This Spicy Vegan Stew Is the Sleeper Hit of Georgian Cuisine
If you like ratatouille, you’ll love ajapsandali, a garlicky eggplant dish brimming with fistfuls of fresh herbs.
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Khachapuri adjaruli, that internet-famous carbo-kayak jammed with cheese, eggs, and butter, seems to get all the attention when it comes to Georgian food. But the more time I spend in Georgia, the more enamored I become with the country’s subtler, lesser-known vegetable dishes such as ajapsandali.
Ajapsandali is a spicy, rib-sticking vegetable stew made with eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and—importantly—fistfuls of fresh herbs. It also happens to be vegan. Reminiscent of ratatouille and pisto manchego, it’s bolder than both in the flavor department—so much so that (lo siento) I no longer make pisto, despite living in Madrid.
Compared to Georgia’s fussier, technique-heavy recipes like satsivi (turkey cooked in walnut sauce) and khinkali (soup dumplings), ajapsandali is basically a free-for-all, a blank canvas ideally suited to recipe-averse cooks: No one is getting canceled for making ajapsandali “wrong.” After all, depending on the region and the cook, the stew might arrive bobbing with carrots and potatoes in addition to the standard late-summer veg. Spices—most commonly coriander and blue fenugreek—are usually in the background jazzing things up, though they’re not always present. Ground chiles or ajika, Georgia’s fiery red pepper condiment, give the dish its signature kick.
My favorite version of ajapsandali contains a mix of cilantro and parsley, though Dark Opal basil, dill, and celery leaves are frequent foliage add-ins. Peering over the shoulder of Georgian chefs like Meriko Gubeladze (of Tbilisi’s Shavi Lomi) has taught me that the key to the dish’s multilayered freshness is dropping in chopped herbs at different stages of the cooking process, as South Asians are wont to do with spices.
In Kakheti, Georgia’s wine country, locals drizzle piping-hot bowls of ajapsandali with unrefined sunflower oil, whose sesame-like scent, paired with the cilantro and garlic, always transports me a couple of thousand miles east. In Imereti, in the center of the country, cooks make a thick, relish-like ajapsandali that’s eaten chilled alongside grilled meats. And in Samegrelo, farther west, the dish is spicy enough to make your nose run. No matter the region, ajapsandali always comes with a basket of tonispuri, Georgia’s chewy quintessential bread licked by the flames of a tandoor-style tone oven.
At home, I make do with the crustiest baguette I can find. After ladling out bowls of steaming ajapsandali, I like to pass around a jug of olive oil for friends to pour from liberally. Then I pray for leftovers: Few dishes brighten one’s morning like a bowl of the reheated stew topped with crumbled feta and a runny fried egg. Khachapuri who?
- 2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
- ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- 3–4 small globe eggplants (1½ lb.), stemmed and cut into ¾-in. chunks
- 2 tsp. kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 2 large yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 2 large Cubanelle peppers, seeded and cut into ¾-in. pieces
- 1 medium red or yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into ¾-in. pieces
- 1½ cup uncooked tomato purée (passata), fresh or jarred
- ⅓ cup coarsely chopped cilantro, divided
- ⅓ cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves, divided
- 20 basil leaves, preferably purple, torn
- ¼–½ tsp. cayenne pepper
- ½ tsp. ground coriander seeds
- ¼ tsp. ground savory or dried thyme leaves
- 3 garlic cloves, mashed into a paste