Foreigners call it “cheese pie,” but khachapuri translates to “curds bread” – although it is much, much more than that. It is, without a doubt, Georgia’s most signature victual.
In a land with no breakfast culture to speak of, a couple slices of khachapuri and a cup of tea or coffee are all it takes to fuel you up until suppertime. If you need a snack to carry you over, you grab a pie at any one of the hundreds of khachapuri stands in Tbilisi, and no supra – feast – is complete without an “Imeretian” or “Megrelian” pie for every three people at the table. Then there’s the heart attack special, adjaruli, a meal in itself, a fluffy boat-shaped crust stuffed with cheese and topped with an egg, sunny-side up, floating in the center with a big wad of butter on top.
Typically round, khachapuri and its cousins lobiani (stuffed with beans), Gurian (boiled eggs), Ossetian (potato and cheese), kubdari (mutton and herbs) and other meat/tarragon/rice/spinach variations come in all shapes and sizes, from grenade-like to submarine-shaped. The cheese pies may be salty, depending on the cheese, or may have little cheese at all; they may be oozing in butter or have flaky crusts as opposed to doughy ones. Whatever the type, khachapuri is the country’s original fast food and is a Georgian’s best friend. In a 2009 countrywide poll, 88 percent of Georgians stated that they preferred khachapuri to pizza.
Across Tbilisi, there are several superb khachapuri restaurants, but there is one in a cellar in the center of the city that is noteworthy for offering more than delicious cheese and meat and potato pies. Sarcho is a cross between a delicatessen and mini-ethnographic museum. You can order khachapuri, take a seat and wash it down with Tbilisi’s legendary Laghidze soda water, flavored with a rainbow-colored array of fruit syrups. Meanwhile, a temperature-controlled room in the back has been remade into a little marani, or traditional wine cellar, where they sell homemade wines, fruit vodkas, brandies and chacha, Georgia’s infamous grappa, in addition to several bottled varieties.
Sarcho is the only place in the center of the city that sells dambalkhacho, a distinctive hard cheese made only in the tiny Pshavi region in the high Caucasus. Made from buttermilk cottage cheese, it is kneaded into balls, dried over a fire and then aged in the darkness in ceramic pots for several months. Other more straightforward, equally pungent indigenous cheeses are also on hand, along with matzoni, Georgian yogurt, honey and other natural products.
“Everything is organic and made by hand. I want to introduce Georgian delicacies that few people know into the mainstream,” said owner Nugzar Khahniauri, a native of Pshavi who opened Sarcho five years ago. He is particularly proud of the wine and claims his is the only shop that exclusively sells natural homemade wine, made without additives. While there are wine shops and restaurants that sell organic wines in Tbilisi, none offer it in plastic bottles, along with a wide variety of a warm, freshly baked khachapuri.