Cooking meat in ashes and embers has long been practiced by humanity in general, and of course, there is something akin to Mtsvadi in nearly every country, some of which claim it to be one of their national dishes. What Georgians refer to as “Mtsvadi” is known as souvlaki in Greek cuisine, Khorovats in Armenian cuisine, shashlik in Russian cuisine, and so on. By and large, it is considered a traditional dish of Asian and Caucasian peoples.
Even though Mtsvadi can be made with veal, lamb, or chicken, in Georgia, pork is the most popular type. There are various ways of grilling Mtsvadi, including on metal or wooden skewers, in a tone oven, on a pan, or in a conventional oven.
Made in the country’s easternmost region, Kakhetian Mtsvadi is unique in Georgian culinary culture. The meat for this sort of Mtsvadi must be from a Kakhetian pig, and the embers on which it is grilled must be Tsalami (vine clippings), or Deka (a kind of azalea bush), either of which gives the meat a splendid taste and softness. It is then made even more delectable when glazed with Kakhetian Qvevri wine or pomegranate juice.
That is why Mtsvadi, despite being loved nationwide, really “belongs” to Kakheti. The smoke emanating from the cooking Mtsvadi rises in Kakheti, especially on “Zaotoba,” a holiday on which chacha is distilled. On that day, many families put chacha on the fire together, slaughter pigs, and watch the meat sizzle, toasting each other’s contributions as they do so. Zaotoba and the “pigs’ funeral,” as the quick-witted Kakhetians call it, are inseparable. Anyone who happens to be in Kakheti at that time will find that pork Mtsvadi grilled over Tsalami or Deka is exceptionally delicious.
To prepare it, the meat is cut into medium-sized pieces, put onto skewers, and then salted before being put on top of the embers without any kind of spices or additives, then sprinkled from time to time with Kakhetian Qvevri wine.
All kinds of greens are then set out on the table for the impromptu supra (feast), Shoti bread is taken out from the red-hot tone oven, and used to pull down the seasoned pieces of meat fall down into a bowl, while onions are cut into rings are scattered over it (in some villages in Kakheti, the piping-hot meat is put directly into pomegranate juice), the newly-distilled chacha and Kakhetian Qvevri wine is poured generously into glasses, and a fine time is had by all.
Nowadays, in nearly every region of Georgia, different kinds of Mtsvadi are served, with some made using wine, lemon, vinegar, herbs, green peppers, or various kinds of vegetables, or smothered in pomegranate juice. Others are marinated in beer or softened in milk or matsoni. In Georgia, people also love Mtsvadi made from fish, veal, beef, chicken, mushrooms, and shrimp, but pork remains the gold standard.
For making a good Mtsvadi, in-depth knowledge of meat is crucial. For instance, shoulder meat dries easily and grills quickly on the embers, so it is not recommended to mix it with any other cuts of meat. Meanwhile, the embers for Mtsvadi should not be red-hot. Rather, the grilling should only start once the embers have cooled a little and started to turn white. The Mtsvadi should take 20 to 25 minutes to cook at the right temperature, although bear in mind that it cooks faster in summer than in winter. If the meat is very fatty, then it is more likely to catch on fire. If that happens, rather than splashing water on it, instead use salt, wine, or pomegranate juice, which will put that particular fire out while maintaining the required temperature.
Usually, real Kakhetian Mtsvadi should not be left unattended and should be turned over often, so that it cooks evenly.
The simplest list of ingredients for Mtsvadi entails the following:
1 kg pork;
½ liter pomegranate juice or Kakhetian white Qvevri wine; and
pomegranate seeds to scatter on top.