Like you, I think I am pretty well up on world cuisines. This is despite being more of an armchair traveller these days – at least to on the pulse, exotic or slightly dangerous places. My favourite holiday destination is Cornwall. Not quite cutting edge. Or dangerous. Unless you count being bitten by a crab while dangling a pole over the harbour wall at Padstow. Ouch!
I am lucky that, over the years, my adopted city of Edinburgh has transformed from a culinary backwater of scampi in a basket (if you were lucky), overdone salmon (again, if you were lucky), and truly awful Chinese takeaways, to a capital city hosting not only a clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants, but also many affordable eateries, showcasing stunning Scottish produce (write to me if you want some names). We also have representatives of most cuisines you can think of – Malaysian, Korean, Polish, Brazilian, Nepalese and Kurdish, to name but a few. Last year, Trip Advisor placed Edinburgh in the number 10 spot for best food cities in Europe. Granted the cover image was of fish and chips. Lol! Basically we do alright for food. And if you count our community allotments and expanding producers’ markets that crowd the calendar, we are doing very well for a smallish city. But I have yet to see a Georgian restaurant. And having looked at a number of Georgian recipes, I really wish there was one. It is not often that I am jealous of London, but as they seem to have Georgian restaurants and cafes popping up like Starbucks, I am green-eyed and hungry.
Although it seems quite a meaty cuisine – with poached and herb-stewed chicken dishes to the fore, Georgians also use loads of vegetables, herbs and spices that intrigue and call me: tarragon, a neglected herb in the UK at least, is front and centre in numerous aromatic and often spicy dishes. Although Russia is its northern neighbour (and former master), the mild Mediterranean climate means that the growing season is long and prolific: aubergines, walnuts (a mainstay crop), sour plums, courgettes, spinach, pomegranates, grapes (the wines are highly rated) ; but also hardier root crops like beetroot, and brassicas like cabbages. They even use flowers as spice; not just how I would, as mere decoration and to hide burnt bits.
But the recipe that will probably seal the deal on a ticket to Tbilisi is khachapuri (this link is a Westernised take), which is an amazingly calorific-sounding leavened bread, stuffed with salted curd cheese and served with a split open poached egg and melted butter. For breakfast. Some liken it to a pizza, but it seems to me like the most over-the-top, vainglorious toasted cheese sandwich imaginable. And doesn’t it sound heavenly? It certainly sounds like it could cure a hangover from too much Georgian wine. But it’s not all so rich and, well, angina-inducing. They are also famous for yogurt :D
Today’s peek at Georgian food is really just a toehold in the Caucasus, just a little dip (pun intended) in this Black Sea cuisine. A whole world of clashing and colourful flavours lies just beyond the Spinach Pkhali, but this should whet your appetite for more. It did me. And it could not be simpler.
Miss R’s Track of the Week:Orovela, performed by the Georgian soloist Kelaptari – very beautiful polyphonic music
Here is an unusual starter, or even healthy snack, from the West-Asian/Eastern Europe country of Georgia. Because of its geographical situation – bordering Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan – Georgia has a very diverse cuisine. Although it was ruled by Russia/USSR in the 19th and 20th centuries, the food is more akin to that of its more southerly neighbours, using many of the same ingredients from the shared Mediterranean climate. But to dramatically different effect. They seem to go in for contrasts of spicy/aromatic and hot, with vegetables often featuring separately and complementary to a meaty– often chicken – main course. This famous dip, which I have tweaked to my more Western palate, is an easy and very healthy introduction to a truly fascinating and otherworldly cuisine. Just don’t ask me to pronounce anything!
The main tweak to this traditional recipe is that I have used pomegranate molasses to echo the garnish. I think its sweet-sour taste goes extremely well here (and my nutrition groups seem to like it), but just the vinegar is typical, and doesn’t cause the dip to go ever so slightly pink :D. I have also swapped onion for the milder spring onion, and toned down the raw garlic for you, but feel free to up it to three or four cloves if you would like it more fiery. This really is a recipe to play around with and adjust to your preferences. Serve with rustic bread, or even homemade pitta chips.
500g spinach, rinsed but not dried, and thick stems removed (larger spinach has more flavour)
2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled
2 heaped tablespoons each coriander/cilantro and tarragon + extra whole herbs for garnish
¼ tsp ground coriander
1/8 – 1/4 tsp ground fenugreek (start with 1/8 and add more if you want more of this unique taste)
1 tbsp white wine vinegar OR 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses + ¼ tsp white wine vinegar
¼ tsp ground paprika – hot or sweet Hungarian
4 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
Seeds from one pomegranate
Firstly, completely wilt the spinach in a large covered pan, stirring once or twice to get the upper leaves closer to the steamy water. Drain well in a colander, pressing to remove as much water as possible. Now pop the spinach onto a clean tea towel and squeeze it well. Chop it as finely as possible. You want the spinach to have some texture so please don’t blast it in a food processor. Georgians recommend that you use a meat grinder. As you wish. Pop the chopped spinach into a mixing bowl and set aside.
Now is the time for your food processor or blender. Put the remaining ingredients – bar the extra garnish herbs, onion, salt and pomegranate seeds – in the bowl of the processor/blender and blitz with a tablespoon of water until it is the consistency of mayonnaise. Stir this pale sauce into the spinach, adding the spring onions and enough salt to taste – because it is vegan taste rather than guess. Maybe add some white pepper if you didn’t use the hot paprika. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least six hours.
When ready to serve, invert the spinach pkhali onto a serving plate and shape into a mound, scoring with a diamond pattern for an authentic looking dish. Top with herbs and pomegranate seeds. Or, do as I have done: either just as a thick cake of dip garnished with herbs and seeds, or for something a little more party-minded, shape into little balls and then roll into chopped coriander and tarragon, and top with pomegranate seeds. Serve with country-style or dark bread, or melba toasts made from these. This is lovely with a plate of coriander seed and balsamic vinegar-marinated beets. Serves 4-6 as an appetiser or starter course.