Tucked between Russia and Turkey, the Republic of Georgia is renowned for great food: cheese dishes, pickles, breads and stews. This is a cuisine that you should not miss.
And on summer evenings in the capital, Tbilisi, the air is fragrant with the smells of one of Georgian cookery’s highlights: grilled meat, or shashlik.
You can find good shashlik at restaurants with white tablecloths, but the very best in all Tbilisi is said to be at a roadside stop called Mtsvadi Isalamze. It’s an unassuming place with rows of wooden picnic tables in an open yard.
The grill is a brick hearth where Giorgi Kavelashvili follows the traditions of his native Kakheti, the easternmost province of Georgia and the nation’s wine country. Kavelashvili is 19, but he grills with absolute confidence, because, he says, “In Kakheti, everyone knows how to make shashlik. So I studied it from my childhood.”
One of the secrets, he says, is the wood.
Here, shashlik is grilled on burning grapevines. Kavelashvili demonstrates by hefting a big bundle of grapevines onto the hearth and setting it alight. The vines burn quickly, leaving a heap of finger-sized coals that he rakes into an even bed of fragrant heat.
“Georgians, and especially Kakhetians, know from very, very ancient old times that only [this] type of wood is much more better to make shashlik,” explains Nani Chanishvili, my guide and translator. She’s a linguist, a professor of the Georgian language and a connoisseur of Georgian food.
What the Georgians of ancient times discovered, she explains, is that the aromatic smoke and high heat from the vines seal in the juices of the meat.
Perhaps the best test of the griller’s skill is how well he cooks kebabs made from finely minced meat, usually lamb, that’s mixed with spices and squeezed by hand onto the skewer.
Good timing is everything, because Kakhetian kebabs are cooked very close to the coals, and it’s easy to over-do them.
Giorgi’s kebabs pass the test perfectly: They are juicy and full of flavor from regional herbs, spices and sweet-smelling smoke. They come served with fresh, chewy Kakhetian bread, and of course, Georgian white wine.
Why white? As Chanishvili explains, Georgians like to drink a lot of wine when they speak – and “that means, only white wine, only white,” she says, “because it is not possible to drink, for example, four, five, six, seven liters of red wine — then you will be dead. That’s not right. But white [wine], yes, you can.”
Chanishvili doesn’t drink much herself, but she insists that her father could drink as many as 14 liters of white wine during a single feast. Then again, a real Georgian feast is an event that can go on for 12 hours.
According to Georgian tradition, that time should be spent enjoying food, making long and witty toasts, reciting verse and singing.
But be warned: Even 12 hours wouldn’t be enough time to sample all of Georgia’s delicacies, especially the best of the country’s shashlik.
Unfortunately,” says Chanishvili, “it’s not possible to eat everything.”