Join Culinary Backstreets

Sign up with email

or

Already a member? Log in.

Log in to Culinary Backstreets

Trouble logging in?

Not a member? Sign up!

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in our series of illustrated dispatches covering local spots in and around Georgia’s capital. Contributor Andrew North is an artist and journalist based in Tbilisi who spent many years before that reporting from the Middle East and Asia.

So it’s thanks to Genghis Khan that we find ourselves in a Tbilisi restaurant kitchen eight centuries later, watching chef Lena Ezieshvili make khinkali, Georgia’s famous meat dumplings. That’s one thought that skitters through my head as I try to follow her wink-quick hands folding circles of dough around dollops of meat and herbs before neatly pinching them off at the top into that distinctive khinkali shape.

The Great Khan’s cavalry left a lot more than destruction behind: a pragmatic respect for different religions, for one thing, and a trail of dumplings. From Mongolia’s buuz to Afghanistan’s gently spiced mantu, you can follow this trail westwards along the Silk Road through the Caucasus to Turkey. Of course, it wasn’t only Mongol horsemen who first tried boiling or steaming dough filled with meat or vegetables. Tibet may have beaten them to it with momos. But the Mongols certainly helped to spread the idea.

The khinkali, the modern-day Great Khan of Georgian cuisine, is generally believed to have originated in the isolated mountain hamlets of Khevsureti, where the Caucasus mountain range borders Chechnya. Khevsuruli-style khinkali, illustration by Andrew North What’s known as the khevsuruli variety is usually made with minced beef or lamb and pork, mixed with onions, chili, coriander and cumin.

That’s the specialty of the fantastically named Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan, the café-restaurant where Lena works. Tucked in the ezo, or courtyard, of Tbilisi’s Literature Museum, it’s a culinary and cultural oasis, sustained by a constant flow of khinkali and other traditional Georgian dishes.

Lena reckons she makes an average of 500 khinkali a day, sometimes with a mushroom filling instead of meat. With customers often ordering dozens at a time, most restaurants now use a machine to make their khinkali. But “we make all ours by hand,” says Lena, “fresh for each order.”

I watch as she shapes 12 meat khinkali and then tips them into boiling water for a few minutes. The only thing she ever changes is the proportion of meat, adding more pork “to make them juicier.” Usually, it’s about one-third beef, two-thirds pork.

In khinkali’s journey from the mountains to the lowlands, shocking innovations have occurred over the years. Herbs like parsley have been added, and this variety, known as kalakuri (meaning “urban”), is now more common in Tbilisi. In some places, you can even find them filled with potatoes or cheese.

But Sofia Melnikova’s is a place for khinkali traditionalists – where any talk of changing the filling is sacrilege. (And if you’re new here, don’t think of trying to use a fork. You eat khinkali with your hands.) I venture to ask Lena if she would make khinkali filled with potato. She shakes her head and turns back to making the next batch. “That’s not khinkali.”


Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan
Address: 22 Revaz Tabukashvili St. (behind the Literature Museum), off Rustaveli
Telephone: +995 592 68 11 66

Hours: noon-2am

Note: You have to go around the back of the museum to reach Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan. It is open independently of the Literature Museum.  

Get directionsExport as KML for Google Earth/Google MapsOpen standalone map in fullscreen modeCreate QR code image for standalone map in fullscreen modeExport as GeoJSONExport as GeoRSSExport as ARML for Wikitude Augmented-Reality browser
Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan, 22 Revaz Tabukashvili St.

loading map - please wait...

Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Douqan, 22 Revaz Tabukashvili St. 41.699557, 44.799145 (Directions)

Related stories

May 19, 2017

Marani: Upstairs, Downstairs

By Dave Cook
Queens -- Georgians – that is, Georgians who hail from the former Soviet republic and not the American South – love their cheesy khachapuri and their beef-and-lamb-filled khinkali. At a glatt kosher restaurant, however, dairy items and meat items can't mingle, either in the kitchen or in the dining room, and many such establishments serve…
May 26, 2017

Taralli: Lard Almighty

By Amedeo Colella
Naples -- The rustic Neapolitan tarallo, made of  'nzogna (lard), pepper and toasted almonds, is a true delicacy. It can be considered the first popular snack in Naples, a bite that combines the punch of black pepper with the sweetness of almonds, the whole united by lard. It’s a dangerous combination for the waistline, that’s for sure.…
June 2, 2017

In Vienna, a Dying Breed of Butcher

By Tobias Mueller
Elsewhere -- What the taco stand is to Mexico City or the wok-wielding hawker to Bangkok, the Würstelstand is to Vienna. At any time of day or night, people line up to snack on a quick sausage, with a pickle, mustard and a can of beer. There is an astonishing variety of sausages to choose…