Beef soup Kharcho is a traditional dish of the Republic of Georgia and is known well outside of Georgia itself. There is a good reason for that – the soup is exceptionally delicious and has a characteristic rich flavor thanks to the spice mix that goes in it. This soup is traditionally made of fatty cuts of beef – chuck or brisket. As a result, the soup is rich and comforting. To balance out the richness of the soup sour plum sauce called Tkemali is traditionally added, which can be substituted by tomato puree or red wine vinegar. For a cold, wintry day I can’t think of a much better dish than a bowl of this delicious soup.
This soup has two key and quite unfamiliar to Westerners ingredients that will likely intimidate most of us. But, fear not, I will explain how to easily get or substitute them so you can enjoy this soup they way it has been enjoyed for centuries.
Spices for Kharcho
To really appreciate the depth of the traditional Kharcho flavor, you must use the spice mix known in Georgia as khmeli-suneli. This is a traditional spice mix that is added to many Georgian dishes. You can buy it at most ethnic Caucasian or Russian grocery stores. Amazon also sells khmeli-suneli. You can also make your own mix using the following easy formulations.
Short version of the spice mix
Combine equal parts (about a teaspoon) of ground coriander seeds, dried basil, dried marjoram, dried dill plus a small pinch of red hot pepper powder (about 2%) and one strand of saffron (about 1/10%).
Full version of the spice mix
To make the full version, simply add equal parts of fenugreek, bay leaf, mint, celery and parsley to the ingredients listed above.
That’s it. The first key ingredient with a funky sounding name is done. I can guarantee you, most of us have all of the spices necessary for both short and long version in our kitchens.
Acidic ingredients for Kharcho
As I mentioned above, Kharcho is a rich soup and adding some acidity helps balance its taste out. Traditionally, cherry plum purée called Tkemali is added for acidity. But it’s not uncommon to see tomato puree or red wine vinegar used as substitutes. My personal favorite approach is to use a combination of the two. I use pureed tomatoes in combination with two tablespoons of Tkemali or red wine vinegar. So there you have it, the second key ingredient that seemed so hard to acquire has actually been sitting right there in your kitchen all along. Alternatively, you can buy it on Amazon or from a local ethnic grocery store.
A few final notes on how to make proper Kharcho
- Beef chuck or brisket are the only two beef cuts that will make superb Kharcho. That is, you want the meat that is beefy, rich and fatty. You can trim some excess fat off, but leave some. It’s part of the soup’s character. Lean meat will not make a great Kharcho. Kharcho in this respect is akin to a great burger, which must have at least 20% fat to taste great. Lean Kharcho, just like a lean burger, is a waste of time.
- Just like chili, this soup only benefits from low and slow cooking. You want to simmer the meat over a gentle heat. Don’t try to boil it and make the soup ready in half an hour. It won’t work. Take your time, let the the meat simmer slowly until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. Then add the rest of the ingredients and slow simmer for a little longer. You will be rewarded with one of the most amazing tastes and textures that you will ever experience in you life.
- Now, some of you may say that the real Kharcho also uses walnuts. Yes and no. This soup has many variations and this classic version of the soup is just as popular as the one with walnuts.
What to serve Kharcho with?
This recipe was translated and adapted with minor changes from the ‘Georgian Dishes’ book that came out in Georgia back in 1959.
- 2 lbs beef (traditionally chuck or brisket)
- 2 medium onions (finely chopped)
- 1/2 cup rice (uncooked, rinsed in 5 waters)
- 2 large tomatoes (peeled and pureed in a blender)
- 2 Tbsp Tkemali sauce (or 1-2 Tbsp red wine vinegar)
- 8 twigs fresh parsley (2 whole, 6 finely chopped)
- 8 twigs fresh cilantro (2 whole, 6 finely chopped)
- 1 Tbsp khmeli-tsuneli spice mix (see notes)
- 2 cloves garlic (pressed)
- 2 red hot chili peppers (whole and undamaged)
- Kosher salt (to taste)
- Black pepper (to taste)
- More chopped parsley and cilantro for garnish when serving.
- Cut beef chuck or brisket into bite size pieces, place in a large boiling pot, add 8-10 cups of water and bring to a boil. Remove scum, turn the heat to low, cover and simmer for 1 1/2 - 2 hours, until the meat is tender.
- After 1 1/2 - 2 hours, add the rinsed rice, chopped onions, two twigs of parsley and two twigs of cilantro. Continue simmering for another 20 more minutes.
- Add the finely chopped parsley and cilantro, pressed garlic, whole red hot chili peppers, spice mix, Tkemali sauce or red wine vinegar, pureed tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking for another 15 minutes.
- Serve hot, garnished with more fresh chopped parsley and cilantro.