Our scene opens with a crowd of hungry Georgians, crowded around a table eating all sort of tasty dishes. An outsider might mistake all the food for the main course but those veterens at the table know the best is yet to come. Suddenly there comes from the kitchen a steaming plate and the guests hurry to clear a space on the table for the dish. Hands dive in to get the piping hot dumplings before they cool, or worse, disappear altogether. The silence that always accompanies great food falls over the table and all that can be heard is the slurps of those relishing the juices concealed within the perfectly pleated folds of dough. Within minutes the tray has been emptied and the only remnants that remain are the doughy stubs, the only evidence to the meal and a record counter for how many each person has devoured.
Such was the case with my first encounter with Khinkali (ხინკალი) the quintessentially Georgian meal. In fact, it is the national dish of Georgia. And what makes it even more unique is the fact that you can't just get it anywhere. Getting the proper proportion of dough for the shell and meat for the filling is not for the faint of heart. Then comes the art of assembling the khinkali. It is not just a simple matter of filling a dumpling with meat and pinching it shut. Like all great food, there is an element of presentation that only some have the patience (and talent) for. For that very reason, Eka doesn't make them but instead prefers to buy them. You can, of course get khinkali at any Georgian restaurant worth its salt, but there are also special take out locations that sell it, all you have to do is bring your pot from home and they will fill it for you.
Georgians can get pretty particular about their khinkali. Different regions specialize in different fillings, or rather how they spice the fillings. My first khinkali was on a trip out to Mskheta, which I later found out is particularly famous for their preparation of the dish. We stopped at a restaurant that served them by the trayful and they were delicious!
In its composition it doesn't differ much from dumplings, ravioli or even wontons. My first description placed it in the category of a giant meat filled pierogi (they are about the size of your fist). But, like all things Georgian, there is a certain aspect of the khinkali that sets it apart. When the khinkali is prepared the meat filling is uncooked and so when it is boiling the juices are trapped inside, which makes for a great time when you go to eat it. The first time I ate khinkali I made a huge mess. I took one bite and the juices went everywhere. It was then that Nino informed me that it's not just the preparation of the khinkali that's an art, so is the eating of it. With each bite that you take you must suck up the juices within so as not to make a mess. The sign of an accomplished khinkali eater is one that finishes without any drips on their plate. Good thing I'm such a quick study. My first time might have been a disaster but I was eating like a pro on my second go round. Heres a tip though, if you ever find yourself treated to khinkali don't give yourself away by digging in with a fork and knife, this is meant to be picked up and eaten with your hands.
Most Georgians also eat khinkali with a bit of black pepper poured on the outside of the dumpling. Personally I haven't found out the trick to eating khinkali without choking on the pepper because as I take a breath to drink up the juices I inevitably inhale the pepper. Needless to say the result is unpleasant. The tip of the khinkali, where the dough is twisted off, is too dense to be eaten but serves nicely as a badge of honor for how many you were able to down in a single serving. So far, I've only ever gotten up to 5.
So there you have it, khinkali, the keystone of Georgian cuisine and most definately...Good Eats.
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