Of all the meals, I find breakfast the most fascinating. It is a meal shrouded in mystery. Usually taken at home surrounded by only those we deem close enough to see us before the pillow creases have faded from our cheeks, breakfast is a strictly by-invitation-only event. We rarely read about what locals eat for breakfast in food magazines and travel sections, and breakfast staples are not typically trotted out as representative of a particular nation’s cuisine at cultural fairs and community potlucks.
So it was with fervent curiosity that I approached the breakfast table in my host family’s kitchen the first weeks of my stay. Before I could get there, however, I learned I needed to pass Breakfast: Stage 1 at the smaller table in the living room, where the family sits down to Turkish coffee while watching whatever happens to be playing on TV around 8:30 a.m. (usually Latin American soap operas dubbed into Georgian).
When only the grounds are left in the bottom of my wee cup, I proceed to the larger table (still only big enough to seat three comfortably) in the kitchen, where my host mother Shushana will have laid out the morning’s spread. Every day I know I will find thick slices of slightly sweet white bread, cut from oblong loaves that she buys fresh each day or two from the tiny grocery store on the corner. There will be cheese closely approximating sliced mozzarella on the table, as well as honey, sugar, and sour cream. And my teacup will be waiting for me, a quarter filled with tannic Assam tea concentrate Shushana brews nightly over loose leaves. I fill the cup with boiling water and stir in a teaspoon of honey.
The excitement these days lies in discovering what will round out the meal. Will I find a jar of cool kaimaghi (mildly fermented cream) that some relative has brought from their village? If so, I spread a thick layer of it on bread and smear the whole thing with honey.
Once I found blinebi, or pancakes. I had brought a small jar of Vermont maple syrup as a gift for my host family and planned to prepare American-style pancakes to serve it with, but Shushana’s blinebi obviated the need: they were classic silver dollar pancakes. Buttermilk doesn’t seem to exist here, but tart homemade yogurt (matsoni) serves as a tasty substitute in the Georgian recipe. Shushana makes her own matsoni from local cows’ milk at least once a week. (More on that process in a future post.)
The maple syrup I’d brought was not a big hit with my host family—I’m the only one who ever uses it—but they drizzle their pancakes with honey or kaimaghi. I, too, abandoned the maple syrup when I discovered the luxuriant combination of rich yet airy kaimaghi with the blissful sweetness of homemade Armenian apricot preserves. If and when I open a Caucasian diner, this will be the first dish on the menu.
Lately, a plethora of dishes combining brined cheese and butter in varying proportions have taken center stage at the breakfast table. I’ve been told that these are specialties of the Adjara region, with its proliferation of cows. There’s mokhrakuli, which presents as a slightly solidified mass of the aforementioned ingredients combined with a handful of corn flour and fried. Borano refers to immense quantities of melted cheese swimming in a butter lagoon. It is meant to be mopped up with white bread or fried corn cakes called mchadi. In deference to the pride with which these dishes are served as local specialties, I partake, but tend to find myself eating around the cheese and using the excess melted butter running across my plate as a dipping sauce for bread. Of all the Georgian dishes I’ve tried so far, these seem the most problematic for the American palate, whose predilection for fat nevertheless requires it to be mostly invisible and well-laced with other ingredients.