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. 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.”