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This time last year I was covering the five-day war between Russia and Georgia over the separatist region of South Ossetia. Like most war reporters, I was absorbed in the military developments on the ground. But I also had to eat. And in this tiny Eurasian country, that meant khachapuri: a crispy, flaky bread dish with gooey cheese baked into the dough.
Khachapuri is Georgia's closest thing to fast food. In the capital, Tbilisi, amid the curious blend of Western and Asiatic architecture, nearly every corner shop sells piping hot khachapuri. Georgians eat it as a snack or a meal alongside cucumber and tomato salad. They also make a yeastless version at home.
While the finest khachapuri is served in Tbilisi's restaurants, I often bought the cheese bread at hole-in-the-wall shops for $2. It was an excellent mainstay for a cash-strapped reporter with a love of melted cheese.
The various forms of khachapuri reflect the country's ethnic diversity. Minorities in Abkhazia, Ajaria, and South Ossetia each put their own spin on the national pastry.As I moved about the country, I encountered several variations on the cheese bread. Each regional ethnic group had its own style. It can be flaky, yeasty, or cake-like; round, rectangular, or boat-shaped. Some of the cheeses used are sour and light, others rich and salty.
In most cases Georgians grate the cheese, mix it with eggs to bind, and add butter for the right creaminess. The cheese filling is enclosed in the dough. Other times, the cheese is added on top, and it's served as an open-faced pie. It can be baked in a clay oven called a tomé; fried in a skillet; or cooked in a clay pot, called a ketsi, over an open flame.
The various forms of khachapuri reflect the country's ethnic diversity. Minorities in Abkhazia, Ajaria, and South Ossetia each put their own spin on the national pastry.
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The most common form of khachapuri comes from the central province of Imereti. This region's provincial capital is one of the most ethnically Georgian cities with a less diverse population than in other areas. Here they fill the bread with a mildly sour cheese called imeruli. The cheese is enveloped in the dough, it's flattened, baked, and served in a round dish resembling a sauceless pizza pie.
South Ossetia, the flashpoint of last summer's war, is an extremely mountainous region with a mostly agrarian economy. The locals mix the filling with mashed potatoes and occasionally spinach and green leaves.
Abkhazia, in the northwest, is also a hotbed of ethnic strife. Here I stayed with separatist soldiers who served a very different form of khachapuri called achma. This dish looks like a sauceless lasagna. Melted cheeses are layered in between thinly sliced sheets of egg dough that are lightly browned in the oven. It's served in small rectangular squares.
My personal favorite khachapuri comes from the Black Sea coastal province of Ajaria. This region borders Turkey to the south and is home to a large Islamic population. The bread has a concave center that holds butter, melted cheese and a raw egg. The outer bread crust has two pointed ends on each side. You rip off a chunk of bread and use it to swirl the ingredients together for a cheesy eggy soup.
To make your own khachapuri try this simple recipe:
We enlisted the help of Khatuna Baghaturia, a native Georgian and owner of Restaurant Tbilisi in New York. She was happy to share her recipe and recommends substituting mozzarella for Georgia's native suluguni and imeruli cheeses:
• 200 mL sour milk, yogurt, or whey
• 2 eggs
• Flour, as needed
• 0.5 kg cheese
• 1 egg
• 25-50 g butter
Beat two eggs, add sour milk and salt, and mix with enough flour to make a soft, not sticky, dough. Divide it into four parts. Roll each quarter about half a finger thick. Make the filling by crumbling the cheese and mixing it with egg and butter. Put cheese filling on each quarter, twist them, and press, rolling lightly. Fry khachapuri in a heavy-bottomed pan in butter, top-side down. When the underside is brown, turn the pie. Brush on top with butter and serve immediately.
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