What does it take to make a really fabulous chili in Georgia?

1. Cumin. You can buy taco spice packets in Goodwill or Ozzy’s, and they contain cumin and whatever else you need to make chili taste like chili. Or you can do what I did, and bring a giant plastic bottle of cumin with you to Georgia. You could have your friends or your parents or your friend’s parents (thanks, Jon’s Mom!) mail you cumin and whatever other spices you can’t find, or you could have people bring some when they come visit you. In any case, cumin’s the only real step in the chili process that involves significant planning and preparation.

2. Ground Beef. This isn’t necessarily hard to find but the ground beef they sell in supermarkets – Populi, Goodwill, etc. – tends to be really, really terrible. Pro tip: go to your host family’s butcher, point at the cut of beef you want, and have him grind it for you. In my case, my mother-in-law calls her butcher and has him set aside a few kilos of good boneless meat for us, and we can go pick it up and then bring it home and grind it using our neighbor’s hand grinder. This is not actually as hard as it sounds.

3. Local Produce and Spices. Onions, garlic, peppers, hot peppers, beans, whatever else suits your fancy. Hot red pepper, coriander, crushed red pepper, paprika. This stuff is all available at the bazaar and probably at the market on your corner. Learning the Georgian names for them helps.

4. Brown your onions with baking soda. Many chili recipes do not call for browned onions. This is a mistake. Glazing the onions makes a decent chili. Browning them in baking soda and oil or butter makes the base for an amazing chili. I recommend browning two or more onions for your base. Baking soda is called “soda” in Russian so this is probably the single easiest ingredient to get your hands on.

5. Tomato Paste? Or not. If you can’t get tomato paste, grate a tomato or two with a cheese grater. It will be more liquidy than paste but the liquid will boil off.

6. Georgian Beer. We all know good chili is made with beer. I recommend Mtieli. Kazbegi is crap.

7. Georgian Cheese. We all know Georgian cheese is odd and salty. Here’s something you probably don’t know: grate it and sprinkle it liberally over your finished chili, stir it in, and cook it for 3-5 more minutes; the result is very hard to distinguish from an American chili with an American cheese sprinkled on top. The consistency of Georgian cheese is perfect for chili and, unlike cheddar, it won’t emit a cheesy oil that will float to the top of your chili bowl.

8. ???. I don’t know-what do you guys put in your chili? There are more chili recipes than there are chili cooks. Almost everything can be had in Georgia with little difficulty. Hell, in Tbilisi you can even buy tortilla chips to dip in your chili. Drop a comment if there’s an ingredient you can’t find; odds are decent I can tell you if they have it here and where to get it.


In case you were wondering, here’s my approximate (I cook with heavy improv) recipe:

Neal’s Beanless Beef Chili

– Chop 2 onions. Put them in a stew pot. Cover them with oil. Add a half teaspoon of baking soda. Cook until they turn soft, brown, and OMGDelicious.

– While the onions brown, prepare the other ingredients. Peel and dice a whole head of garlic. Chop two more onions, two hot peppers, two carrots, and two or three bell peppers. Grate two tomatoes.

– Add spices to the browned onions. I recommend: 1 teaspoon hot red pepper, 2 teaspoons cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon coriander, 1/2 teaspoon cardamom.

– Add enough beer to the browned onions that you can easily stir in the spices.

– Add ground beef to the pot. About half a kilo (one pound) will do. Stir.

– Add carrots, peppers, garlic, onions, tomatoes. Stir. Push down the solid chunky bits so they’re covered in liquid. Add more beer if needed to supplement this process.

– Stew this mixture, covered, until the chopped carrots become soft.

– Reduce the chili – you can probably boil it for a good 20-30 minutes. It should start getting a little thick.

– Add grated cheese – enough to liberally coat the surface of the chili. Let this simmer for 2 minutes; stir; simmer for two more minutes.

– Voila!

– Disclaimer: you can probably get this to taste better. In Tbilisi you can get cans of “Mexican” corn; one of these makes a worthwhile addition to the chili. During the cooking process I tend to taste what I’m making and decide if it needs something else (which is how I realized today that I had forgotten the tomatoes, just in time to rectify my mistake). Any input, suggestions, modifications, etc. would be appreciated in comments.

– I served this with rice boiled with turmeric. Turmeric is healthy, delicious, and available for sale at Ozzy’s.

– Overall, I thought this chili came out rather good. My Georgian family enjoyed it, which is a huge milestone if you’ve ever tried to cook foreign food for your Georgian family. I halved the cumin and hot pepper for them because they’re not quite used to the flavor profile of chilies and curries and other spicy foreign dishes.

– Yay!

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7 Responses to Chili

  1. Cate says:

    tortilla chips!: where? I’m tired of people suggesting I use Doritos to make nachos.

    Also, I’m fairly sure that spice-guy in Tbilisi has cumin (and everything else). You’re not in Tbilisi anymore, but for anyone else reading, he’s in one of the mall-like buildings near the bazroba. The building’s between the new construction and the windy maze of clothes and things, and he has everything if you know the name in a couple languages.


    • panoptical says:

      Tortilla chips are at Goodwill – where else? 🙂

      Here’s a map where I’ve starred the location of the spice guy:

      Here are the directions to said spice guy, and other shopping areas of interest:

      That said, I did not manage to find cumin at the spice guy, and there is a great deal of confusion in Georgia over cumin, with some people mistaking it for coriander, others dzira – neither of these are cumin, so don’t be fooled!


      • Cate says:

        Uh oh, I thought that dzira was the Georgian word for cumin! Translating the wikipedia article leads there, and the spice guy has a bin that says “cumin, ძირა” on it, but I’m not sure how to identify it by just taste/smell. It’s for sure not cumin?

        Also, I went to the big Goodwill in Dighomi–and no tortilla chips! Which Goodwill did you find them in?

        Thanks for the help.


        • panoptical says:

          Goodwill Vake had tons of tortilla chips – even different flavored ones 🙂 That said Goodwill isn’t great about keeping items in stock so it might depend on when you go.

          Dzira is definitely not cumin – I initially jumped at the idea because I was desperate for cumin, but the taste is way off. I think it’s more likely that dzira is some kind of caraway (makes sense given the general confusion around cumin and caraway, for instance caraway is sometimes called Persian Cumin. Saffron and turmeric have similar problems).


        • panoptical says:

          I found cumin! It’s at the Turkish market next to the restaurant Cappadochia on Aghmeshenebeli street. They call it Kimion. The whole store smells like it!


  2. Cocoa powder and coffee. Also it’s THE BEST if you can get the dried red chili pods, heat them to make them aromatic, rehydrate them by letting them soak in hot water for twenty minutes, chop them to bits, then throw in right after the onions.


  3. Grinding: Borrow your friend’s grandpa’s meat grinder and clamp it to your kitchen table! It’s been 20 years so I forget whether it was for khinkali or what, but I remember sitting there in Zaza’s friend Nik’s house talking while he was grinding up the rest of the meat while the mtsvadi (i.e., shashlik, kabob) sat with the seasoning rubbed in before grilling.

    I wish I knew how to make the Mexican fried rice we always used to get in Tex-Mex places. I’ve never found a recipe for anything like it. I never make chili except for tacos from a mix, but I’d probably add some turmeric to that, too, for a little more bite without more burn.

    Then invite all your crazy Mingrelian friends over so they can tell you (and your wimpy-tongued family) how much hotter your chili should be! Chop up some fresh green serranos or the like to stir in, and keep some more whole for them to show off by chomping into.


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