Georgia – shopping for food in Tbilisi
Yellow chickens, their scaly feet reaching skywards, were the first sight to greet us at the Tbilisi fruit and veg market. They looked like a Nick Park animation, their golden colour enhanced with a strange orange glow cast from the tarpaulin overhead. Visiting a market is always a good way to get to know a place and the contents of these stalls told many tales. Trying not to blink so I wouldn’t miss anything, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. The vegetables looked fresh and green but they were not in abundance yet this early in the growing season. Apples were wrinkly from over-Wintering; not many imported goods then. Piles of pickled vegetables showed what people relied on through the fallow months. Stalls sold packaged goods – coffee, tea, tins and packets with little price stickers on each designed for people who are watching their money. Bottles of sauces and preserves were decanted into recycled glassware – plum sauce in Pepsi bottles, the honey I bought ladled into an old pickle jar. Fish, dried and fresh in tanks was eclipsed by meat stalls often with a pig’s head at pride of place. People cook from scratch here and prize every morsel.
Just a few hours off the plane in Georgia and I was at the fruit and vegetable market in Tbilisi, a place I’d been longing to visit since I heard of its existence.
Pyramids of spices and ropes of churchkhela brightened up the aisles like party decorations. As we attempted to buy spices with hand gestures (we relied heavily on our lovely guide Mariam as no-one spoke English) a volley of shouting rang out like machine gun fire. Two women stall holders had fallen out and the disgruntled one shrieked her displeasure for quite some time – then it all calmed down again.
Some people positively encouraged us to take their pictures – including two men at the tobacco kiosk visibly worse for wear at 11am in the morning – others were shy and some very cross if a camera pointed their way. Georgians are warm but there is an old-fashioned reserve about them too – no one seems pushy.
Crowding into a baker’s cramped shop where he was cooking shotapuri (or chotapuri) in a traditional clay oven or tome he quickly stacked the warm loaves on wooden shelves. The people opposite were selling a different kind of bread with pretty crimped edges but popped out of sight like figures in a cuckoo clock as soon as I pointed my lens their way.
Five essential edible things to buy at the market in Tbilisi:
- Spices are very intense and freshly ground. Make sure you buy ‘marigold salt’ or khmeli suneli* which is powered dried ground marigold leaves, and ‘blue fenugreek’ if you are planning to recreate any Georgian dishes.
- Chuchkhela, the strings of nuts dipped in concentrated grape must which are eaten as a snack. They are different colours according to which types of grapes are used. Easy to transport, they last for ages and will amaze everyone who sees (and eats) them.
- Sulguni cheese (if your final destination allows it) if you plan to make khachapuri at home. And you will suffer withdrawal symptoms for this baked cheesy bread I promise.
- Sour plum sauce to eat with everything.
- Honey, although a bit weighty to carry, is well worth packing (carefully – I’d hate to see what a honey spill would do). I was certain this was raw honey from the way it fell from the ladle into the jar as the stall holder scooped it directly from a churn. Since meeting Riath from Balqees I’ve been educated about honey and only buy raw, unprocessed, unfiltered honey from wild bees (who have not been fed antibiotics or sugar solution). Back in Dubai, he tasted it and agreed; it was naturally very floral in flavour.
Optional purchase for the brave: Sarah May from Antiqua tours is a pickle fanatic and bought pickled garlic which filled her room with its aroma for days.
*Thanks for Foodbridge for this info (see below).
To visit head for the Tbilisi main fruit and vegetable market near Didube.
Other food shopping in Tbilisi
Bakeries, selling the famous khachapuri or cheese bread (there are over forty different types) were in basements or literally holes in the walls on many streets. Small shops sold strings of Kachapuri and vegetables; ladies queued to buy cheese at a stall in old Tbilisi. I grabbed a cheese and egg khachapuri when out in old Tbilisi – despite being heated in a microwave it was fluffy, salty, satisfying cheesy and warming – like being wrapped in a duvet from the inside out.
Staying in Georgia
As this was an organised tour we were booked into very comfortable hotels throughout our stay. Georgia is changing fast but doesn’t have a large amount of multi-national hotel chains yet. The independent hotels we stayed at were always more than acceptable, comfortable and often very quirky. Apart from Old Telavi, all breakfasts offered a bountiful array of yoghurt, cereals, fruit, cheese, salads, jams (often homemade) and pastries. If traveling independently I would investigate home-stays but the welcome we received at every place could not have been warmer (with a special mention to the lovely staff at the Marriot in Tbilisi).
Many thanks to the Georgian National Wine Tourism Administration and National Wine Agency of Georgia for the International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC) who were my hosts. All opinions are my own.
What’s the best or most unusual place you have shopped for food? And how much can you tell about a place from its markets?
- Tbilisi outdoor market (sarahmelamed.com)
- Georgia on my mind: A Tour of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi (apronandsneakers.com)
- Churchkhela, Puri and Mzhave Niori at the Tbilisi Market (tastingrome.blogspot.ae)
- We are all Georgian (msmarmitelover.com)
- Georgian food part 1: markets (helengraves.co.uk)