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These days, you can buy an Adjaruli khachapuri anywhere from a pizza chain in Bueno Aires to a grocery store in Tokyo. In Tbilisi, you can get this usually cheese- and egg-filled bread topped with meat and beans, cucumber-tomato salad or wild mushroom stew — the Adjaruli khachapuri has been having a years-long moment. Because of its ubiquity, outside of Georgia the word “khachapuri” has come to mean Adjaruli khachapuri, and the other word is forgotten.

But at what cost! Adjara is the subtropical autonomous republic of western Georgia bordering Turkey and the Black Sea, and its cuisine has more to offer than solely the iconic cheese bread. Like much of Georgia, Adjara has passed through the hands of many, from classical Greeks to the Russians, each of whom has left a mark. An extended period of Ottoman rule and the isolation of the mountain villages in the western end of the Lesser Caucasus resulted in a region of Georgia that was, when the Soviets took over in 1921, Georgian-speaking and predominantly Muslim, and stayed that way until a wave of conversions to Christianity began in the 1990s.

Despite decades of closed borders under Soviet rule, the Turkish influence remains in the food of Adjara, in sweets like halva and baklava and dairy products from the region like kaimaghi, a thick sour cream, and dapsnili kveli, or “braided cheese,” which are made on both sides of the border.

Dairy is huge in Adjara. Practically every household in the mountains has cows, and the milk is used to make matsoni (a type of Georgian yogurt), butter, cheese and a number of unique dishes like sinori, kuruti and borano.

When I tell Georgians I live in Khulo, the highest of the mountainous municipalities of Adjara, they almost always follow up with “Do you like borano?” I usually answer yes, though quite honestly there’s only so much my lactose-intolerant self can eat of a dish that’s 75% cheese (dapsnili kveli, specifically) and 20% browned butter. The final 5% is water, to cut the butter. It is good though, which is helpful because borano is also served at what feels like at least half of all meals eaten in mountainous Adjara. Luckily there are variations, most of which reduce the cheese and add in something else (mashed potatoes, eggs, even rice) before pouring on the brown butter mixture. Like everything in Georgia, borano is eaten with bread.

Sinori, another Adjarian main, is also made using dairy — in this case, butter and nadughi, a soured milk product resembling cottage cheese. Thin dough rounds are briefly cooked, and then, while warm, rolled and cut into short pieces that are left to dry for a few days, at which point they can be preserved indefinitely. To prepare sinori, the nadughi is mixed with water, and, if you’re lucky, garlic, and poured over the rolls, which have been carefully arranged in a shallow dish. Finally, they’re topped with browned butter. Sinori is a classic dish for unexpected guests; if you already have the rolls on hand, it can be prepped in about five minutes.

Kuruti is another dish made from nadughi, to preserve dairy for the winter. The nadughi is mixed in stages with milk, corn flour, kaimaghi, butter and salt. Once all the ingredients are combined, handfuls of the dough are left in the sun to dry. After a few days, when it’s dryer but still malleable, the handfuls are formed into careful torpedo-esque logs and then left to dry further. If they survive the scourge of hungry barn cats, kuruti is typically eaten crumbled on boiled potatoes.

When Esma Tchelidze, a housewife we chatted with in Khulo, has guests, she has to hide her drying kuruti from them in addition to the cats. She says that if they’re spotted, everyone will ask for a piece and then she won’t have any left.

According to her, the kuruti in bigger cities pales in comparison to the labor- and ingredient-intensive version produced in homes in the mountains. “The ones for sale in Batumi are just corn flour and milk. They don’t make them well,” she tells us.

In the high mountain villages of Khulo, most of what people eat is what they grow, supplemented by sacks of sugar, flour and salt, and jugs of oil brought in from Batumi, the nearest city. There are no grocery stores here, and the small markets are expensive, with limited options. Instead, people farm: at their permanent residences they grow corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, hazelnuts, apples and more. In the summer, they go to small wooden houses in even higher villages, where they grow potatoes and strawberries and even more vegetables, including many, many pumpkins. Relatives who live near Batumi bring huge sacks of mandarins in the winter, and persimmons and kiwis, a relatively new introduction to the local agricultural scene, from further down in the Adjaran mountains are easily obtained.

Meat comes mostly from cows, sacrificed for the Muslim holiday of Qurban Bayram (elsewhere known as Eid al-Adha), or killed before a wedding or other event and then eaten slowly until the next occasion. Cows are more useful as a source of milk, however, and many everyday meals in this region are vegetarian. There are a few chickens around, and people say there aren’t more because they all get eaten by wolves or eagles.

Despite this relative dearth of chickens, another classic Adjarian dish, chirbuli, centers on eggs – dropped whole in a stew of tomatoes, the dish is quite like an Adjarian shakshuka.

In the late summer and fall, rural Adjarian households are incredibly busy harvesting and preserving the bounty of the region for the winter. Tomatoes are preserved in huge jars with onions, peppers, herbs and spices already cooked in, so when it comes time to make a chirbuli, all a cook has to do is open a jar, heat it, and toss in some eggs. However, the best chirbulis, like those made by our friend Natali in Keda, another Adjarian town on the road to Batumi, feature cooked-down tomato conserves with ground walnuts, more spices and adjika (hot red pepper paste).

Then there is Adjarian halva, one of the most-interesting foods of the region. It’s a mix of flour, butter and sugar, with additional ingredients depending on the cook, and is most commonly made for the souls of the dead. While halva is not widespread in the rest of Georgia, this practice connects Adjarians with communities in Iran, Turkey, Armenia and beyond — in all of these places, some type of halva is made for funerals and other commemorations around the passing of a loved one. (However, some of these halvas are quite different from the Adjaran type. While Turkish funeral halva is made with brown butter, flour, water and sugar, it is differentiated from basic Adjarian halva by the addition of pine nuts.)

Here, halva is usually shaped into small oblongs with a tablespoon or just rolled into a sphere, somewhere between golf ball and baseball sized, that’s broken into pieces to serve. Despite the association with death, it’s quite normal to be served halva on a casual visit for coffee – some Adjaran families make it every Thursday night to remember family members that have died. As a result, they have a lot of it.

Esma says halva recipes have changed over time: “Now it’s just bread flour, but this way [with corn flour] is more delicious.”

However, Melak Beridze, of Keda Municipality, makes it the old way every week, in remembrance of her youngest son. She adds to the basic recipe corn flour, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Melak says that it’s important that halva that is made in remembrance of someone who has died incorporate seven ingredients — thus, the pinch of salt, as homemade Adjaran butter is pretty salty to begin with.

And this is just the beginning, a scratch on the surface of Adjaran food culture. In the mountains there are still multitudes of other dairy products and vegetable dishes to be explored, as well as historical dishes like kaisapa, a dish made with butter and dried plums, that are slowly being replaced as other foods become more easily available and varied. And then there’s coastal Adjara — Kobuleti has its own locally-famous stew, yakhni, and the Laz that live along the Black Sea up to Sarpi have a unique food culture, too. The linguistic diversity of the Caucasus is renowned, and it stands that a region this size with so many languages and cultures would also be a hotspot of culinary diversity.

Unfortunately, few Georgian restaurants abroad have taken up the cause of Adjarian cuisine beyond the ubiquitous khachapuri, so one’s best bet to begin exploring this cuisine is to come to the source — luckily, no one would regret a visit to this lush, hospitable and delectable region.

Katharine Khamhaengwong is a master’s student in Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University. She taught English in a village in Keda for two years and recently returned to Adjara as a Fulbright student researcher based in a village in Khulo, looking at contemporary Islam in Georgia.

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Katharine KhamhaengwongKatharine Khamhaengwong

Published on March 08, 2022

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