Why you should care
Because sometimes the seemingly inedible is the most edible.
Poking around an East European deli in San Francisco’s Richmond district last year, I was delighted to suddenly discover one of my favorite snacks near the counter. I grabbed it off the rack and proudly presented the relative rarity to my hosts for approval, eager to flaunt my foreign street cred.
They did not immediately return my enthusiasm. But it’s hard to blame anyone for not going wild over a bunch of nuts on a string covered in hardened grape juice. Especially when the product bears an uncanny resemblance to a clumsily made candle. Chances are, you’re not salivating right now either.
But there’s good reason to investigate further: Besides packing a flavorful, chewy punch, this Georgian staple — called churchkhela — is about as healthy as any delicious, non-sugary snack can be. Practically a meal on its own, it boasts plenty of protein, carbs and good fats, all packaged in a highly portable form. Think of it as a strange-looking Clif Bar. Plus, the fact that it’s centuries-old means it’s time tested. “We’re all proud of it,” says Georgian-born Tamara Jikia, who runs Georgian Gourmet, a New Jersey-based business that produces made-to-order churchkhela and other treats. “It’s like a symbol of Georgia.”
Though not widespread in the West, Georgian cuisine is well known, and well loved, in many countries of the former Soviet Union. Hearty dishes like khachapuri (cheesy bread), khinkali (meat-and-juice-filled dumplings) and kharcho (savory beef stew) are famous for leaving diners fully satisfied and, at times, in deep food comas. While not quite as hearty, churchkela is still plenty filling.
Besides providing a delicious energy boost, churchkhela also makes a nifty, if not exactly intentional, decoration.
It’s made by threading a string through walnuts (though almonds or hazelnuts are sometimes used) and then dipping them into a mixture of grape juice and flour that’s been boiled for an hour or two. Next, the strung nuts, which might be dipped more than once, are air-dried for several days. The Greeks, Turks and others have their own versions of the snack — but the real stuff, Jikia assures me, doesn’t involve any added sugar. “True Georgian churchkhela should be all-natural,” Jikia says.
Besides providing a delicious energy boost, churchkhela also makes a nifty, if not exactly intentional, decoration. Visit the Georgian capital, Tbilisi — or pretty much any other town, city or village — and you’ll find these chewy, colorful strips adorning street-side kiosks and stalls in attention-grabbing bunches, like giant waxy beehives.
But there’s no need to wander the faraway streets of Georgia to enjoy churchkhela. If you’re lucky enough to find the snack at specialty stores in the U.S. — East European delis and boutique producers like Jikia, who sells sets of five for $22.95, are probably your best bet — grab a couple of strands for the road, a hike or any other energy-consuming activity. Maybe you’ll find it easier than you realize: With gourmet eateries cropping up in major U.S. cities, from Portland to New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, Georgian food writ large may well make a major splash on the American dining scene.
As for my friends? They became fans in no time. After all, as Jikia says, most people do.