Georgia's Cheese Bread Might Be Better Than Pizza
Khachapuri is a cheese bread that's found all over Georgia—the country, not the US state—in at least a half-dozen varieties, sometimes topped with eggs and butter to turn a simple meal into a total gut bomb.
Photos by the author.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2014.
Georgia—the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, not the American state—is famous in the West for its separatist conflicts fueled by Russia's imperialist politics, the controversial leaders it has produced (Stalin, Shevardnadze, Saakashvili), its powerful mafia, and the death of one of its Olympic luge athletes at the 2010 Winter Games.
But what about the food? It would be easy but incorrect to dismiss Georgian cuisine by assuming that, if it were worth anything, the rest of the world would have taken notice. Literature on the subject is rather scarce, it's true. Julianne Margvelashvili's Classic Cuisine of Soviet Georgia and Darra Goldstein's Georgian Feast are commendable efforts, but both books are over 20 years old and lack pictures to inspire or guide the neophyte. More recent works, like Tinatin Mjavanadze's excellent Georgia with Taste, are only available in Russian. And while Moscow and Kiev boast some excellent Georgian eateries, finding such a restaurant outside of the former Soviet Union has always been challenging.
Things, however, are changing. Manhattan alone now counts at least three Georgian restaurants (Pepela, Oda House, and Old Tbilisi Garden), and in a nation obsessed with pizza, one Georgian specialty stands a good chance of becoming the Next Big Thing: the khachapuri.
Khachapuri is a cheese bread, the word coming from khacho (ხაჭო), for "cheese curd," and puri (პური), for "bread." Wherever you go in Georgia, you can be sure to eat it at least once a day, even for breakfast. Khachapuri can be small or large, eaten solo or shared, consumed as an appetizer or a whole meal, store-bought or home-made. It's such a staple food that the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University created the Khachapuri Index, an indicator of inflation in different Georgian cities calculated from the cost of a basket containing only the ingredients needed to cook one Imeretian khachapuri (flour, cheese, yeast, eggs, milk, and butter), plus energy costs (gas and electricity). Just as there are pizzerias, there are khachapurnayas, and in fact some khachapurnayas double as pizzerias.
Many regions have created their own versions of khachapuri, especially in Western Georgia. Let's start with the classic, the Imeretian khachapuri, of Khachapuri Index fame. A round pie filled with cheese, this is the one cheese bread you're guaranteed to find nearly everywhere in Georgia. I've had Imeretian khachapuri in places where the nearest store was several painful hours away, weather permitting. You can make it in a baker's oven, a Soviet oven, an antique wood-fired stove, and even, I believe, in a frying pan on a stovetop.
More than the Imereti region itself, it is named after Imeretian cheese, which is the preferred choice of filling. Imeretian cheese is a fresh cow's milk cheese originally from the Imereti region, although there are many local variations. If you go to a market in Georgia, what you want to look for is chkinti-kveli, low-salt, unripened Imeretian—cheese curds, essentially. The rationale is that if you plan to have leftovers, the cheese will still be soft and therefore pleasant to eat even without reheating the bread, which might constitute khachapuri's claim to superiority over pizza. Some people, however, choose to not worry about leftovers and add in some sulguni, a stretched-curd cheese rather similar to mozzarella but made from chkinti-kveli. As for the dough, there are many possibilities—yeast vs. baking powder, milk vs. yogurt—the main point being to use a leavened dough.
The Mingrelian khachapuri is where decadence begins. This specialty from the Samegrelo region is similar to its Imeretian cousin, but topped with yet more cheese (almost always chkinti-kveli). Then there's the Adjaran khachapuri, the ultimate artery-clogging dish. This open-faced version is topped with an egg and a generous chunk of butter—the more the better, some say—which you're supposed to mix with the cheese so you can dip the crust in them. Batumians, the inhabitants of the region's capital, are quite opinionated about what makes a good Adjaran khachapuri, and often frown upon imitations from Tbilisi. Everything is codified: the dough (bread dough; light and airy inside, crispy outside), the shape (oval with two pointy tips of dough, and thin crust at the bottom), the cheese-to-dough ratio (1:1). Not to mention the emphatic sayings typical of Georgia's meridional culture: "After eating an Adjaran khachapuri, you must feel full yet want to devour another one." Curiously, the cheese seems to be left to your discretion—Imeretian, sulguni, or a blend thereof.
This specialty is also claimed by another Georgian region, separatist Abkhazia. The belligerent Abkhaz decided that this was their national dish, but since they couldn't conceivably keep the same name for it (what kind of would-be independent country names a dish after a region of their neighboring enemy?), they opted to reinforce their allegiance to Russia by calling it lodochka, or "little boat" in Russian.
There are more. Mountainous Svaneti is known for its impossibly rustic chvishtari, a pancake-like mix of Georgian polenta and cheese. Ossetia makes a version called khabizgini, filled with potatoes and cheese. Guria has its own Gurian khachapuri, a kind of calzone filled with cheese and chopped hard-boiled eggs. Abkhazia (them again) also makes achma, a kind of cheese lasagna. The penovani khachapuri is somewhat in a league of its own, as it doesn't belong to any particular region; its name comes from pena (ფენა), meaning "layer," due to its yeast-leavened puff pastry (like a croissant). At Restaurant Kazbek in Kiev, I even ate a khachapuri kebab—a skewer with cheese, cherry tomatoes, and basil, all wrapped in pastry.
Making a khachapuri at home doesn't have to be daunting. I favor a soft dough made with yogurt and baking powder, which can be prepared in no time. You could also buy dough from your local pizza parlor. (In New York City at least; if you made the ill-advised choice to live elsewhere, your mileage may vary.) While I've tried to make my own Imeretian cheese and sulguni, a mixture of mozzarella and feta is commonly used outside of Georgia, even by Georgian immigrants.
Since khachapuri is eaten so often, it makes sense to have a recipe that can be prepared quickly. With a little bit of practice, you can have a delicious cheese bread made from scratch in about an hour.
Hurry before the chain pizza joints of the world get word of it and start ruining everything.