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When our friend applied for a chef gig at the cooking department of a northern California community college, a board of evaluators gave him a pair of chicken breasts, a frugal selection of ingredients and said, “Create something.” He assessed his workspace and smiled. He saw white wine, chicken stock, butter, shallots and plenty of garlic. He dusted the breasts in flour and hocus-pocus, finished off the dish with a five-fingered pinch of chopped parsley and got the job.

Garlic chicken works. Its humble transcendence has conquered the world over – and the more garlic, the merrier. In provincial France they roast a chicken with no less than 40 cloves of garlic for poulet aux 40 gousses d’ail, while Oaxacans make pollo oaxaqueño con orégano y ajo with 30 cloves. Georgia’s breath-defying garlic chicken dish is called shkmeruli, named after the tiny Rachan village Shkmeri, where it is said to hail from.

shkmeruliThere are several legends surrounding the dish’s origins, but they all boil down to a host adding gobs of garlic to hide the age of the chicken – a ploy we know something about, for shkmeruli is both our must-order and quality control test for restaurants. It is the dish we insisted Gabriadze Cafe serve Anthony Bourdain when we lunched with him for Parts Unknown in 2016.

Traditionally shkmeruli is cooked and served in a ketsi, an earthenware casserole dish, with roasted chicken suffused in an ablution of garlic and dairy in the form of butter or milk. In Bourdain’s case, the waiter served pieces of grilled chicken on our plates then poured the milky sauce afterwards, which was great for the cameras, but shkmeruli scorns sophistication. We wanted Tony to revel in the joy of forking out a chunk of dripping chicken from a sizzling ketsi and spooning as much of the pungent virtue as he pleased. And then, over absorbing conversation, we would wipe the ketsi clean with chunks of tonis puri.

We have never eaten shkmeruli in its hometown, nor chatted with a cook from there, but we have left a trail of clean, garlicky chicken bones from nearby Oni all the way down to Ambrolauri. If the authentic recipe calls for milk or not, we cannot say.

We have never eaten shkmeruli in its hometown, but we have left a trail of clean, garlicky chicken bones from nearby Oni all the way down to Ambrolauri.

Zakhar Zakharich (sadly, no longer open) made an opulent version without milk or cream. The tender chicken, smothered in pressed garlic, was poached in a jacuzzi of chicken grease and butter. Aristaeus (RIP as well) had the astuteness to offer both kinds on their menu, claiming butter was the original.

Mariam Margvelidze, a winemaker from Sadmeli near Ambrolauri, said she had never had shkmeruli in butter, just in its own grease, although her family uses sour cream and – brace yourself – sometimes mayonnaise, her favorite.

When the pandemic came and ripped the tablecloth from under our world, we began the adventure of cooking shkmeruli ourselves, finding inspiration everywhere; from our wood burning Svanuri, to Darra Goldstein’s book, The Georgian Feast. Last week, we called Tekuna Gachechiladze for advice, as her shkmeruli at Khasheria always vanishes off the table before we even make our first toasts.

For ingredients, we had:
1 whole chicken
1 head garlic, chopped
1 thumb fresh ginger
1 cup milk (more or less)
1 cup heavy cream (more or less)
2 tbsp cold pressed sunflower oil
1tsp butter
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp red adjika paste
1tsp chopped fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

We put some Hamlet Gonashvili on the music player for ambience and popped open a bottle of rkatsiteli (great with shkmeruli) before cutting our chicken into eighth pieces, plus wings (drumstick, thigh, and breasts in half) and seasoning it with salt, pepper and coriander. Our ketsi is in the village, so we heated a cast iron skillet, added the oil and browned the chicken, starting with the legs, as they need more time. We snuggled the breasts into the pan skin side down and added a good swig of wine after we flipped them, then slid the pan in the oven, preheated to 190 degrees C (375 degrees F) for about 45 minutes.

While the chicken was roasting, we poured more wine to contemplate the pièce de résistance and settled on one head of garlic plus three cloves for luck. We went with Tekuna’s method of adding ginger to the mix and might have used a vulgar garlic press, only because shkmeruli is a lewd dish, but we had just bought a brand new food processor we couldn’t wait to inaugurate.

Most recipes call for adding the raw garlic and milk towards the end, which is great if you have a flight the next morning and want to assure yourself both armrests. Tekuna likes to sauté the garlic and ginger for a minute or so until soft, then adds the milk and cream and mixes the adjika in. That’s what we did this time and we brought it all to a simmer for a minute and cut the fire.

We went with an equal measure of milk and cream – maybe a cup of each – enough to cover the chicken well, but not drown it. Salt and pepper to taste, but the chicken was well seasoned enough that we didn’t need much.

About five minutes or so before the chicken was ready, we took it out of the oven, poured the sauce over the bird and finished it in the oven. The chopped parsley went on before serving. We baked thick slices of Russet potatoes for a side dish, as they are great for sopping up the sauce from the skillet.

We slipped the first bites into our mouths, and the garlic released its subdued authority as we chewed on the tender chicken. Nailed it, but this time we would not forget. Draining our bottle into our glasses, we raised them and proposed a toast to Tekuna.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Published on March 25, 2021

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