Khachapuri: The Ooey Gooey Georgian Treat

Looks like pide; popular like Pizza; but this ubiquitous Georgian treat is neither. Chef  Reuben Bhate of Satte Mara tells more.

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy: The St Regis Mumbai  

Last year when Satte Mara, the new Middle Eastern outpost of The St Regis Mumbai, opened its door, it was like a dream come true for its chef in charge, Chef  Reuben Bhate. With Levantine food – essentially the cuisine of region compromises of Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, and Syria – Sette Mara under the aegis of Chef Bhate, a compulsive culinary traveller, and his well learned team of specialist was set to be the new address to finding out the grubstory of the Middle East that went beyond the falafels, kebabs, and naans.  

THE HIGHPOINT OF THE PLACE, and incidentally Chef Bhate’s favourite too, is the Khachapuri Bar. Basically, a DIY board that introduces you to the famous Georgian bread through a variety of interesting toppings, classics, whimsical and pairings that have designed by the chef himself. For Chef Bhate, the bar with its many delicious trappings is an ode to his travels to the pecans and peaches country.  

Recalls the Levantine cuisine specialist, “the first time I had a Khachapuri, which is made up of two Georgian words - khacho, meaning cheese curds, and puri, meaning bread, was when I travelled to this beautiful country years back ago. It was by chance. I was looking for some local flavours and these boat shaped bread were everywhere.”

THAT CHANCED MEETING TRANSFORMED INTO A LONG-HAUL AFFAIR for Chef  Reuben who not only learned the way the bread, but all its “nine variants” across Georgia that was once for its delicious wine and bakers. Traditionally, continues Chef Ruben, “Khachapuri across Georgia is baked with three main ingredients: leavened bread, cheese, and eggs (optional). But, for a dish as old as the hills, there are well over nine different variants. The difference essentially is in the shape and the toppings that often showcases the prime produce of the area, and the eating habits.”

In fact, in that manner of speaking, Khachapuri is akin to Pide in Turkey or the Italian Pizza and even the Indian Kulcha – it is immensely loved, has a special kind in every region and sub region, and is mostly identified by either a change in shape, the way it is baked and the toppings that often hint towards either the prime produce, the popular food pairing or both.  

FOR INSTANCE, THE ICONIC BOAT SHAPED KHACHAPURI is from Adjaruli region, and is an ode to the maritime culture of this place. Food lore has it that the Roman soldiers brought a former iteration of their own open bread sandwich to this region when they crossed the Black Sea in Adjaruli. As a popular finger food, Khachapuri innings in Adjaruli began as a precursor to any meal, and drinking session, except for dinner. What makes it an absolute delight isn’t just the crisp bread, but also the made-from-scratch addition of two cheeses: one the soft, buttery curds called chkinti and the elastic cheese called sulguni or a briny sheep’s milk cheese called bryndza. Often bakers would do a blend of all the cheeses to give the boat bread its addictive taste, and palate memory.  

ANOTHER DELICIOUS VARIANT IS THE IMERULI KHACHAPURI. A round, double-crusted flatbread stuffed with sweet, curdy chkinti cheese bound with beaten egg. Food lore calls it the bread of the sheep herders originating in the hills of Imereti, but one can find it across this little country, and makes for a lavish bite.

IN THE FORESTED REGION OF SAMEGRELO, there’s Elarji, a Megrelian specialty of grits enriched with copious amount of sulguni and butter, with space for more cheese to be garnished on top.

Samtskhe-Javakheti, the arid land famous for its cave city of Vardzia, comes the most stunning variant called Penovani Khachapuri. Appearance wise, a cross between a good croissant and quesadilla, this multi-layered, earth shatteringly crisp version with an ooey-gooey mix of soft and aged cheese and egg yolk inside and is prized for its bread craftsmanship.  

Finally worth mentioning is the version that hails from the Iranian influenced region of Ossetia. CALLED THE CHAKHRAGINA, it is deciphered by its flatbread kind of shape mused by the Iranian breads. In fact, among the oldest version of the Georgian Bread, Chakhragina stands out for its contrasting filling of beetroot leaves and salty cheese and is much lighter on the palate then its Adjaruli peer. Of course, there is also the Svaneti Khachapuri that is defined by its chunky beef and onion filling’ or those made in Racha, which has this delicious bacon-flavoured beans.  

FASCINATINGLY, IT ISN’T JUST THE TOPPINGS THAT SHOWCASE the palate and moods of people of the region, it is the dough too. In spite, says Chef  Reuben, “the fact that the recipe of making the bread is standard everywhere, the texture can be chewier than pizza crust or as tender as a muffin. And this depends on not just the yeast used, the temperature, water but also the way it is cooked – on a stovetop or an oven. And then of course are the add-ins, which make the Khachpuri experience, much like a John Grisham thriller trilogy.”  

Little wonder that the bread became the foundation to the Khachapuri Index that not so ago could accurately determine not just inflation but also changing mood of the region.  

What’s the traditional way of having it? With you hands, says Chef Reuben, “you break the dough with your hands from one edge, and then use it to mix and dip in the filling till you finish it, one delicious bite at a time.”