Georgian Mushroom Khinkali, the Dumpling From a Country Full of Surprises
The country of Georgia is a gorgeous place to visit if you’re able, but the next best option is making these cheerful vegan mushroom dumplings
On a mountain overlooking Tblisi, an imposing statue of a woman towers. In one outstretched hand, she holds a bowl. In the other, a sword. I asked my Ana, my interpreter, about her. “That is Mother Georgia,” she replied. “She represents the people of Georgia. First, she offers you the bowl of wine. If you refuse her hospitality, she kill.” She shrugs with alarming nonchalance. “Here, it is normal.” I make a mental note to accept any and all hospitality offered to me.
Fortunately, even as a vegan, this isn’t difficult in Georgia. They understand plant-based food and offer it in most places to eat. Just ask for “fast” food — not junk food but the opposite, very healthy, simple dishes without animal products, made for people on religious fasts. They use local, in-season food: walnuts, aubergines (eggplant), beans, mushrooms and pomegranate featured a lot when I was visiting in the winter.
Tbilisi is a beautiful, culturally vibrant city. It has very wide streets, lined with glass skyscrapers, banks of tower blocks, and old traditional buildings with crumbling stucco in shades of soft green, blue and mellowed pale orange brick, with lovely big carved balconies. There are lots of inviting cafes, bars and restaurants. There are also imposing national museums, an opera house and a national theatre as well as the many churches and monasteries the country is famous for. Not far in the background are the encircling mountains.
Which of these beautiful mountains surrounding us would my interpreter recommend for an easy and picturesque hike? She stared at me, brow furrowed, looking confused. “You know, go for a walk? Up the mountain?” I elaborated, wondering if we were losing something in translation. “My granddad takes walks in the mountains,” she announced, still looking shocked. Were we not urbanites, sophisticates from London? Why would we undertake such an old-person, peasant activity? No, if we wished to go up a mountain, for some reason, we should take the cable car. And the mountain we should go up should be Mount Mtatsminda, because it had a very nice café and other fun things to do at the top.
According to the guidebook, Mtatsminda hosts “a frankly sad theme park, luridly decorated with Christmas lights that never came down, beloved by teenagers especially in the summer.” It was, of course, out of season which meant there were no teenagers there. In fact, once past the charming café at the bottom, (a good recommendation), it was eerily deserted. We strolled the streets of fibreglass characters and peered at the rides, which were covered for the winter. The sky was bright blue, the air was pure and cold and the whole scene was surreal, with the colourful amusement park sitting on top of a forest of fir trees, with mountains all around and a view over the entire city. The only sign of life was a stray cat and a hopeful drinks vendor. She offered me freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice, which she crushed by hand in an orange press so tinny that I thought it would buckle before the nearly frozen pomegranate, kept out in the icy air, did. No exaggeration, it was the most delicious drink I have ever had.
Makes 12 — enough for 4 people
Here is a recipe for the very popular khinkali, a kind of filled dumpling which is a staple cheap and cheerful lunch dish all over Georgia. This is the mushroom version. The technique for eating these is to hold the stem (which is not usually eaten) in one hand, and take a bite from the bottom. Be ready to catch the filling in your mouth!
For the dough:
- 400 grams flour
- One teaspoon salt
- 140 milliliters lukewarm water
For the filling:
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil of choice
- One onion
- Two cloves of garlic
- 400 grams mushrooms
- Handful of parsley
- Salt and pepper
First make the dough. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the water and mix until a dough forms. If it is too dry and crumbly, add a drop or two more water. If it is sticky, add a dash of flour. Knead until smooth and elastic — about five minutes. Wash your bowl and put the dough back in it, with a dinner plate on top to cover it and keep it moist. Let it rest for about half an hour.
In the meantime, make the filling. Finely chop your onions, and sauté on a low heat, along with the minced garlic, with the lid on until translucent. Roughly chop the mushrooms and add them. Cook, very gently, until the mushrooms are done. Add a scattering of parsley and your salt and pepper, and allow to cool. Letting it cool is important, because if the mixture is warm it will be likely to make dough tear, and you don’t want that.
Get a big pot of water boiling with plenty of water in it.
Take your ball of dough and knead briefly again. Then divide it into 12 equal sized pieces with a knife. Shape each piece into a ball and roll into a circle about 9cm diameter. Now you’re going to make the edges thinner, so keep rolling on the edges only until each now measures about 12cm.
Now to make little mushroom sacks. Add a tablespoon of the mushroom mixture to the centre of each circle. Draw up the edge and stick together firmly in the middle. First pinch the two opposite sides together, and then the sides opposite that, and finally pinch together the last bits of dough so that all the folds are even. For an extra-neat finish, snip off the uneven dough at the top.
Drop your dumplings into the pan of boiling water. Boil for about five minutes, until they swell in size and float to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon.
Eat immediately, garnished with more parsley and served with vegan sour cream if you like.