Along with open fireplaces, mohair sweaters and a pretty good justification for not leaving the house, comfort food ranks highly in the list of what we love about the cooler months. When else can you load up on warming, calorie-dense foods with the prospect of lying on a beach wearing very little still months away?
If Instagram hype is to be believed, the next big winter warmer trend is coming from Eastern Europe. Good Food reports the hashtag for khachapuri (Georgia’s answer to pizza, and the country’s national dish), has blown out to around 37,000 posts. At the time of writing, it’s at more than 40K.
And, really, can you blame the food-loving ‘Gram community for wanting more of this?
Georgians, possibly as a result of living in one of the colder places on earth (their country is nestled between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus region of Eurasia), clearly know their way around comfort food. Khachapuri, a traditional snack of cheese-filled bread ticks just about every cold-weather food box there is – it’s buttery, cheesy and doughy, with a runny egg right plopped right in the piping hot centre once it comes out of a wood-fired oven.
“Different versions of khachapuri are found all throughout Georgia,” says Attila Yilmaz from Pazar Food Collective, one of the few places in Sydney known for serving the Georgian staple. “Imeretian khachapuri are completely round like a Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Adjarian are boat-shaped, with crusty, knobbly ends – people usually break them off and mix up the egg, butter and the cheese so that it almost becomes fondue.”
Although the snack is indisputably Georgian (UNESCO added it to the register of Georgia’s Intangible Cultural heritage earlier this year, and it’s cooked so often in Georgian homes that the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University has devised its own khachapuri index as a measure of inflation), neighbouring countries have cottoned on: 175,000 pastries were reportedly consumed during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and Yilmaz tells SBS it’s become a part of the Turkish food lexicon in the same vein as pide and gozleme, particularly in the north, close to Georgia. It's known locally as Karadeniz pide (after the Black Sea region that borders Georgia's coastline). While it isn't as prevalent in Istanbul, it is available in certain eateries. “Finding good khachapuri in Istanbul is possible, but in general it’s a speciality and I found the better ones in working-class neighbourhoods and back-street, hole-in-the-wall pide saloons specialising in Karadeniz pide.”
“Imeretian khachapuri are completely round like a Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Adjarian are boat-shaped, with crusty, knobbly ends – people usually break them off and mix up the egg, butter and the cheese so that it almost becomes fondue.”
If Instagram is the food-trend gospel, khachapuri might be taking off worldwide sooner than expected – especially if the response at Pazar Food Collective is anything to go by.
The cheese-filled pastry has featured on its menu intermittently, mainly as a breakfast item and occasionally for dinner. “It was so immensely popular that I had to stop doing it for breakfast because it was too hard to turn around from the night shift for an independently run place,” Yilmaz says. The good news, though, is there are plans to bring khachapuri back for some upcoming special events.
Popularity aside, khachapuri is still hard to come by in Sydney – as is the case with both Georgian cuisine and Eastern European food more generally. Yilmaz puts the supply gap down to khachapuri being relatively labour-intensive – delicious as they are.
“It was so immensely popular that I had to stop doing it for breakfast."
“To make good khachapuri you need to use quality cheese and quality ingredients; a lot of pizza and Turkish joints aren’t into investing the time and money into khachapuri,” he says. “Maybe it’s a good thing – it’d be a shame if everyone started doing it and bastardised it.”
Until local bakers start taking up the pursuit of the perfect khachapuri in earnest, perhaps the best way to get a taste of Georgia’s national dish is to DIY. Yilmaz’s first big tip is to approach it as you would a pizza. “You want a strong, high-gluten dough that’s very similar to pizza dough, so you can form it up into the desired shape,” he says. “Don’t make the edges too thick, or the ends won’t cook through. And it’s best to cook it on a pizza stone or a slab of marble – you can pick something up from Bunnings.”
Regional variations call for up to five different cheese blends, but Yilmaz suggests as long as the mixture is balanced and not too wet (“otherwise the dough won’t hold!”), you can’t go wrong with making batches of khachapuri.
“They’re high in calories, but so delicious,” says Yilmaz.
Just what these cooler nights call for.
All over the Caucasus, people traditionally stuff eggplants (aubergines) with walnuts and pomegranate seeds to be pickled and preserved for the long winter months. This is a fresh version of the Georgian dish badrijani nigvzit, using grilled eggplant instead, but with the same flavours. Try to use narrow eggplants, rather than bulbous ones, to give you long slices for rolling.
Adjika, literally ‘red salt’, is a spicy and fragrant pepper paste from Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia. You’ll find it completely addictive and you’ll be using it as a condiment for everything, as they do in Abkhazia. It will keep in the fridge for a few days.
"I like this recipe as it uses lots of things that grow locally around the farm – beef, saffron, walnuts and tomatoes. It’s an intriguing mix of big, sour and tangy flavours." Matthew Evans, For the Love of Meat
Considered to be one of Georgia’s national dishes, khachapuri is a shaped bread filled with cheese and served in cafes and at every supra (feast) across the country. There are many different regional variations, but our decadent favourite, adjaruli khachapuri (egg and cheese bread), is gondola-shaped and topped with cheese, a soft egg and, traditionally, a slice of butter just before serving. Sulguni, a soft, pickled Georgian cheese, is traditionally used, but mozzarella makes a good substitute.