I've been asking Americans who've been to Georgia what they remember most about the country, what made Georgia special to them. The responses usually begin with
the friendly people or memorable places; churches, mountains, castles. But those things can be found in a lot of countries, I say. What was unique to Georgia? What do you miss most? Eventually there's only one answer: khachapuri.
Khachapuri, that ubiquitous delicacy (inadequately described in English as 'cheese bread') that seems to appear on every Georgian table at every Georgian meal is, for us visitors, the essence not just of Georgian cuisine, but of Georgia herself.
It's not just that khachapuri is delicious, either. It's also that it seems to be unattainable anywhere else in the world. An American acquaintance had a Georgian-themed restaurant in Seattle in the mid-1990s. It was called Pirosmani, and the head chef was Georgian, not just some American with a Georgian cookbook. We Seattleites who had been to Georgia were lined up at Pirosmani's door the first hour of the first day. It was the prospect of eating a lot of khachapuri that attracted us. We ordered it, it came, and we tried it. 'American' khachapuri was tasty, but still very disappointing. It just wasn't the khachapuri we knew and loved.
The cook eventually explained. 'I can't get the right cheese here,' she said sadly. 'What I use is as close as I could come after months of searching.' We sympathized with her-especially my friend Lucy, who, in khachapuri-withdrawal, once tried to make it at home and encountered the same problem-but we weren't surprised when Pirosmani disappeared after a few years. A Georgian restaurant that doesn't serve real khachapuri is as doomed as a McDonald's that's run out of hamburgers.
And speaking of the world's largest restaurant chain, when I was in Tbilisi last October I passed the McDonald's near Rustavelli a few times, but I never went in. (Eating at McDonald's in Georgia seemed to be the cultural equivalent of taking bottles of California wine to Bordeaux.) But I was curious about one thing. In McD's in Japan, they serve a Teriyaki Quarter Pounder undoubtedly designed to provide something for the native population that doesn't care to 'eat American.' So I wondered if the McD's in Tbilisi serves khachapuri, or even (yeeks!) a Khachapuri Big Mac. Probably not, but that may change if our documentary and other efforts to attract tourists work.
But it won't be enough. Trust me on this: When millions of Americans, Canadians, Brits and Europeans start visiting Georgia, khachapuri is going to take its place with pizza, crumpets, croissants and sushi as the native dish you have to have when you go there. It's going to be very, very big. In fact, one of the Americans I talked to the other day said he had a million dollar idea for a Georgian business.
'You get some way to cook khachapuri in a small trailer, like the taco trucks you see now in Mexico and the states,' he said. 'And you park that trailer right outside the door at Tbilisi Airport where the tourists come out, after they've gone through customs and baggage claim. Right there, fifteen feet from the door. And then you get ready, because you're going to unload just a whole lotta khachapuri.' He's right.
By Greg Palmer