My head was pressed up against the window and my feet were wedged on top of a suitcase. Somewhere between Kutaisi and Borjomi, I had fallen asleep in a marshrutka, one of countless minibuses that comprise public transportation in the Republic of Georgia.
Suddenly, my friend woke me up. "Look!" he said, pointing out the window. We were on a stretch of highway that was surrounded by small wooden huts. A group of mostly tough-looking women dressed in soft clothes stood outside with piles of bread. Bakers waved down cars, hands and arms flailing, trying to sell their goods.
The marshrutka stopped. The driver passed a couple of bills out the window in return for a few loaves, which he passed back to an elderly Georgian woman sharing our ride. As I was still groggy, it happened too quickly for me to communicate through hand gestures—and the dozen or so words I knew in both Georgian and Russian—that I also wanted some.
The marshrutka kept driving, but I couldn't fall back asleep. Now I wanted bread—that bread.
But what was that bread? And why was it being sold next to the highway? There were no buildings to be seen, only the small wooden huts that bordered a forest of tall trees.
That evening, once we had reached Borjomi (a resort town know for its salty mineral water), I pulled out Darra Goldstein's A Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia, a cookbook that I was using as a travel guide. Lonely Planet mentioned nothing about Surami, the town next to this culinary strip of highway, nor this type of bread—but Darra Goldstein, a scholar and arguably the authority on Georgian cuisine, did.
The bread is called nazuki. It's not weighed down with cheese, like Georgia's famous khachapuri; instead, this sweet bread is flavored with spices.
First published in 1993, the book contains a new preface written in 2013 that surveys the food landscape in this tiny country since the Soviet era: "City dwellers from Tbilisi eagerly make pilgrimages to the village of Surami, known for its clay-oven nazuki, an aromatic, slightly sweet yeast bread speckled with raisins."
I had passed this pilgrimage site and had barely woken up in time to realize it.
Two days later, I asked a cab driver to take me back to that strip of highway. I was heading to Gore, Stalin's birthplace in the east, but first I needed to go back west. The driver chain-smoked as I explained that I wanted to buy nazuki. "And then to Surami?" he asked. "No, just the highway."
We stopped at the first couple of huts. I bought two loaves and immediately ate one. It was still warm, the raisins plump.
Georgians take bread very seriously. They still bake bread in tonés, clay ovens that are similar to the tandoor. Without added preservatives or enhancers, a loaf doesn't keep well, so baking is a daily practice.
Because of the extreme heat of the toné, Goldstein writes that it is difficult to reproduce most Georgian breads at home. The heat is an ingredient itself, one that is responsible for the bread's texture and taste. With that said, Goldstein claims that nazuki is the exception, giving home bakers the green light. Although not traditional, she recommends slathering it with lemon marmalade and calling it breakfast.
Goldstein's recipe for nazuki is fairly standard for any sweet, yeasted bread: milk, dry yeast, a pinch of sugar, two eggs, butter, more sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla extract, white flour, and a beaten egg yolk for brushing. There is one spice, however, that sets it apart: ground coriander seeds. She writes, "[Variations] of nazuki are found throughout the Middle East, but the addition of ground coriander makes this version distinctly Georgian."
The ground coriander might not be negotiable, but raisins seem to be.
Her recipe forgoes them. "I added the info about Surami nazuki to the new printing of The Georgian Feast but didn't change the original recipes," Goldstein tells me in an email. The nazuki she knows from the late Soviet era didn't have raisins.
When, where, and why nazuki includes raisins is not clear. (It may have something to do with different traditions, regional variations, and ingredient availability.) Was nazuki originally made with raisins, or was this a later addition?
Tamar Dugladze writes a recipe blog in Georgian and German, with a focus on Georgian classics. She tells me that for nazuqi, which she spells with a q, "from place to place there are different recipes." The nazuki she knows is also without raisins.
"Everyone here of course knows nazuki, but it isn't a particularly important pastry," Katrin Tevdorashvili from Georgia Insight, a German-speaking travel agency, tells me. "In Kakheti, for example, where bread is still made at home, housewives often bake nazuki from leftover bread dough and then add a paste made from sunflower seed oil, flour, sugar, and cinnamon. But never for a specific occasion."
The only place that Tevdorashvili knows that actually sells nazuki is that strip along the highway outside Surami.
For a bread that is sold in such a specific context, it doesn't seem to be considered anything too special.
"Surami became famous for nazuki because it's on the main highway between Tbilisi and Kutaisi and is also a resort town," says Goldstein. Probably some enterprising woman began selling nazuki on the roadside to hungry travelers, and it became so popular that others followed suit until it became a local artisanal industry. Nazuki is definitely a regional specialty, but it doesn't have any particular celebratory or seasonal meaning—it's made year-round."
Nazuki also does not seem to have much of a presence outside of the country. The Georgian restaurants I've tried in Munich, Berlin, and St. Petersburg don't have it. Not even the Bread House in Tbilisi, a restaurant with a heavy focus on bread, bakes it.
I've rarely encountered a food as elusive. After two weeks of traveling across Georgia, the only place I ever saw nazuki was on this strip of highway. In an age in which you can eat Memphis-style barbecue in Seoul and Korean barbecue in Cairo, it seems like food has never been more accessible, no matter your geography.
But for now, if you fancy nazuki, your best bet is to start baking—or to hit the road.