I’ve fallen in love with Georgian khinkali. Soft, juicy, wonton-like dumplings, with a thick, doughy outer layer encasing herby ground meat, potato or cheese. It seems the entire Georgian population share this obsession. You can eat khinkali everywhere. But go into the northern mountains that surround the villages of Kazbegi and Pasanauri where they say they taste best. Probably because it’s here that they originate – khinkali is proper mountain food that uses whatever’s available in the harsh winter months (some villages are completely cut off from December to March). Flour, hot spring mineral water and salt for the dough. Lamb or beef, potatoes and their ubiquitous fresh cheese for the filling. Delicious, calorific, satisfying.
Khinkali are served hot without any garnish and must be eaten with your hands. The trick is to hold the topknot – which is never eaten – as a handle. I realise now that using a knife and fork (as I did the first time) was a mistake, as the juices escape onto your plate. The first few bites are a tricky balancing act between eating the filling and sucking the juices out at the same time so nothing is lost. It’s immense. You can also get smaller gyoza-shaped ones too. Lela, our host and brilliant cook in Kazbegi, served these for breakfast with salty homemade butter that you spread on top before gorging on the lot.
These khinkali represent what I most love about Georgian food; an amazing mix of Asian and European and Middle Eastern influences. I was surprised to find these Chinese-like dumplings in a small country on the far side of Turkey until I learnt that they’re a legacy of Mongol rule. This seems to be often the case in Georgia’s history. For centuries, big empires have fought their feuds and trampled their way over Georgia’s fertile lands, leaving their diverse ingredients and habits behind in their wake. Georgia has craftily taken and shaped the best bits for themselves.