Ever since I first visited Georgia (then part of the Soviet Union) in the late 1980s, I have loved its cuisine, in particular a bright beef and red pepper stew called Salyanka. So, I was delighted when, on a recent trip to Israel with Mike Solomonov from Zahav Restaurant in Philadelphia, we decided to eat at Racha, a Georgian restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. As we entered the stone British Mandate office building where the restaurant is located, right across from the original office of the Jerusalem Post, I felt transported to a home in Racha, the western province in Georgia, whose Jewish community dates back 2,600 years.
Today most of the Jews from Georgia have immigrated to Israel. Two of them who came as children in the 1970s were Lily Ben Shalom, who became a post office employee, and her brother Israel Shahar, an electrical engineer. They had a dream of opening a restaurant, so they saved their money and mementos of Racha. A few years ago they opened this charming restaurant filled with family pictures on the walls, white lace curtains on the windows, Georgian music, and recipes passed down through generations in the kitchen. “We cook how they cooked at home,” said Israel, the chef. “We don’t have any cookbooks. The recipes come from the head and the hand.”
What intrigued me as I bit into this delicious beef stew is that, like many early Jewish recipes I have found around the world, the beef, often a tough inexpensive cut, is first boiled in water until it is almost tender and then layered with flavor from onions, spices, and in this case bright red peppers, so easy to obtain today. After slowly simmering for a few hours, you are rewarded with a melt-in-your-mouth, silky stew. As they say in Georgia, ghmert`ma shegargos—bon appetit!
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.