By Liz Lynch, Hunt to Eat Ambassador
The first time I tried Georgian food, I was in Alphabet City, on the southeastern side of Manhattan. I had no idea what to expect, really, except for food in the restaurant’s Yelp reviews that looked amply cheesy, starchy, and full of stick-to-your-ribs factor. Plus, by all accounts, Georgian wine seemed to be very good. I needed no further convincing to give it a try.
Turns out, I’d been missing out big time: Georgian cuisine is absolutely delicious. Thanks to its location along the Great Silk Road, the country’s cuisine shares some similarities with foods from Turkey, Iran (Persia), Russia, China, and India, but overall, it’s really unlike anything else I’ve ever had. After that meal, I knew I wanted to try my hand at making some Georgian dishes at home with wild-sourced ingredients.
Khinkali are Georgian soup dumplings that bear a resemblance to Chinese xiaolongbao. Khinkali are typically filled with beef, or a mix of beef and pork, but can also have other fillings such as lamb, mushrooms, or potato. They’re eaten by holding the “handle” that’s formed with the dough while sealing off the filling, with a bit of black pepper on top. Not spilling the precious, flavorful broth is the key to success, as is sharing with guests, friends, and family.
If you’re looking for a way to use ground venison other than burgers, jerky, or pasta sauce, this is a great option. I recommend making khinkali in two sittings: on the first day, mix the meat, onion, and other ingredients and let them comingle; on the second, make fresh dough and fold them up.
Servings: ~40 palm-sized dumplings
For the filling:
30 ounces ground venison (ideally, 5-10% added fat; I used pork fatback)
1 large yellow onion, minced
1 ½ cups cold broth: venison, mushroom, or beef
8 tablespoons butter
1 ½ tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fine salt
1 teaspoon caraway seed, ground
1 teaspoon coriander seed, ground
¾ teaspoon dried savory
¾ teaspoon fenugreek seed, toasted
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne powder
For the dough:
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 beaten eggs: fresh, at room temperature
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups (+1 cup, reserve) warm water
Begin by mincing your onion. If you have a food processor, use that instead of a knife: having regularly sized pieces of onion will help keep the texture of the filling consistent, and it helps moisten the meat. Mix the onion – being sure to include any onion juice – and ground venison together by hand in a large non-reactive bowl. Set it aside in the fridge.
Toast your fenugreek seeds in a nonstick pan over low heat until they’ve gone from a golden yellow to a darker reddish-brown. If you have an electric coffee grinder, use that to grind down all the spices to a relatively even texture. If you don’t have an electric grinder, use a knife and/or mortar and pestle to crush and mince the caraway, coriander, and toasted fenugreek seeds as much as possible. Mix all spices together and take the venison mixture out of the fridge. Sprinkle the spices evenly over the venison, then mix it all well by hand.
Optional, but recommended: return the mix to the fridge, covered, and let comingle overnight (or for at least 4 hours, if possible).
Melt the butter over low heat, and – if necessary – prepare your stock, i.e., thaw or cool it to bring it to a chill, but still liquid, temperature. I used Better than Bouillon’s mushroom base; I prefer it to beef stock for richly flavored recipes, when I don’t have venison stock available. Mix the stock and butter together, keeping the temperature just low enough to keep the butter from congealing. Once well mixed, add the liquid to the meat by hand or with a spoon. Set it fridge while you make the dough.
Crack the eggs and scramble them with a fork. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Create a divot in the center of the dry mix, and add the beaten eggs and 2 cups of warm water into the divot. Use a large fork or a wooden spoon to mix it all until it gets a “shaggy” appearance, then remove it to knead by hand on a smooth, lightly floured surface. Add some of the reserve water if needed to achieve a soft, smooth texture. Knead until the mix is smooth, but be sure to not over-knead; the dough needs to be as supple as possible to fold the dumplings easily. Return the dough to the bowl, cover the bowl loosely with a piece of plastic wrap, and let it sit on the counter for about 30 minutes.
After the dough has rested, sprinkle a small amount of flour on your smooth working surface, and remove no more than ¼ of the dough to roll out with a rolling pin. Get the dough to roughly ½” thickness. Use a round cookie cutter or round cup at least 2” in diameter to punch out as many rounds as possible. Roll each round out to roughly 1/8” thickness, about a 5”-6” diameter, and stack in a pile with a small amount of flour between each one to prevent sticking. Repeat this process until you’re out of dough.
Remove the filling mixture from the fridge. Measure 1.5 tablespoons of the filling, and commit the volume to memory. Add that amount with a spoon to the center of a round removed from the stack. Optional: use your forefinger to brush a small amount of water along the edge of the dough round, to help the folds stick. Gently pinch and pick up a small amount of the round with each hand, then create “accordion folds” until the entire edge of the round has been folded. Pinch the point of closure together to ensure it is fully sealed, and to create a small “handle” to hold. The dumplings should be about palm sized when sealed, or slightly smaller. Place the dumplings in the fridge on trays as they’re finished and you work on the rest.
When all dumplings have been folded, bring a pot of water – at least 4 quarts – to a boil with 1-2 bay leaves in it. Drop up to 6 dumplings in at a time. Boil for 8-9 minutes, and remove gently with a slotted spoon or small strainer. Eat them as soon as the “handle” isn’t too hot to hold for more than a few seconds.
To eat properly: serve 4-6 dumplings apiece to 4-6 friends, and then yourself. Lift a dumpling by the handle, sprinkle a pinch of cracked black pepper over the bottom (now facing up), and hold the dumpling tilted slightly away from you. Take a small bite from the edge nearest you; there should be some broth included without much effort, but you want to slurp it out so as to not waste any. Work your way around the dumpling. Once you’re finished, don’t eat the handle; leave it on your plate to keep score. Wash it all down with some Georgian red wine, if you can find any!