For the Chinese food-lovers among us, the phrase “soup dumpling” evokes a very particular image. There’s xiaolongbao, the Shanghainese dumplings that look like little purses full of juicy meat and piping-hot broth. There’s also tangbao, giant soup buns so unwieldy that they come in a cup with a straw—presumably to avoid soup explosions. But soup dumplings are not exclusive to Chinese food. And while cuisine from the Republic of Georgia may not be as familiar to most Americans as Chinese takeout, the people of this small country in the Caucasus have long been perfecting some of of the best soup dumplings in the world. So take out your Georgian food bucket list—which probably consists of khachapuri, wine, and more khachapuri—and add khinkali, the giant soup dumplings you probably never knew you needed.
Opinions differ on the origin of this national staple. Some cite Mongol invasions into Central Asia—and the Chinese influence the Mongols brought with them—to draw a direct connection to Chinese recipes (legend has it, khinkali means “Khan’s head” in early Georgian, though this is unsubstantiated). Others maintain that the dish is Georgian through and through, its birthplace in the unforgiving mountain highlands of the Caucasus.
Whatever their origin, khinkali are one of the quintessential foods of Georgia. In form, they’re slightly different than Chinese soup dumplings. The skin is a bit thicker, and eggs are occasionally added to the dough. Instead of filling them with meat suspended in gelatin, as with their Chinese counterparts, Georgians use raw ground meat and broth to achieve the soupy effect. They’re usually boiled, rather than steamed. And while pork is the go-to filling in both Tbilisi and Shanghai, Lamb and beef are also common fillings, especially in neighboring Muslim-majority republics like Chechnya, Dagestan, and Azerbaijan. Moreover, those who want a less-soupy option can try versions with mushrooms or potatoes—reminiscent of pierogis—or pungent, salty sulguni cheese. Plating is unfussy: no sauce, no garnish, just some ground pepper on a pile of dumplings.
As anyone who has eaten soup dumplings can attest, eating them without spilling the broth requires special technique. Georgians eat khinkali with their hands, gripping them by the top of the dumpling—colloquially named the “hat” or the “bellybutton.” Bite a small hole in the side and slurp the hot soup out of it (try to eat one whole and your tongue will regret it)—and then eat the rest, leaving the top behind. These doughy remnants will help you keep track of how many khinkali you’ve eaten—in case you want to avoid overeating, for instance.
To get your khinkali fix in the States, head to New York for Georgian standouts like Pirosmani in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, which is home to a small Georgian enclave. There’s also Oda House, Old Tbilisi Garden, and Red Compass in the East Village, a historical destination of the Ukrainian and Russian diaspora. West Coasters can visit Glendale’s Tumanyan Khinkali Factory (the original is located in Yerevan, Armenia), recently visited by LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold—who promptly declared khinkali to be “your latest obsession.”
Or, if you’d like to try your hand at making khinkali at home, here’s a recipe—complete with video of an expert grandmother showing you how to fold them. But be warned. As Gastronomica founder Darra Goldstein writes in her book The Georgian Feast, “the idea is to make as many pleats as possible as you bunch the dough around the filling: Anything less than 20 is considered unprofessional.”