Kharcho (ხარჩო) is a traditional Georgian meaty soup or stew. It is usually made with beef or chicken, but can also be made with other meats and poultry. Depending on the region, its consistency may vary. Imeretian cooks prefer their kharcho thinner and spicier. Megrels, who use walnuts in every other dish, make a thicker version with chopped nuts. When kharcho is served as a soup, it usually contains rice. There are also recipes without rice — stewed meat with a thick and aromatic walnut sauce. Some recipes list tomatoes or tomato paste among their ingredients. Follow them and the color of your kharcho will be shades of red. Other recipes feature plenty of fresh herbs and, as a result, somewhat green kharcho.
There are many recipes, many variations. What similar characteristics make them all “kharcho”?
Meat. The original full name of this dish in Georgian is “dzerokhis khortsi kharshot” or “beef soup”. Beef is one of the three traditional main ingredients of the dish. It is possible to make a very tasty and aromatic vegetarian version of rice and walnuts soup, but naming it “kharcho” is not appropriate. It sounds the same as “vegetarian chicken soup”.
Based on my experience, the best cuts for this soup are sirloin or flat iron steak. Beautifully marbled, not overcooked, naturally sweet and juicy, they are the best partners for the fruity tartness and herbal spiciness of this soup.
Tkemali. Tkemali (ტყემალი) is the Georgian name for a sour plum known as cherry or myrobalan plum (lat. Prunus cerasifera). Famous pungently tart Georgian sauce Tkemali is made of this plum puree mixed with herbs and spices. In this soup, tkemali is used in a form of fruit leather, tklapi. Tkemali tklapi is extremely difficult to find in the U.S. I was lucky to have a friend who sent me a box of authentic Georgian tklapi as a gift.
The easiest substitutions for tkemali are pomegranate syrup (no sugar added) or tamarind pulp. My experiments with fine sour plum paste by Shemshad were also successful. When substituting tkemali, adjust the acidity of kharcho to your taste. It should be pronounced and delicate at the same time.
Walnuts. Walnuts give the depth to this dish. They round up all the flavors, make it hearty and rich. I like to use them toasted for more flavor.
Spices and herbs. There is a Georgian spice mix for this soup — kharchos-suneli. The easiest way to create an authentic flavor is to order this mix online at www.argo-usa.com. Their kharcho seasoning mix includes: utskho suneli (blue fenugreek), fennel, coriander, celery, parsley, Georgian saffron (marigold), Georgian bay leaf, red pepper, black pepper, dry onion, dry garlic.
A shorter list of spices should include freshly ground coriander, bay leaf, red pepper, and black pepper. Adding blue fenugreek makes a lot of difference, but it is difficult to find outside Georgia. You can buy it at www.argo-usa.com.
Blue fenugreek (Trigonella caerulea, უცხო სუნელი – utskho suneli) is a relative to a more widely known fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). So, ground regular fenugreek seeds and leaves can be used as a substitute. In this case, ground seeds should be cooked with onions (to remove their natural bitterness), and ground dry leaves added at the end of cooking.
Read more about Georgian herbs and spices.
In my version of kharcho, I only use parsley and cilantro fresh, because I have the whole nine yards of dry spices available. If your list of spices is short, go for additional fresh herbs — add a little bit of tarragon, mint, basil, and oregano. They will make up for the missing flavors.