come together wonderfully in gozinaki.

This confection is most often seen around New Year’s celebrations, and is about as simple as you get: nuts, honey, a little bit of sugar. The end result is a cross between a granola bar and a nut brittle. While the ingredient list may be short and the process simple, success or failure all comes down to execution.

This is a dish we’ve made before in the States (there’s actually a recipe on our website), but again, it’s always interesting to see how others make it, too: what secrets they have, what’s important to them, unimportant, etc. 

Here in Sagarejo, much attention was paid to the honey. It was boiled and allowed to cool three separate times in order to get the perfect consistency.

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The nuts were toasted, and little flecks of skin were blown out of the pan. We were told that it’s good to toast the nuts outside, so the wind can naturally blow the unwanted skins out of the pan.

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Into the honey go the nuts. The pot is placed over a medium flame and constantly stirred. Here you have to be careful: just a few seconds means the difference between a perfectly caramelized mix and one that is too dark and bitter. With so many other dishes being made in the kitchen, attention was diverted from the gozinaki, resulting in a darker than desirable outcome.

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The thickened mixture is then spread out in a thin layer on a wooden board that has been covered in water, so the mix doesn’t stick.

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Once spread out, a wet rolling pin is used to roll it even thinner, to about a quarter of an inch at most.

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Working quickly at this point, you cut the gozinaki into diamond shapes. 

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The diamonds are pulled off the board and arranged on small plates. Our gozinaki was dark enough that everyone jokingly called it chocolate gozinaki the rest of the day.

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Tolma (ტოლმა)

Spiced meat wrapped in a leaf is a staple of cuisines all around this part of the world. Although not uniquely Georgian, tolma is very popular here and is given a unique spin: instead of using cabbage leafs to wrap, Georgians will sometimes use pickled grape leaves.

Ground pork, chopped cilantro, kindzi, blue fenugreek and other seasonings are mixed with par-cooked rice and rolled up much like a burrito.

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These little bundles are neatly stacked in a deep pot. Some tkemali (sour plums) are thrown in and everything is covered with more grape leaves. Water is added, covering the top layer of tolma.

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Onto the propane burner it goes, covered, until it starts to boil.

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At this point, the lid is removed and a plate is set on top of the leaves. A heavy rock (scrubbed first with water) is set on top of the plate to press it down, keeping the tolma from moving.

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The end result: tasty little wraps that are meaty and, thanks to the grape leaves and sour plums, slightly tart.

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Vashlis Namtskhvari (Apple Cake – ვაშლის ნამცხვარი)

When fruit is in season here, it is everywhere: on every table, in every market, in every car trunk along the road, selling goods to passersby. While eating fresh and seasonally in the US may be “trendy” or part of a lifestyle that sadly perhaps not everyone can afford, here it is quite the opposite: you eat what’s available, when it’s available. 

Potatoes are in season now, as are carrots, the first batches of sour plums and apples. Apples, apples, apples! Red apples, yellow apples, white apples and green… sweet, sour and tart. So it was no surprise that we made a simple and delicious apple cake.

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One layer of batter (flour, sugar, matsoni yogurt, eggs, baking soda) is poured into a huge shallow pan, and a layer of freshly chopped apples is carefully placed on top. Add some sugar, then pour the rest of the batter on top.

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More apples, more sugar. Then into the oven. It was supposed to take 30-40 minutes, but it was such a huge cake that I swear it took closer to 90.

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The end result: a cake that was not only rich and delicious, but also beautiful to look at.

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Again, we can’t thank the women of the Sagarejo Youth Municipality enough. It was an honor and joy to spend time with you, learning about the food you love and how to make it. დიდი მადლობა!

Kerdzebi, Part 2

More from our recent visit to Sagarejo, where we spent two great days making a variety of Georgian dishes. 

Tatara (თათარა) & Churchkhela (ჩურჩხელა)

The juice from grapes flows like water over here. Oftentimes in the form of wine, for which Georgia is famous, but also in its unfermented form. Add a bunch of flour, heat and time, and you have yourself a thick & mildly sweet concoction called tatara (or pelamushi).

It’s great the way it’s traditionally served – on a plate, sprinkled with walnuts. Or, string some of those walnuts with a needle and thread and dip them in the thickened grape juice, and the result is churchkhela – sometimes referred to as “Georgian Snickers.”

It is said that there is so much energy (calories) in churchkhela that Georgian soldiers used to carry them as their only source of food during ancient times. Portable, durable and delicious, whether you’re going off to battle or not.

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How the nuts are cut for churchkhela is very important. Long pieces of the white part of the nut are preferred.

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Mixing the grape juice and flour. This is juice from the white rkatsiteli grape, although any grape juice can be used.

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It’s heated until very thick.

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From here it can go directly on a plate…

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…or you can dip your stringed nuts and hang them up to dry. Both are delicious and, as you might imagine, very filling.

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Abkhazura (აბხაზურა)
Originating in the northwestern region of Georgia called Abkhazia (now a breakaway state with its own Russia-backed government), abkhazura is kind of like a sausage. 

The spiced meat filling is wrapped in caul fat, which is the stomach lining from an animal – in this case, cow. 

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Pieces of the caul are snipped down to size with scissors.

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The filling includes ground pork, spices like kindzi and blue fenugreek – and the surprising addition of whole dried barberries, which gives the meat unexpected pops of texture and tartness.

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I had eaten abkhazura many times, but this was the first time I had made it. My rolling technique needed guidance.

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A basket of abkhazura, ready for the frying pan.

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They cook up much like small sausages, with the caul fat serving the dual purpose of adding flavor and keeping the meat together.

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The final product, served with a garnish of onions and pomegranate seeds for more tartness!

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Khachapuri (ხაჭაპური)
As with khinkali, we are intimately familiar with Georgia’s famous cheese-stuffed bread, khachapuri. We have made literally thousands of them in the last few years, yet it’s still always a treat to roll up our sleeves and get our hands covered in dough while learning little nuances that slightly differentiate one recipe from another.

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The cheese should always be the star, and in Georgia this is easy. So many cheeses, each a little different in how it melts, how it is salted and how “close to the cow” it is. We made this khachapuri with a pretty salty and creamy Imeruli cheese from a nearby village.

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McKinze rolls it out under the watchful eyes of our instructor.

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Ready to be cooked.

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Khachapuri can either be baked or cooked in a hot pan. In Georgia, you use the resources you have around you. Since this was sort of a makeshift kitchen in a room at the youth center and not a full home/restaurant kitchen, a portable propane tank served as the stove all day. It worked like a charm.

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Jonjoli (ჯონჯოლი)

One of the most elusively mysterious Georgian foods outside of the Caucasus region is jonjoli. Elusive, because as far as I have been told, the flowering shrub that it comes from doesn’t even grow in the US. 

Here, this Caucasian Bladdernut plant is everywhere.

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The flowers and stems are fermented, salted and combined with sliced onions to create a piquant appetizer seen on tables around the country. It’s an acquired taste, but once your palate warms up, it’s easy to start craving it.

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Check back tomorrow for the last segment of this post! (Miss the first part? Check that out here.)

 

Kerdzebi, Part 1

Earlier this week we had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with the ladies of the Sagarejo Municipality Youth House.

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Because of our Peace Corps experience, McKinze and I have been to a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all over Georgia and have seen all different levels of activity. It’s great to see this Youth House experiencing so much success!

You could see the pride in the faces of the women as they told us about their various projects and accolades: young people learning how to design and code apps for mobile devices, a successful youth camp just wrapping up and another one in the works, paintings earning a spot in a Tbilisi gallery, young men learning to play the panduri, and even a visit from the US Ambassador. გილოცავთ, ყველას.

But it was food that brought us to their organization on this trip. For two whole days, these generous ladies rolled out the red carpet and opened their kitchen to us, teaching us how to make a variety of their favorite Georgian kerdzebi (კერძები – dishes).

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Some of the dishes we made with them were fairly new to us. Others, like khachapuri and khinkali, we know quite well but still learned how these women made it. What was important to them and why. Plus, we learned how to fold khinkali in “tevzis pormashi,” i.e. in the shape of a fish!

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It’s so interesting to see how people make the same food in slightly different ways: because that’s the way it’s done in their region, or that’s the way they were taught, or that’s simply what they like. Some things — like how many fresh herbs to put in the soup — are open to interpretation. Others — like which side of the grape leaf is on the outside of the tolma — are not.

What a great experience — exactly the kind this trip of ours is all about. We can’t thank the ladies in Sagarejo enough!

Here, in no particular order, are a few pics of what we made over those two days, with more to come in the next post.

Mtsvadi (მწვადი)
This classic Georgian dish is all about the meat — in this case, pork. The meat is first seasoned liberally with salt (and other spices, if you so desire), then skewered onto long spears.

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A fire is made from wood and dried grapevines, traditionally on the ground, until it has burned down to white-hot embers.

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Then the skewers are placed over the make-shift grill until crispy on the outside and tender & juicy on the inside.

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A piece of bread is used to pull the finished chunks of meat off the spears into a bowl filled with sliced onions.

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Toss it all together and enjoy. A little bit of tkemali sour plum sauce is great on the side. Our hosts also liked a sweet pomegranate syrup.

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(Matsoni Soup) მაწონის სუპი
You may recall that this is a favorite of ours, and our former host mom in Akhaltsikhe makes a killer version from the southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti (as documented in this post). Well, the women in Sagarejo had seen McKinze express her love for this soup on an old TV segment from our food cart days, and couldn’t wait to teach her their version from Eastern Georgia.

It started with making matsoni, not unlike plain yogurt in the States, but with a bit more sourness and “tang.” You simply put a spoonful of existing matsoni in a jar of warm unpasteurized/un-homogenized milk, wrap in towels, and a few hours later you’re holding a brand new jar of matsoni with a big smile on your face.

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Into the jar go a few eggs and some salt.

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For the base of the soup, we used white onion, green onion, a little garlic, a little water — and a bunch of butter.

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After awhile, we added some rice and water…

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…and stirred, stirred, stirred, until the rice was cooked.

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Into the pot goes the matsoni and egg mixture…

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…freshly chopped dill and green onions…

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…and how about some more butter.

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A few minutes later and it’s ready to go. Skip the spoon and just grab a mug.

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Khinkali (ხინკალი)
McKinze and I calculated that during our time in the food cart, we rolled around 100,000 of these famously juicy dumplings. One hundred thousand. Needless to say, we think we know our way around these things pretty well.

Still, there’s a difference between using mixers, dough sheeters and other equipment to crank out khinkali in a restaurant setting and making them the way they’ve been made for centuries: entirely by hand. Starting, of course, with the dough.

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After being mixed, kneaded and rolled out by hand, the dough — much softer and wetter than “restaurant style” dough — is cut into rounds with the top of a nearby juice glass.

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The rounds are then further rolled out into thin circles with a rolling pin — or an empty glass bottle.

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At last the meat mixture is spooned onto each circle and rolled up. This meat was a simple mix of fatty ground pork, salt, diced onions, garlic and cilantro. Not much water was added because there was enough fat in the meat to create the bulk of the “juice” as it cooked.

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Into the pot of water they go…

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At the dinner table there are usually plenty of leftover khinkali. Those are often sent back to be fried up in a little bit of oil or butter. You lose the juiciness but get crispiness instead.

 

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In addition to the “fish shaped” khinkali, we also learned first-hand how to roll these pretty awesome “double decker” khinkali, which we first saw on a YouTube video that has been making the rounds. Cool!

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Part two of our trip coming tomorrow…