Plate of the Union: Bring on the cheese, Georgia

September 12, 2013

Georgian cuisine is not for the faint of heart. Or stomach. Or digestive system. Georgia’s national dish is khachapuri, which literally translates to “cheese-bread.” It’s not as simple as a chunk of cheddar on some whole wheat: Each of Georgia’s regions (even the breakaways and autonomous ones) have their own interpretation of the recipe. After a two-week tour of Georgia, during which I ate almost nothing but khachapuri and watermelon, I’ve got the lowdown on my three favorite renditions of this cheesy wonder.

First up, we’ve got megruli khachapuri. Hailing from the Samargelo province in western Georgia, megruli’s circular shape makes it look similar to an order of Papa John’s breadsticks. Khachapuri uses a special cheese, suluguni, that gives it a taste entirely different from anything you’ll eat in the States. Suluguni undergoes an intense pickling process, which results in a dimpled texture and salty flavor. It’s like saltier, drier feta cheese melted on top of fluffy dough.

If you’ve managed to finish a serving of megruli, you’re probably ready to level up to imeruli khachapuri. Imeruli maintains the circular shape of megruli but an extra layer of dough seals the crumbly bits of cheese inside the khachapuri. I often saw it sold at corner stores among a selection of other cheeses and pastries.

My first experience with imeruli was at a one-room restaurant adorned with dried meat hanging from the ceiling. I had a few hours to kill as I waited for my minibus to fill—buses at this station leave when full, not according to a pre-set schedule. Giorgi, the restaurant’s proprietor, nodded at my order for a slice of imeruli khachapuri.

Clearly, I was a bit confused when Giorgi instead plopped down a cheese pie at least a foot in diameter. I shamelessly ate all but one slice, which I shared with the driver of the bus.

Somehow, my arteries were still functioning by the time I arrived in Batumi, a small, glittery town near the Turkish border. After frolicking in the Black Sea and wandering for hours through narrow alleys, my new Georgian friends Teo and Nanka told me, “You’ve got to try khachapuri.” Confused, I tried to explain that I already ate khachapuri (many times) and that I was not prepared to eat any more. “No, no,” they said. “Adjaruli is unlike the others.”

Before ordering, I had a vague image of what exactly I was about to eat—an open-faced bread bowl filled with cheese and egg. I foolishly sipped on tarragon soda as I waited for the adjaruli to arrive, unknowingly filling up precious space in my stomach.

In comparison to what was set in front of me, my mental image of the dish was a sad, black-and-white plate of something they might have served in Pleasantville. In reality, adjaruli was a head-sized, boat-shaped hunk of dough, hollowed out and loaded with cheesy goodness. The woman working in the back of the restaurant had lovingly cracked an egg over several inches of suluguni. Not wanting the egg to be lonely, the chefs also laid a hunk of butter on top of the yolk.

I tried my hardest to eat the whole boat of adjaruli, but I only made it through the bow. Clutching a third-trimester food baby, I stumbled out of the restaurant with Teo and Nanka, who were ready to follow lunch with dessert.

I somehow managed to consume half a serving of ice cream before collapsing on a couch for several hours, incapacitated.

Two weeks of eating this stuff wreaked havoc on my digestive system. It took a month to get over my fear of eating cheese again. Even so, during every subsequent trip to the former Soviet sphere, I make a b-line for the closest Georgian restaurant. I take pleasure in sipping juice from khinkali dumplings and biting into bean-filled lobani, but there’s a special place in my heart for an order of khachapuri.

Each bite of cheesy goodness recalls memories from bus stations and cafes perched on the Black Sea, of awkward attempts to decipher Georgian menus, and of all the people who helped me find my place during my time in Georgia. I have no idea when I’ll return to Georgia, but I already know what I’ll do first when I get there—find some khachapuri.

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