TEL AVIV, Israel -- When Avraham Meker moved from his native Georgia to Israel in 1974, he had a transformative experience while getting a glass of water at a kibbutz dining hall.
"I saw four taps," recalls Meker, who grew up in Georgia's second city of Kutaisi. "I opened one and water came out. A second was milk. A third was soda water, and a fourth was hot water. I didn't even finish my food. I looked for a phone and called my mother and said, 'Mom, we have reached the land of milk and honey.'"
Forty years after the Jews of Georgia began their wholesale immigration to Israel, the tables have turned. Veteran Israelis now seek out Georgian cheese-filled bread, steaming meat dumplings, and herb-laced stews, including at a newly opened 150-seat temple to the cuisine on swish Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv.
It is one of more than a dozen Georgian restaurants operating nationwide, serving Israelis and about 140,000 Georgian emigres, according to Meker. In their mutual appreciation for eggplant, meat, and spice, Israel and Georgia have found a bond strengthened by inexpensive travel to the former Soviet republic, a large community of Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel, and the buzz of Tel Aviv’s celebrity chefs.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Dalia Heilpern, 55, rolled khinkali, the Georgian meat dumpling, in the spacious kitchen of the newly opened Supra restaurant. Heilpern's family traces its roots to Iraq, but Georgian cuisine found her while she ran an Israeli restaurant in Vienna with fellow Israeli business partner Yoram Sabi. Located in a neighborhood peppered with Georgian emigres, the restaurant filled with regulars who begged Heilpern to prepare their national specialties.
"I said, 'I'm sorry. I know what is hummus. I know what is falafel. I don't know this food you are speaking about,'" Heilpern recalls. "They said, 'I will bring my grandmother and she will [teach] you how to do it.'"
WATCH: Cooking Khinkali: Georgian Meat Dumplings
Heilpern's growing expertise led her and Sabi to launch a catering business together that served Georgian food worldwide, including in Belgium, the United States, Russia, and France. Still, in Israel, the cuisine that had become her specialty remained anonymous.
"When I was coming to Israel to visit, nobody knew Georgian food," she says. "Maybe in [the port city] Ashdod some woman would make [it] at home, but there was no restaurants."
In 1998, they moved their company to Israel. These days, Heilpern says, "in every place there's a Georgian kitchen," a development that gave her and Sabi the confidence to open Supra, the Georgian term for a feast that can last for hours or for days. The menu is mostly Georgian classics, with a nod to Middle Eastern street food. For example, at Supra, the common sandwich in a pita known as a shawarma -- usually meat and vegetables drizzled with tahini sesame paste -- is grilled chicken thighs and lamb topped with eggplant and ground walnuts.
Supra’s third co-owner, Mickey Mirel, said serving walnuts reminds him of his Georgian grandmother, who spent hours a week crushing the nuts in their home city of Ramle, outside Tel Aviv.
"As a boy, people laughed at me for being Georgian," Mirel says. "Being Georgian was not seen as being sexy. But now they understand the Georgian culture is full of culture, full of joy, full of passion."
Mirel has been part of the transformation. For seven years, his stage persona -- Tash Tash -- was the house entertainer at Nanuchka, a hedonistic, 20-year-old Georgian institution in south Tel Aviv. Among his hits is a Hebrew song called I Also Want To Be A Georgian. The music video features a pale, bespectacled Israeli man in an argyle sweater who receives a Georgian makeover. Gone are the glasses, the sweater is replaced with a tight black button-down, and the man guzzles liquor straight from the bottle at a dance party:
WATCH: I Also Want To Be A Georgian -- Mickey Mirel
Mirel said he thought about opening his own restaurant after Nanuchka’s owner, Nana Shrier, was swept up in the vegan wave washing over Tel Aviv. In 2014, she banished meat, eggs, and cheese from the menu. The joyous atmosphere and drunk clientele tottering on the bar have remained. But Mirel said his fans begged him to open his own restaurant where they could chew on shashlik, or grilled meat, while listening to his music.
In addition to Supra and Nanuchka, this month a third Georgian restaurant is slated to open in central Tel Aviv. Proprietor Lily Ben Shalom shot to national prominence in 2014 as a contestant on the reality TV cooking show Game Of Chefs, where she wowed the judges with the sour plum sauce tkemali.
Ben Shalom’s TV appearance coincided with a highly televised visit by Israeli celebrity chefs to Georgia, on a junket sponsored by Tbilisi. Eyal Shani, known in Israel as the man who invented whole roasted cauliflower, waxed poetic about Georgia's raw and rustic cuisine, where most people make their own wine. Fellow judge Michal Ansky has since opened a private tour company that arranges culinary romps to Georgia.
Anksy’s customers are among the some 60,000 Israelis who visit Georgia annually, according to Israel's Tourism Ministry, and the number is growing substantially each year. Georgia has become a popular alternative to Turkey, which drew half a million Israeli visitors a year before relations between Jerusalem and Ankara deteriorated in 2009 over Israel’s policies in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Georgia have a visa-free travel agreement. In January, El Al became the third Israeli airline to offer direct 2.5-hour flights between Tel Aviv and Tbilisi, in addition to Georgian Airways.
Eka Tsiskarishvili says the spike in Israeli visits to Georgia is bringing new crowds to her 25-year-old restaurant, tucked into a stone alley in downtown Jerusalem. Tsiskarishvili, 40, grew up in Tbilisi and Moscow and moved to Israel in her 20s. When her father opened Kangaroo, she said, most of the customers were immigrants from Russia who were raised on summer trips to Georgia and on Georgian wine, favored by the Kremlin. The veteran Israeli clients were disoriented.
"My dad would tell me it was hard to explain where Georgia was," Tsiskarishvili explains. "He had to explain via Armenia because there are lots of Armenians in Jerusalem's Old City, and Armenia is also in the Caucasus. But about Georgia, people knew nothing.”
In contrast to the changes under way in Tel Aviv, the menu at Kangaroo focuses on classics: flavorful stews served in ceramic pots, expertly rolled fluffy breads and dumplings, all eaten in an airy room lined with Georgian tapestries and knickknacks. But innovation has made it to the wine list, which includes imported Georgian Saperavi red wine along with bottles from the 6-year-old Israeli Kadma winery. Tbilisi-born owner Lina Slutzkin spent two decades in high tech before she studied winemaking. She imported 20 handmade clay casks from Georgia, which she uses to ferment red grapes in a modified homage to Georgia's 8,000-year-old wine tradition. In Georgia, the qvevri, or casks, are buried underground; in Israel, Slutzkin keeps them upright to better monitor their temperature.
Meker, who maintains a list of a dozen restaurants operating in Israel, says it is a golden moment for the cuisine of his ancestors. When he first arrived in Israel, Meker said he visited a Georgian restaurant where he ate a khachapuri cheese bread so repellent he could not finish it. Now, the taste has improved. Still, he says that the realities of life in Israel, with its high cost of living, can add a sour note.
"I prefer the Georgian food in Georgia because it costs a third less," Meker says.
Heilpern, of Supra, welcomes the new class of Georgian restaurants.
“There’s enough water in the sea for everyone,” she says.
Try making your own Khinkali (Georgian dumplings) with this recipe: