"I express emotion through colour," chef Davit Narimanishvili said, as my fork hovered over a trio of perfectly spherical amber, green and purple appetisers, almost too exquisite to eat.
This is Georgian-born Narimanishvili's reworked version of his motherland's beloved vegetarian dish: pkhali (the "kh" is pronounced as a deep, guttural "h"). Held together with a seasoned walnut paste known as bazhe, the moulded balls are typically made with vegetables like aubergine and chard. But in the spirit of Georgians' resourcefulness, everything from unused celery leaves to wilting parsley finds its way into pkhali, making it the perfect leftover dish.
A culinary chameleon, pkhali can be slathered on toast as a vegan pâté, served mezze-style as a flavourful dip, or spooned – along with other cold appetisers – into a special bowl made for sharing known as a gobi. Above all, pkhali is a mainstay of the supra: a structured dinner party that celebrates Georgians' boundless hospitality and melting pot cuisine. The South Caucasian nation has endured its share of invasions, so it's no surprise to find Mongol, Mediterranean and Persian flavours infusing its dishes.
"There's no supra without pkhali," Narimanishvili told me from the kitchen of his chic riverside restaurant. Opened last August, Kevri (s8, Khashuri-Akhaltsikhe-Vale St) is a two-hour drive west from capital city Tbilisi, in the village of Tashiskari, better known for being the site of a 24-hour skirmish between the Georgians and the Turks in 1609.
Narimanishvili revealed how he draws out pkhali's earthy flavours by smoking pumpkin on an outdoor fire and baking beetroot in salt. Equal parts creamy, spicy and aromatic, the delicately textured balls are a taste explosion.
Despite Georgia's poster dishes being a juicy meat dumpling called khinkali and the cheese-laden flatbread khachapuri, a bewildering number of vegan dishes like pkhali are stacked high at a supra. One reason stems from this deeply Orthodox Christian country abstaining from eating meat on fasting days, which can amount to 200 a year. The other is self-sufficiency. Fifty-eight-year-old Tbilisian Marine Dzandzava's girlhood memories of pkhali are blighted by hardship. When her parents couldn't afford to put food on the table, they cooked up pkhali from garden greens, she told me.
As for walnuts – pkhali's staple ingredient and the workhorse of Georgian cooking – Dzandzava told me how her family swapped them out for hazelnuts, which flourish in her hometown of Samegrelo. Her daughter Tamari Jakonia fondly remembers shaking the branches of their hazelnut tree as a young child, come June.
"Georgian women don't measure ingredients or follow a recipe!"
Together with her sister-in-law Vera Kiria, Jakonia hosts cooking classes from their guesthouse (6 Soliko Virsaladze St) in Tbilisi's hilly Mtatsminda district. "Pkhali is all about vegetables. We do things with every vegetable imaginable," Jakonia said, while tossing beetroot greens into bubbling pans of water, as Kiria showed me how to pulverise hazelnuts using a hand-cranked meat grinder, as part of my private class.
"Georgian women don't measure ingredients or follow a recipe!" she exclaimed, grating carrots (a familial twist that adds sweetness) into the spiced mix of minced blanched spinach, creamy bazhe, fresh coriander and vinegar.
It's precisely this centuries-old tradition of oral recipes that makes piecing together pkhali's history almost impossible.
As I smeared silky strips of badrijani (fried aubergine) with the bazhe, Kiria deftly rolled them into cigarillos known as nigvziani badrijani (aubergine pkhali). In a final touch, I garnished the rustic, country-style plates of pkhali with pomegranate arils, which, Jakonia explained, adds a mouth-puckering tartness.
With a geography spanning snow-capped peaks and coastal plains, it's no surprise to discover the dish has scores of regional iterations. In Black Sea-bordered Guria, their herb-heavy pkhali is laced with parsley and coriander. Meanwhile, 400km east in Khaketi, walnuts are supplemented with the famous wine region's signature unrefined sunflower oil.
Pkhali's spicier version belongs to Samegrelo. In this western territory, megrelian ajika (a fiery relish spiked with hot red peppers and garlic) is added to Georgia's "holy trinity of spices", a dusty green blend that contains ground coriander, crushed marigold flowers (dubbed "Georgia's saffron") and High Caucasus-grown blue fenugreek.
Louisa Valerangovna sells this spice mix by the bucket load from her ambrosial stall on Wine Lane in Tbilisi's Dezerter Bazaar (5 Abastumani St). Like many market vendors here, she's a refugee who fled from Abkhazia in the early '90s during Georgia's separatist wars. Upstairs, under the vaulted ceiling of the market's central building, cardiologist-turned-market-trader Tina Nugzarashvili told me she folds her homemade pkhali into scrambled eggs.
"People would pay a lot of lari [Georgian currency] for this recipe." she said. Her favourite is made with wild asparagus, which grows like wildfire during spring in Akhalkalaki, a village 60km west of the capital.
"You have to be fast to pick it," remarked culinary tour guide Paul Rimple, explaining that children sell it on the roadside in Akhalkalaki's neighbouring village of Garikula, Rimple's second home. The Californian native knows every wrinkle of this sprawling 2,000 sq m market, named after absconding soldiers from the 1920s Russo-Georgian War who offloaded their gear here.
"Dezerter [Bazaar] was my playground when I first moved to the city two decades ago," he said while walking past supersized jars of pickled ekala (a climbing sarsaparilla). "Ekala used to be a village thing. Now it's everywhere in Dezerter."
Just as Tbiliselians are embracing rural Georgia's wild edibles, the one-time Silk Road capital's neighbourhood restaurants are giving pkhali a modern makeover. At Culinarium Khasheria (23 Abano St), iconoclastic chef Tekuna Gachechiladze churns her pkhaliinto sharing dips, which diners feverishly scoop up with fluffy flatbreads in the shadow of Tbilisi's domed sulphur baths.
Meanwhile, upstairs at Barbaresgan – located in the capital's recently opened food emporium, Bazari Orbeliani – 20-somethings queue for mchadi (a fried corn bread) stuffed with red bean and eggplant pkhali. Described as "Georgian healthy fast food" by co-founder Andria Kurasbediani, the takeaway food booth's 12 lari (£3) "mchad's" (which include meat and vegetarian options) were trialled at Tbilisi's annual street food festival, Taste Tbilisi, last year.
Back in Tbilisi's boho neighbourhood of Sololaki, a second floor apartment-turned-restaurant is wooing the tapas crowd with its bold pkhali plates. Dreamed up by five friends in the throes of the pandemic, Iasamani (33 Lado Asatiani St) is a vision of distressed walls, shuttered windows and vintage chandeliers. Here you can try pkhali contemporised with corn bread sticks and pickled jonjoli: Georgia's endemic caper-like shrub.
Restaurateur Meriko Gubeladze's "pkhali trio" at Ninia Garden (97 Dimitri Uznadze St) is a holdover from the country's Soviet rule (1922-1991), which introduced carrots and beetroot to the Georgian kitchen. Despite decades of collective farming under Russia's thumb, Georgia's soils are largely pesticide free, and organic produce is surprisingly affordable.
"Georgians are very close to nature," ethnobotanist Łukasz Łuczaj told me over Zoom. The associate professor's fieldwork has taken him from his native Poland to pkhali's culinary heartland: Imereti, a region in western-central Georgia. The softness of Imereti's landscape and subtropical climate is reflected in its delicately flavoured cuisine, where vegetables are king.
"Whole Imeretian families go to forage from hedges and forest clearings come April," Łuczaj said. Mixed weeds like chinchris (nettles) and bati (goosefoot) are cooked up into a pkhalicalled veluri, along with some of their toxic cousins like comfrey and buttercups. "By boiling the pkhali vegetables for half an hour and squeezing the water out, toxicity is reduced," Łuczaj explained.
"You can't find veluri pkhali on any restaurant menu." Łuczaj said. But you can buy its foraged ingredients in the central market of Imereti's palm tree-studded capital, Kutaisi.
"Pkhali could be a superfood for vegans all over the world"
Keen to extol Pkhali's nutritious properties in general, Łuczaj proclaimed that it "could be a superfood for vegans all over the world."
And, as I've since discovered, you don't need to head into the wilds to forage for forgotten vegetables. You can start in your own fridge.
By Sarah Freeman - BBC