As our planet gets smaller and more accessible, so grows our knowledge and appreciation of the world’s ingredients and cuisines. Ten years ago, kimchi, dukkah or leche de tigre would only have been known by serious culinary nerds outside their countries of origin. But even today’s most experienced global gourmands would be hard-pushed to pronounce—let alone recognise—khachapuri, beshbarmak or pkhali. Welcome to two countries at the last culinary frontiers: Georgia and Kazakhstan.
Both destinations are culturally and geographically very distinct, but they work together beautifully as part of a weeklong trip from Southeast Asia. Air Astana, winner of the Skytrax award for best airline in Central Asia and India for six years running, offers a very comfortable business-class product to connect with Kazakhstan’s former capital of Almaty or its current capital of Astana, before heading on to the beguiling Georgian capital of Tbilisi. What’s more, flights to get there take under five hours, while the time difference is just two hours, meaning that there’s little or no adjustment needed.
Arriving in Almaty, one is struck first by the beautiful snow-capped mountains framing any shot of the city, then by the mix of faces and ethnicities that make up the country’s population—a total of 18 million spread across the vast nation, the world’s ninth-largest in terms of geographical size. The occasional clapped-out Lada reminds visitors that this was formerly part of Russia, as does the ubiquity of some terrifying-looking vodka. The food, however, largely reflects traditional Kazakh nomad cuisine, eaten by those living in the often-harsh environment of the steppes.
Beshbarmak is the country’s national dish and translates as “five fingers” as it’s traditionally eaten by hand. Braised meat (usually horse or lamb) is steeped in onion broth and accompanied by large noodle sheets. While eating horse may be difficult for some foreign visitors to swallow, in Kazakhstan and a number of neighbouring countries, it has long been popular. The lives of nomadic people have been entwined with horses for millennia—an animal they revere, but still see as livestock. A visit to the Green Bazaar, Almaty’s fascinating main food market, shows the multiple ways in which it can be prepared.
There are few greater honours than being invited to someone’s house for beshbarmak, though it’s more likely to be seen on restaurant menus alongside thick coils of kazy sausage. A special mention should go to the steamed dumplings, known as manti or pelmeni, where lamb is worked into dough and served with herbed sour cream.
In Kazakhstan’s extraordinary new capital of Astana, with mind-blowingly bizarre architecture at every turn, the dining options are more varied than Almaty. The Shoreditch Burger & Wok is clearly global in aspirations, while Italian and Japanese restaurants of varying degrees of authenticity abound, but for Kazakh dishes, Arnau is one of the city’s most reliable bets.
While its website copy is occasionally hilarious (“Fashionable interior of national style conquer with its cosiness and magnificence”), its plates are consistently good. A true show-stopper is the boiled mutton’s head—not for the faint of heart. Perfect pilaf rice accompanies it, before golden-brown baursaks (deep-fried triangular pastries) arrive, covered in honey and served with coffee.
In truth, however, there’s no doubt as to the real culinary star of this weeklong adventure. Georgia is one of the most exciting and surprising food destinations around, thanks to its extraordinary tapestry of dishes, ably supported by the world’s oldest tradition of winemaking.
As the country once stood on the old Silk Road, its culture and cuisine reflects Asian, Persian, Arab, European and myriad other influences. When you add the fact that guests are the most respected people in Georgia, you’ve set the scene for a remarkable food journey. There are 97 nationalities that can enter Georgia visa-free and almost all visitors start through the charming capital, Tbilisi. Dining is always relaxed and the country’s iconic feast, known as a supra, is the epitome of shared plates.
A restaurant called Tsiskvili overlooks Tbilisi’s river and boasts a selection of dining rooms, open-air grills and a miniature waterfall. As you enter, the table is already groaning under the weight of an amazing array of mezze-style dishes that just keep coming. There are countless fresh salads, many featuring herbs including the vastly underrated tarragon, or perfect local tomatoes lightly dressed with vinegar and spices. Peppers are roasted or stuffed, while cucumber, chilli and garlic are pickled to provide a sharp snap.
Dips are everywhere—some are smooth like a creamy pâté, while others are coarser, like the sensational fkhali made from beetroot, walnuts, spices and yoghurt. Unfamiliar but delicious cheeses also abound such as sulguni, a brined cow’s milk cheese similar to mozzarella that has to be served on the day it’s made, and imeruli, a white curd cheese.
"Georgia is one of the most exciting and surprising food destinations around, thanks to its extraordinary tapestry of dishes, ably supported by the world’s oldest tradition of winemaking"
Their own version of dumplings, stuffed with lamb and served with sour cream
Of course, all these mezze need a platform and few countries anywhere make better bread than Georgia. Indeed, the country’s national dish is khachapuri, a ridiculously tasty and sinful number that is essentially cheese pizza. Hot, stringy cheeses—always more than one type—are melted into the soft bread that is baked to a perfect golden brown and served as a side dish.
We haven’t even reached the main courses or desserts in our epic dinner at Tsiskvili, but there are countless other restaurants to tempt visitors. One of the capital’s most well-known is Funicular, sitting on the Mtatsminda mountain that overlooks the golden domes, ancient roofs and minarets of the city below. No prizes for guessing that the most popular way to get there is via a funicular tramway.
A supra feast is incomplete without the main event, usually of chicken, pork, veal and other meats charcoal-grilled to perfection and served shashlik-style on skewers. They’re frequently accompanied by tkemali, a universally popular sharp sauce made from plum, dill and garlic—so ubiquitous that it’s known by some as Georgian ketchup.
Funicular also serves a brilliant version of chakapuli, a veal stew again livened by plums, but this time with mounds of tarragon. It’s a sensational combination—sweet, sharp and sour all at once. Other options include ground lamb served like a kofte and dusted in the citrus lift of sumac.
A special mention must also go to Barbarestan, a restaurant whose entire menu is based on a cookbook written in 1914 by a duchess, Barbar Jordadze. Brilliant dishes demonstrate how Georgian cooking has stood the test of time without the need for forced innovation or reinvention. Most notably, its menu features a sensational aubergine, garlic and fresh parsley dip and a sour mushroom soup that could rival pho for its life-enhancing goodness.
The truth is that pretty much wherever you choose to eat, you can’t go wrong. Genuine hospitality runs in the blood of Georgians like few other destinations.