According to Georgian legend, God took a dinner break when he was creating the world. Immersed in his meal, he accidentally tripped and fell on the Caucasus Mountains, sprinkling the landscape with morsels of food from his plate. This metaphor of a heavenly bounty is appropriate: Georgia is truly blessed when it comes to food. With a culture dating back thousands of years and a geographic position straddling migratory and trade routes between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the country’s distinct culinary traditions are punctuated with outside influences. The most ancient evidence of winemaking has been found here, where the unique practice of burying wine in a clay jug, or kvevri, is still practiced. And the craggy mountainous landscape of the Caucasus forms a prime backdrop for high-altitude animal grazing; hence, a longstanding tradition of seasonal mountain shepherding similar to transhumance in the Alps.
It’s no surprise that Georgia has increasingly established itself as a destination not only for food lovers but for cheese lovers, too. The first annual Caucasian Cheese Festival took place in a sunny Tbilisi park last September. Billed as a chance for regional cheese to “occupy its niche on the world’s cheese markets,” the event showcased a diverse range of offerings—from smoked, braided string cheeses and tiny, extra-aged rounds with grey-brown rinds to giant, spongy wheels of goat cheese and wine-washed wheels of tibaanuri. Georgians are proud of their cheese and seem to understand the potential it has to promote rural development, local traditions, even peace—some producers at the event hailed from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, contested regions that have claimed independence from Georgia since the fall of communism.
If there’s one dish that exemplifies Georgia’s love of cheese, it’s khachapuri (pronounced “kah-chah-poor-ee”)—cheese-topped bread. Its shape, dough style, and cheese filling vary from region to region; it can be flat like pita or pizza with a cheesy center; lasagna-style with several layers; or boat-shaped, topped with butter and a barely cooked egg. In fact, khachapuri is so ubiquitous that economists at Tbilisi State University use the dish to understand inflation and the cost of living in different cities. The khachapuri index (or Kh-index) is the cost of the flour, cheese, yeast, eggs, and butter—as well as the energy—needed to make one cheesy snack in a given city. Dividing average household income by the Kh-index shows how many portions of khachapuri an average family in that city can afford.
Economics aside, it’s addictive. See for yourself with our recipe, below. The most common cheese used in khachapuri is sulguni, an unripened, brined cheese that can be made from cow’s, sheep’s, goat’s, or buffalo’s milk—in the United States, mozzarella or Havarti, mixed with feta, makes an excellent substitute.
- ¾ cup warm milk
- 2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (about 1 packet)
- ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1½ cups grated mozzarella or Havarti
- ¾ cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 eggs (optional), plus 1 yolk for glazing
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Pour warm milk into a small bowl and sprinkle with yeast and sugar. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
- Place flour in a large bowl and form a well in the center. Add yeast mixture, butter, and salt. Mix gently with your hands or a wooden spoon to incorporate, and form dough into a ball. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes. Lightly grease a large bowl, place dough inside, and cover with a dish towel. Let rise for 2 hours at room temperature.
- Stir all ingredients together and set aside.
- Heat oven to 425°F. Separate dough into 2 pieces. Roll each piece into a ¼-inch-thick elongated oval. Spread ½ the cheese filling in the center of each oval, leaving a 1-inch border of dough around the edges. Fold dough edges up and over the long sides of the ovals to hold in the filling—you’ll end up with 2 gondola-shaped loaves.
- Bake until dough and cheese begin to brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Remove loaves from the oven, brush bread ends with egg yolk, and crack an egg over the cheesy center of each loaf (pat down cheese with a spoon if necessary to prevent spillover). Bake for another 3 to 5 minutes, until egg whites are opaque. Remove loaves from the oven, top each with 1 tablespoon of butter, and serve hot.