Each village in Tusheti is unique. Some have towers; others have churches; in all of them we find the famous hospitality of the Georgian people who invite us into their homes and to their tables. It is in the village of Shenako, a thousand-year old village high in the Caucasus Mountains that we learn about khinkali, one of Georgia’s national foods.
The road from Omalo to Shenako is another jaw-shuddering drive on a dirt track that takes us down one mountainside and up another. The isolation is palpable. We see no other vehicles until just before reaching the village when a very large Soviet-made truck blocks the road. It is mired in the mud up to its axles. Five men try to winch it out, but it is well and truly stuck.
We hike the rest of the way into the village, through fields of yellow buttercups and wild iris, past the Shenako winter village, on the south slope of the mountain. The few inhabitants, who remain here during the winter months, braving the 14 feet of snow, move to these tiny shelters with their cows.
The main village is on the northern slope. A large green meadow in the center serves as the soccer pitch as well as the communal ground for festivals. The tiny church of Shenako presides over the village from a small rise. It dates from the 18th century and was recently restored by the Tchvritidze family who funded the restoration themselves. We are told that volunteers assisted them, including a pair of Italian fresco painters who adorned the interior of the church at no charge.
Behind the church sits a khati, or pre-Christian shrine, adorned with horns and white rocks. (The latter serve as a signal that women are not allowed to approach). Tusheti only embraced Christianity in the 9th century, long after the rest of Georgia, and continues to maintain many pagan traditions.
From our room in the Sheni Sakli Guesthouse, (run by Darejan and Davit Tchvritidze), we gaze out on the church as well as on Mt. Diklo, on the Georgia-Daghestan border, a few miles away.
A three-mile hike to the village of Diklo takes us through forests of larch and fir trees as well as extensive meadows carpeted with wildflowers. Horses and cows graze on the hillsides; fierce Caucasian sheep dogs protect the flocks, barking madly to scare us away. We advance cautiously, hiking sticks in hand, to protect ourselves from possible attack. It is no laughing matter since rabies is common, and treatment involves a medevac to Germany for the rabies vaccines.
However, all this beauty notwithstanding, Darejan’s cooking, and a Master Class in the making of khinkali (Georgia’s version of meat dumplings), is the main event here. As with most things, each region of Georgia has its own variation of how you prepare this national food.
Working in a wooden lean-to with a dirt floor that serves as the kitchen, delicious multi-course meals are prepared with nothing more than an old-fashioned wood-burning stove and a brazier. (The stove is also where water is heated if you want to take a shower. Water takes about 45 minutes to come to a boil at this altitude. It makes you think twice about wasting it!)
In Georgian the kitchen is called a “Jujula deda.” “Deda” is the word for “Mother” (and, yes, the word for “Father” is “mama”) while “Jujula” is the sound made when calling chickens. Only women are allowed into the kitchen, and it is where they gather to prepare meals, talk, drink, and relax!
The Master Class takes about an hour. Darejan, and her assistant, Tina, have already prepared the dough (a mixture of flour and brine) and rolled it out using a glass bottle. The filling is also ready in a bowl. Although there are many different combinations, the most common filling for khinkali in Tusheti is ground lamb or beef with onions, seasonings and greens including spinach or fenugreek. (Pork is not allowed into the province in any way, shape or form, including as a ham sandwich in your picnic lunch. Our guide tells us that it is a remnant of pagan times).
A glass is used to cut the dough into small circles using a glass and a dollop of the meat is placed in the center. Then, the edges of the dough are pulled into a pleated topknot. It is not as easy as it looks to pleat the dough, making as many folds as possible. Uproarious laughter ensues as I try my hand at making the khinkali!
Once all the khinkali have been assembled, they are dropped into a large kettle of boiling water on the brazier (they can also be steamed) and served immediately, perhaps with a sprinkle of pepper.
There is an art to eating khinkali. You grasp the topknot in one hand, turn it upside down and take a small bite, sucking out the broth before continuing to eat the rest. The idea is not to let a single drop of the liquid escape and make a mess of your shirt in the process. Once you have eaten around it, you discard the topknot on the plate. This serves as an indication of how many you have consumed. Eating the khinkali with a knife and fork It is considered the height of rudeness.
We eat khinkali at almost every meal. Meat is the most common filling but mushrooms, cheese and walnuts are also possibilities. At breakfast we are served khinkali filled with mashed potatoes and butter. Picnic lunches often include the leftovers.
The ubiquitous Khinkali is one of Georgia’s most popular foods, as evidenced by the large number of khinkali “parlors” in the cities and its presence on almost every table. However, learning how to make them in such a unique place as Shenako makes this a very special experience.
IF YOU GO
Our trip was organized by Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).
If you want to give it a try at home, Georgian Journal has a good recipe. (http://www.georgianjournal.ge/georgian-cuisine/26984-how-to-make-traditional-georgian-khinkali.html).
Photos of Georgia can be found at www.allegriaphotos.com in Recent Additions.