The Salt
2:18 pm
Mon July 15, 2013

The Secret To Georgian Grilled Meats? Grapevines And Lots Of Wine

Originally published on Tue July 16, 2013 12:27 pm

Tucked between Russia and Turkey, the Republic of Georgia is renowned for great food: cheese dishes, pickles, breads and stews. This is a cuisine that you should not miss.

And on summer evenings in the capital, Tbilisi, the air is fragrant with the smells of one of Georgian cookery's highlights: grilled meat, or shashlik.

You can find good shashlik at restaurants with white tablecloths, but the very best in all Tbilisi is said to be at a roadside stop called Mtsvadi Tsalamze. It's an unassuming place with rows of wooden picnic tables in an open yard.

The grill is a brick hearth where Giorgi Kavelashvili follows the traditions of his native Kakheti, the easternmost province of Georgia and the nation's wine country. Kavelashvili is 19, but he grills with absolute confidence because, he says, "In Kakheti, everyone knows how to make shashlik. So I studied it from my childhood."

One of the secrets, he says, is the wood.

Here, shashlik is grilled on burning grapevines. Kavelashvili demonstrates by hefting a big bundle of grapevines onto the hearth and setting it alight. The vines burn quickly, leaving a heap of finger-sized coals that he rakes into an even bed of fragrant heat.

"Georgians, and especially Kakhetians, know from very, very ancient old times that only [this] type of wood is much more better to make shashlik," explains Nani Chanishvili, my guide and translator. She's a linguist, a professor of the Georgian language and a connoisseur of Georgian food.

What the Georgians of ancient times discovered, she explains, is that the aromatic smoke and high heat from the vines seal in the juices of the meat.

Perhaps the best test of the griller's skill is how well he cooks kebabs made from finely minced meat, usually lamb, that's mixed with spices and squeezed by hand onto the skewer.

Good timing is everything because Kakhetian kebabs are cooked very close to the coals, and it's easy to overdo them.

Kavelashvili's kebabs pass the test perfectly: They are juicy and full of flavor from regional herbs, spices and sweet-smelling smoke. They come served with fresh, chewy Kakhetian bread and, of course, Georgian white wine.

Why white? As Chanishvili explains, Georgians like to drink a lot of wine when they speak — and "that means, only white wine, only white," she says, "because it is not possible to drink, for example, four, five, six, seven liters of red wine — then you will be dead. That's not right. But white [wine], yes, you can."

Chanishvili doesn't drink much herself, but she insists that her father could drink as many as 14 liters of white wine during a single feast. Then again, a real Georgian feast is an event that can go on for 12 hours.

According to Georgian tradition, that time should be spent enjoying food, making long and witty toasts, reciting verse and singing.

But be warned: Even 12 hours wouldn't be enough time to sample all of Georgia's delicacies, especially the best of the country's shashlik.

Unfortunately," says Chanishvili, "it's not possible to eat everything."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All right. We're going to stick with our stomachs for a few minutes more and celebrate one of the joys of the season: outdoor grilling. This summer, we've taken you from Texas barbecue pits to Kenyan goat grills.

NPR's Corey Flintoff has enjoyed grilled food in lots of places, but he thinks he's found something special in a corner of the world between Turkey and Russia, the Republic of Georgia.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Georgia is renowned for great food: cheese dishes, pickles, breads and stews. This is a cuisine that you should not miss. But for now, let's just focus on grilled meat: lamb, beef or even pork known as shashlik. On summer evenings, the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, is fragrant with the smoke from hundreds of grills. You can find good shashlik at restaurants with white tablecloths, but the very best in all Tbilisi is said to be here at a roadside stop called...

NANI CHANISHVILI: Mtsvadi Isalamze.

FLINTOFF: That's our guide and translator speaking: Nani Chanishvili. She's a linguist, a professor of the Georgian language and a connoisseur of good food. Mtsvadi Isalamze is an unassuming place with rows of wooden picnic tables in an open yard. The grill is a brick hearth where Giorgi Kavelashvili follows the traditions of his native Kakheti, the easternmost province of Georgia. Giorgi is 19, but he grills with absolute confidence because, he says, in Kakhetia, everyone knows how to make shashlik.

GIORGI KAVELASHVILI: (Through Translator) So I studied it from my childhood.

FLINTOFF: One of the secrets, Giorgi says, is the wood. Here, shashlik is grilled on grapevines. Giorgi demonstrates by hefting a big bundle of grapevines onto the hearth and setting it alight. The vines burn quickly, leaving a heap of finger-sized coals that he rakes into an even bed of fragrant heat.

KAVELASHVILI: (Through Translator) Georgians and especially Kakhetians know from very, very ancient old times that only type of wood is much more better to make shashlik.

FLINTOFF: What the Georgians of ancient times discovered is that the aromatic smoke and the high heat from the vines seal in the juices of the meat.

KAVELASHVILI: (Through Translator) When you are making shashlik from this one, then shashlik is juicy, juicy, very juicy.

FLINTOFF: Perhaps the best test of the griller's skill is how well he cooks kebabs made from finely minced meat, usually lamb, that's mixed with spices and squeezed by hand onto the skewer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: Good timing is everything because Kakhetian kebabs are cooked very close to the coals, and it's easy to overdo them. Giorgi's kebabs pass the test perfectly. They're juicy and full of flavor from regional herbs, spices and sweet-smelling smoke. They come served with fresh chewy Kakhetian bread and, of course, Georgian white wine.

CHANISHVILI: Because when we are speaking, the Georgians are drinking a lot of wine. That means only white wine, only white, because it's not possible to drink, for example, four, five, six, seven liters of red wine, then you will be dead. That's not right. But white one, yes, you can.

FLINTOFF: Nani, who doesn't drink much herself, insists that her father could drink as much as 14 liters of white wine during a feast, but then a real Georgian feast is an event that can go on for 12 hours. The Georgian tradition says that time should be spent enjoying food, making long and witty toasts, reciting verse and singing. But be warned: Even 12 hours wouldn't be enough time to sample all of Georgia's delicacies, especially the best of the country's shashlik.

CHANISHVILI: Unfortunately, it's not possible to eat everything.

(LAUGHTER)

FLINTOFF: Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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