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Satsivi

Holiday food that tastes like warm earth, if the earth were delicious.

Whenever I would tell anyone in Georgia how much I loved badrijani, they would say, “Yes, but have you tried satsivi?” with this sort of smitten look in their eyes. Satsivi is holiday food, a sacred sort of dish, especially when made with turkey. It tastes like warm earth, if the earth were delicious. I never bothered to learn how to make it because I couldn’t imagine eating it without Georgian village wine. I tried to find Georgian wine at the Russian stores on Geary in San Francisco, but for some reason those bottles had a strange aftertaste of hamburgers. You need to eat satsivi with the village wine that comes directly from the ground out of one of those old-fashioned water pumps, the kind that Helen Keller used when she first learned how to sign “water.”

But recently I found a wine produced by a man named Josko Gravner. He employs a purely natural wine-making process, much like the Georgians, who insist it is why they never get hangovers. (Perhaps closer to the truth is that they eat so much butter and bread beforehand.) Gravner grows his grapes on the Slovenian/Italian border and uses the 4,000-year-old technique of storing wine in clay amphorae. He extends the maceration of the grape skins, uses open-top wood vats, and eschews added yeasts and sulphur dioxide. Perhaps most important is his philosophy that wine is a product of nature and not man.

I returned to Georgia recently, and felt that I was finally mature enough to learn how to make satsivi. First, we had to buy the right kind of walnut. At the market, we had to taste each vendor’s walnut. Georgians can tell by the smell of a wine which hillside the grapes were grown on. Likewise with walnuts. They all tasted the same to me, but my friend insisted that we must find a walnut that was not too sweet, not too bitter. Finally satisfied, we returned home to cook. To make satsivi, you need a long afternoon, preferably with a sister or a woman who feels like your sister, because the texture of the walnuts must be right for it to work, and this is a boring process to accomplish. —Christina Nichol

Ingredients

Makes 4 servings
  • 2 T khmeli suneli
  • 1 chicken (or small turkey)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2-3 C raw walnuts
  • 1 small bunch fresh coriander (cilantro)
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • A splash white wine vinegar
  • + salt

Khmeli Suneli

  • 2 T dried marjoram
  • 2 T dried dill
  • 2 T dried summer savory
  • 2 T dried mint
  • 2 T dried parsley
  • 2 T coriander seeds
  • 1 T dried fenugreek leaves
  • 2 T dried ground marigold petals
  • 1 T black pepper
  • 2 T fenugreek seeds
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • A pinch saffron
  • 1 t dried basil
  • 1 t dried thyme

Preparation

  1. Make the Khmeli Suneli: Blend all ingredients in a coffee grinder.

  2. Boil the chicken (or turkey) with a chopped onion. Reserve the broth. While you are boiling the poultry, pound the walnuts in a mortar, preferably with a mortar made from the boxwood tree that grows in Abkhazia and has been in the family for six generations. The walnuts cannot be ground too fine and also must not have any pebble-sized pieces in them. (This is the part where you have to sit and painstakingly pick out any pieces.)

  3. Transfer the walnuts to a bowl and add the onion, khmeli suneli, coriander, garlic, vinegar, and a little of reserved chicken broth. Now squeeze with your hands, just until the oil begins to separate. Add more broth until the sauce lightens a little in color and is the texture of watery hummus.

  4. When the chicken has cooled, remove the meat from the bone, leaving a few pieces whole. Coat and mix with the walnut sauce, and try it. Add salt to taste. Serve at room temperature with white village wine. Remember, in Georgia, real men only drink white wine.