Like many cuisines nurtured in mountainous places, Georgian food is notably meat-intensive. So I wasn’t surprised when the counterman at Brick Oven Bread, a Georgian bakery, laughed at my request for meatless khinkali.
Georgia’s famous boiled dumplings, which bear an uncanny resemblance to Shanghai xiao long bao (aka, soup dumplings) or Himalayan momo, are almost always filled with ground beef, pork, or lamb—especially in New York City, where affordable meat is easily procured. (In Georgia, khinkali filled with mushroom, potato, and cheese are not uncommon.)
But then the woman behind the counter spoke up: “I make them stuffed with cheese for myself. Would like to try some?”
And that’s how I came into possession of a rare supply of vegetarian khinkali (8 for $6) filled with soft, tangy, and mildly salty-funky Greek feta cheese. Their crescent-shaped dough shells are soft—but firm—and just thick enough to hold the oozing whipped cheese, even after a thorough boiling.
Brick Oven’s proprietor instructed me in the proper khinkali boiling technique (stir frequently to prevent sticking) and recommended that I eat them with sour cream. (They are also eaten plain or with ground black pepper sprinkled on top.)
But these mild, carb- and dairy-rich dumplings are the perfect vehicle for the ajika (pronounced uh-JEE-kuh) that also came home with me from Brick Oven. This complex condiment, another Georgian specialty, blends red bell pepper with more than a dozen seasonings and spices, including the constituents of Georgia’s famous khmeli-suneli ground spice blend.
Brick Oven’s ajika is heavy on the sweet red bell pepper—which is stewed with tomato, shredded carrot, and ample garlic and then spiked with mildly tangy apple vinegar, saffron, and khmeli-suneli (imported from Georgia) loaded with zingy-savory fenugreek leaves and seeds, as well as fragrant ground coriander seeds. If Balkan ajvar raided a North Indian kitchen, it might taste like this condiment, which is shaping up to be my newest food obsession.
Brick Oven Bread regularly makes fresh batches of ajika at their bakery/shop on Kings Highway in South Brooklyn. If anything can lure me from Queens to Brooklyn, this is it.
Brick Oven Bread, 230 Kings Highway, Gravesend, 718-759-6250
Check out Anne Noyes Saini’s ongoing food + audio projects on SoundCloud.