Matsoni

I’ve shared my love for matsoni (მაცონი) – tangy Georgian yogurt – before.  What can I say?  Not only is it delicious on its own, it’s incredibly versatile.  Georgians use it everywhere:  in cakes, as a base for soups, in bread dough, mixed with garlic as a sauce…

One can imagine my joy, then, when our host took us to the Matsoni House, a new facility geared towards preserving Georgia’s dairy-based culinary traditions.

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Matsoni with local honey and walnuts

The original matsoni culture used here – called Mariami – is hundreds of years old.  During Soviet times, factory matsoni was encouraged, but nearby monks and home cooks kept this culture alive.

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Matsoni with blackberries, which our waitress encouraged we try, since the berries were “very tasty.”

They even had matsoni ice cream, which I’ve never seen before and had to experience. Matsoni isn’t sweet, it’s tangy – so I was intrigued.

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Still tangy and a little sour but surprisingly refreshing!  Almost like a sherbet.

Inspired by our trip to this matsoni heaven, I decided to make my own.  I used the matsoni from the ladies at the Sagarejo Municipality Youth House as my starter (or “deda,” which means “mother”) and bought whole milk from the dairy lady in our village.  Organic, unpasteurized and non-homogenized milk is cheap and readily available here.

Making matsoni is simple:  just heat the whole milk on the stove until it boils, then let it cool until it’s the proper temperature.  What’s the proper temperature?  Well, Georgian ladies I’ve met just know by sticking their pinky finger in the milk, but I needed Google. It’s about 75-80 degrees.

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Starter matsoni on the left, warm milk on the right

Then, stir in two heaping tablespoons of your starter matsoni and let it ferment in a warm place for at least six hours.  I did as the Georgians do, keeping my matsoni warm by wrapping it in our sweatshirts for the rest of the day.

And just like that…you have fresh, homemade, tangy matsoni.

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Not perfect – a little runny and not smooth – but I’m happy with my first try!

Amazing.

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…

Tutumaji

We took a quick trip this weekend to visit Akhaltsikhe, the city in southwestern Georgia (in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region) where we lived for two years.  Not quite over our jet lag, we wanted to visit our host family and relax in comfortable surroundings, if only for 48 hours.

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Photo via nationsonline.org

We’re still very close with our host family and were flattered to learn that they saved the last few liters of their homemade wine for our visit!  Lucky us. Between the four of us (our host siblings weren’t home), we came this close to polishing off all six liters.

My host mom also made us one of my favorite dishes called tutumaji (თუთუმაჯი or, more frequently, matsonis soup).  We were once interviewed by Rustavi2, a Georgian TV channel, where I proudly proclaimed my love for this dish.  It’s like the Georgian version of chicken noodle soup – the perfect comfort food.

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I have yet to see this Javakhetian dish in a restaurant.  It’s very simple: homemade yogurt (called matsoni or მაცონი), water, homemade noodles, fried onions and fried balls of dough.

Some foreigners I’ve met take issue with this soup’s tangy taste, and I think it comes down to the particular culture of the yogurt.  Each family has their own and some are stronger than others.  It’s also a question of taste.  Because dairy products purchased directly from the farmer aren’t usually pasteurized or homogenized, they definitely have more flavor than what I am used to finding in America.

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Sour cream (არაჟანი) from the village and fresh greens

We left Akhaltsikhe well-rested and with a bottle of our family’s homemade sour plum sauce.  We can’t wait to go back.