On a bitterly cold Moscow afternoon, I hurried home for lunch from the university where I was studying Russian as an exchange student in 2005. My host mother, Masha Kulidzhanova, had prepared lobio, a Georgian kidney bean stew thickened with walnuts and spiked with garlic and cilantro.
Its bright yet earthy flavors and stick-to-your-bones heartiness were a welcome antidote to the raw chill outside. I ate one bowl, then couldn’t help but ask for seconds. This was my first taste of Georgian food, and I was already hooked.
Georgia lies over the jagged peaks of the Caucasus Mountains at Russia’s southwestern border. The nation’s cuisine has been heavily influenced by the Persian and Turkic peoples to its south who have been invading it, migrating through it and marrying into it for centuries. During the Soviet period, Russians adopted many Georgian foods as their own, such as cilantro-laced beef and tomato soup, fried eggplant slices rolled around garlic-walnut paste and flaky pies stuffed with salty melted cheese..
Masha preferred the lively flavors of Georgian dishes to the tame palette of traditional Russian foods. Her grandfather, a well-known Soviet film director, had grown up in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The rest of her family tree is a tangle of ethnicities: Russian, Armenian, Moldovan. Dishes from all of those ancestors’ kitchens have made it into her repertoire. “I need food to fit my personality,” she quipped as I tucked into my second bowl, “Hot-tempered and slightly tart.”
Deceptively stoic when you meet her on the street, Masha wrote comedy serials for Russian TV. Her dry wit stumped me at first, then proved wickedly rewarding as my Russian improved. While I made for a less than stimulating conversation partner, Masha was pleased to have someone else in the house who shared her tastes. Her mild-mannered Ukrainian husband, Igor, and aging grandmother, Taisiya, couldn’t abide even a hint of spice in their meals. She and I would wait until the two of them fell asleep, then roast whole heads of garlic in the oven and
gleefully squeeze the cloves out one by one into bowls of chicken and red pepper stew, onto slices of broiled eggplant sprinkled with herbs and pomegranate seeds, or over plates of pilaf studded with prunes and apricots.
Neither of us knew it then, but that first bowl of lobio and the succession of Georgian dishes that followed it planted the seeds of what would become a passionate quest to taste these dishes in their native land. Five years later I found myself on a plane bound for Tbilisi, ostensibly to teach English — but, in reality, to eat.
I soon learned that in Georgian, lobio means simply “beans.” That’s deceptive; variations of the stew abound, but none are limited to beans alone. Different cooks vary the herbal bouquet according to taste or availability of ingredients, mixing and matching cilantro with opal basil, flat-leaf parsley, dill, summer savory and other herbs. Some spice it up with lots of cayenne pepper, while others prefer the characteristic nutty bitterness of fenugreek, which came up the Silk Road to Georgia from India and Persia centuries ago. Summertime brings “green” lobio, which is not a soup at all but a mess of stewed vegetables and fresh beans still in their green pods, mixed with ground walnuts and served at room temperature.
My new host in Tbilisi, Shushana Surmanidze, didn’t make the “red” version I had loved in Russia until late in the autumn, when I got up the nerve to request it. Hers was gently sweet and herbaceous, the cilantro complemented with parsley and celery greens. Both Shushana and the students I taught at a local public high school found my devotion to lobio amusing. It is for them among the humblest of dishes, the Georgian equivalent of chicken noodle soup.
Shushana told me it is also one of the foods traditionally served at Georgian funeral repasts. “I’ve been going to so many of them lately that I haven’t wanted to eat any more of it at home!” she confessed.
Indeed, Shushana had attended at least five services in a month and a half, a testament to the size and community-oriented nature of Georgian funerals, where tradition requires even distant acquaintances of the deceased to show up and pay their respects, largely by way of eating large quantities of food.
Nevertheless, when winter came, lobio became a regular fixture of the family meal rotation. Shushana served it with mchadi, piping hot cornmeal cakes pan-fried in sunflower oil and used to wipe the last mouthfuls of stew from the bowl.
At home in my Washington kitchen, I cook up a pot of lobio to keep out the cold. One bite is enough to transport me back to those other warm kitchens and the laughter of the women who command them.
Holm’s work has appeared in National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog, Smithsonian’s Food and Think blog, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s award-winning Taste section. She blogs at EatWithPleasure.com.
Makes about 9 cups (6 to 8 servings)
Ground fenugreek can be found in the international aisle of large supermarkets and at Indian groceries.
MAKE AHEAD: The sweet, sour and herbal flavors of this dish meld with time, so the stew is best served the next day, or at least 6 to 8 hours after it has been made. Reheat over medium-low heat.
1 pound dried red kidney beans, picked over
5 cups water
2 medium (5 1/2 ounces total) carrots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons neutral-tasting vegetable oil, such as canola, sunflower or grapeseed
2 medium (6 to 8 ounces each) yellow onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
1 cup walnut halves or pieces, finely ground
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped mixed herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, dill, basil, celery greens and/or summer savory
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon ground coriander, or to taste
1 teaspoon ground fenugreek, or to taste (see headnote)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Place the dried beans in a deep bowl and cover with at least 3 inches of water. Soak overnight.
Drain the beans, placing them in a large pot with the 5 cups of water. Add the carrots; bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook (uncovered) for 25 minutes or until the beans have softened but are still chewy.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat, then cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until softened but not browned. Transfer to the bean pot and stir to incorporate. Add the ground walnuts, garlic, half of the cilantro and half of the mixed herbs, the vinegar, coriander, fenugreek, salt and cayenne pepper; mix well. Cover and cook for 20 to 30 minutes or until the beans are tender.
Stir in the remaining cilantro and mixed herbs. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Remove from the heat.
Divide among individual bowls, or, for best flavor, transfer to a container, cool, cover and refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours or overnight. Reheat over medium-low heat; taste, and adjust the seasoning before serving.