Many Americans fall in love with the food of Georgia (the country, not the state) after sampling khachapuri, a savory cheese-stuffed bread often served with a runny egg on top. For others, it’s a plateful of handmade khinkali, the country’s meaty version of soup dumplings.
For me, the obsession started with a humble bean stew called lobio.
I’d heard about lobio from my friend Alice Feiring, who went to Georgia on a research trip to write a book about the country’s ancient tradition of winemaking.
Back in New York, she couldn’t stop talking about the tomatoes, potatoes and beans. Georgia has been famous for its fruits and vegetables, including plums, grapes and pomegranates, for centuries. Many of its crops are still farmed in traditional, not industrial, ways.
The boiled potatoes, she told me, were heartbreakingly profound, with an earthy, clover blossom sweetness.
The tomatoes have never had the bitterness bred out of them, she said, making them especially complex, with a snappy acidity in their ripeness.
And the beans! Mottled red kidney beans boiled until velvety soft and mashed with pungent raw garlic, browned onions and a thrilling-sounding mountain herb called blue fenugreek.
While I couldn’t get my hands on spectacular Georgian tomatoes or those creamy Tushetian potatoes, I could make the beans, or at least try to simmer up something similar.
Alice has a lobio recipe in her book, and the internet has plenty of variations, so I cobbled together a recipe that, while not necessarily authentic, somewhat represented the deeply comforting beauty of the dish.
In Georgia, the word lobio can refer to any kind of bean, from fresh green beans to the many different varieties of dried beans, which are made into stews like this one or mashed into salads often topped with walnuts: a staple ingredient in Georgian kitchens.
When stewed (usually in earthenware crocks), the beans are traditionally served with mchadi — flat cakes of fried, polentalike cornbread — and fresh white suluguni, a strong brined cheese rather like feta. However, thick slices of sourdough and a mild feta or ricotta salata also make great accompaniments.
One thing to note is the (optional) use of two traditional Georgian ingredients in this recipe.
The first is tkemali, a sharp and fruity sauce made from sour plums. Pomegranate molasses, or even a good balsamic vinegar, provides a similarly tangy kick.
And then there’s blue fenugreek, an herb that grows wild in the Caucasus Mountains. You can mail-order it, but the stew is nearly as good without it, so don’t worry about leaving it out (regular fenugreek seeds have a different flavor, so they are not a good substitute). The combination of coriander and black pepper give the dish a backbone of spice, strong enough to stand up to the onions, herbs and hit of pungent garlic.
You can serve lobio as a meatless main dish, or as a side dish with roasted or grilled meats or fish. Either way, its mix of sharp raw onion and soft, sweet browned onion, along with plenty of fresh green herbs, makes it hard to stop eating once you start.
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And to Drink …
The ideal accompaniment to this Georgian bean stew would naturally be a Georgian wine, preferably made in the traditional manner, fermented and aged in a qvevri, like an amphora. If you have access to these wonderful wines, saparavi, a dry, sturdy red, might go well and would certainly be in the right spirit. A dry white from Georgia, which may more accurately be described as amber, would also be delicious. It derives both color and tannic structure in the qvevri by macerating and aging with the grape skins. If you can’t find any traditional Georgian wines, other options include a good Cahors, perhaps an Etna red from Sicily or a Ribeira Sacra from Galicia in Spain. Or you could select from the genre known as orange wines, whites made not too differently from the Georgian whites. ERIC ASIMOV