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Google khachapuri and the top images that pop up are that of the classic boat-shaped version, its golden orb of an egg yolk cracked in the center of melty cheese still bubbling fresh out of the oven. This classic recipe from the Black Sea coastal region of Adjara that gives it its name, Adjaruli khachapuri, is undeniably one of the most iconic visual representations of Georgian cuisine.

While indeed an undeniably photogenic and enticingly seductive dish, the Adjaruli khachapuri’s domineering image often obscures the fact that there are dozens of different varieties of the khachapuri that exist around the country. Most restaurant menus options are also often reduced to just a handful of varieties, like the imeruli, with a single layer of cheese baked inside, the more opulent megruli, which adds a crust of cheese on top, and the all too ubiquitous Adjaruli.

But a Tbilisi couple are on a mission to address this paucity of khachapuri offerings with the country’s first artisanal khachapuri bakery, dedicated to serving over 20 varieties of local khachapuris and related stuffed-bread recipes with a unique twist – dough kneaded from a locally grown native varieties of wheat.

In a bid to preserve, document and rediscover lesser-known versions of khachapuri and dig up lost recipes, food and beverage consultants Lali Papashvily and Levan Qoqiashvili – Gunda’s founders – teamed up with researchers, anthropologists and culinary professionals who form the core team of the Gastronomic Association of Georgia, a nonprofit started in 2018 to develop and promote Georgian gastronomy.

Their collaboration resulted in a compilation of 43 differed kinds of dough-based khachapuri dishes, their original recipes, the local cheeses used, as well as the native grains they were made from before industrial white wheat became the norm. It was this research into khachapuri and its origins that spurred the husband-and-wife team best known for their conceptual consultancy work behind of some of Tbilisi’s best known fine dining ventures, including Barbarestan and Puri Guliani, to launch their personal venture – Gunda.

We first met Lali and Levan while researching a slow but growing movement to revive many of the country’s ancient indigenous wheat varieties that had been supplanted by industrial wheat during Soviet collectivization. Georgia is an ancient bread culture and more than fourteen varieties of ancient wheat – five of which were endemic to Georgia – were widely grown across Georgia until centralized Soviet planning drove them to obscurity.

Thanks to over a decade of work of by local agricultural non-profit Elkana, farmers have been slowly encouraged to cultivate these native grains in the last decade. While a handful of bakeries across town offer these ancient grain breads, Gunda is the first to use them in khachapuri. “We’re so proud to be able to encourage local farmers to grow more of these endemic grains and expand the market for them,” Lali had told us back in September last year, adding that they had signed a contract of 10 tons of native wheat flour with Elkana for the coming year.

Now, four months since their October 2022 opening, the artisanal khachapuri bakery is settling well into its cozy niche in a hilly residential district of Mtatsminda. Business has been going well, with locals curious to try khachapuri made from healthier homegrown heritage grain such as tsiteli doli (known as Caucasus Rouge in the west), makha, shavpkha, dika and zanduri. But it’s the offerings of rare khachapuri recipes from remote mountain regions like Svaneti – famous for its chlakviani khachapuri made with an aged mountain cheese called narchvi and fresh spring onions added to the stuffing – that have become best sellers, says Lali.

Another classic Svan recipe from pre-Soviet years, when cannabis and hemp were widely cultivated in the region, is a khachapuri stuffed with cannabis seeds called lukvne. Gunda has recreated this recipe with a local millet called phetvi in the cheese stuffing to mimic the texture of hemp seeds, and a generous dressing of hempseed oil on the golden crust. The couple hopes to be able to serve up the original recipe one day – while possession and consumption of small amounts of cannabis has been decriminalized in Georgia, large scale cultivation and sale are still illegal. Levan recently wrote an application to the Ministry of Internal Affairs requesting permission to recreate the recipe with hemp seeds to be able to revive this original recipe. “It’s so important to spread the culture and history of these old recipes – most people have no idea of this legacy or have forgotten,” chimes in Lali. The couple have yet to receive a reply from the Ministry.

Another menu highlight is Gunda’s tsulispiriani. Long before the South American variety of red kidney beans were introduced to Georgia, the traditional bean-stuffed bread lobiani was made from a local legume called tulispira (Lathyrus Sativus L), a relative of the grass pea or chickling pea, as it’s commonly called in English. Thanks to Elkana’s work with farmers and Gunda’s collaboration with the non-profit, today Gunda is the only place where one can taste this original lobiani.

Gunda serves up some classic khachapuri versions as well, and their Adjaruli is one of their bestsellers. While we’ve never been true acolytes of Adjaruli khachapuri, perhaps put off by its blockbuster status, we welcomed the chance to dip into Gunda’s version, made from a blend of tsiteli doli, shapkhva and dika wheat flour. The thinner-than-usual crispy crust immediately got our attention as we tore off a piece of the bread and stirred it into the fondue of melted butter, egg yolk and cheese and popped it into our mouths. The wholesome, nutty texture of the ancient-grain bread immediately struck the right taste buds before the sumptuous, gooey inner dipping indulged my senses. In a moment of culinary clarity, we finally understood the fuss about what many consider the king of khachapuri.

Pearly JacobPearly Jacob

Published on February 10, 2023

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