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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Eating with Pleasure in Georgia

I arrived in Batumi on an August afternoon so hot the buckling pavement shimmered. The coach bus that had carried our group of fifty English teachers from our orientation site in central Georgia to our new home base on the country's Black Sea coast parked next to a sturdy-looking restaurant of stone and wood, directly overlooking the water. We tumbled out wide-eyed and took pictures of each other embracing stubby palm trees. Next door, a two-story home with a Dutch-style windmill tacked on one side seemed out of place. The sign out front read "Showgirls."
Dazed by the heat and a little perplexed, I climbed the stairs to the restaurant's balcony for lunch. Our program directors had elected to give us our first taste of ajaruli khachapuri, the culinary pride and joy of this, the Ajara region. Waiters in traditional costume presented each of us with a "bread boat" holding a molten lagoon of cheese and butter with an egg cracked in the middle. As I leaned over my plate to break up the egg and butter, a bead of sweat slid down my cheek and was lost amid the steaming cheese. Somebody asked for a salad.

Easily the country's most ubiquitous dish, khachapuri can be found in nearly every house, restaurant, and street stall in one variation or another. Ajaruli is the most elaborate and least common of them. More often you'll see imeruli khachapuri (flat, round pies with salted cheese sealed inside), or megruli khachapuri (the same, but with another layer of cheese melted on top). Streetside bakeries prepare smaller versions that can be held in one hand. The best are encased in flaky puff pastry and baked on the walls of an earthen kiln instead of an oven. 

My host mother Shushana bakes hers in a toaster oven she sets on the balcony, stringing the electrical cord though the kitchen window. Her four-year-old grandson Dato likes to "help" her prepare it: he pounds on the table, sings, and eats the cheese as she grates it. The boats come out of the oven fragrant and bubbling, their rims blistered to golden perfection.
Eating them neatly with a fork and knife requires a dexterity I haven't yet mastered, and my hapless attempts send the whole family into fits of giggles as they rush to rescue my meal. "Stop, stop, the inside will escape!" my host father Misha cries, pulling my plate toward himself. He demonstrates how to cut out pieces from the inner side of the rim without piercing the bottom of the boat, thereby keeping the cheese mixture trapped inside for as long as possible. Once the cheese, butter, and egg have solidified slightly or melted into the bread itself, a leak no longer threatens to spring.

I recently returned to that same beachside restaurant with newly arrived foreign guests, proud to introduce them to this specialty of my adopted home. We sit on the same balcony and watch the palms toss in a chilly breeze over the gray sea. When the waiter brings out four steaming cheese boats, I can't imagine anything more appealing. This is comfort food at its hearty, gut-warming best.

Ajaruli Sakhli (Ajara House) restaurant: 10 Khimshiashvili Street, Batumi Getting There: You can fly directly into Batumi International Airport on Turkish Airlines, Georgian Airways, or Aerosvit Airlines (Ukraine). Trains operate between Tbilisi and Batumi nightly, with a daytime train also operating on even-numbered days. Buses run regularly from Istanbul to Batumi, and a painfully slow ferry operates from Odessa in good weather. You can catch a crowded but cheap ride to Batumi from just about anywhere in Georgia via minibus ("marshrutka").

Jenny Holm is a freelance
food writer and English teacher currently based in Batumi, Georgia. She blogs at Gusto: Eating with Pleasure