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Georgia – shopping for food in Tbilisi

May 2, 2014

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.

Spices for sale in the market in Tbilisi, Georgia

Spices in the market, Tbilisi, Georgia


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.

Pickle stall Tbilisi market Georgia - My Custard Pie

Vegetable stallWe threaded our way past hardware stalls and then ducked into a dimly lit hall lined with wheels of cheese on trestle tables down one side and washing lines hanging with offal on the other.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Sour plum sauce to eat with everything.
  5. 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).

Market in Tbilisi - My Custard Pie

To visit head for the Tbilisi main fruit and vegetable market near Didube.

Other food shopping in Tbilisi


Khachapuri – a type with with egg inside and cheese outside

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).

We stayed at the Tbilisi Marriot (in Tbilisi),  Old Telavi (in Telavi), Hotel Kvareli Eden (in Kaheti region) and Hotel Kabadoni (in Sighnaghi).

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?

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  1. May 2, 2014 6:25 pm

    What beautiful produces! I’m sure I’d have a wonderful time shopping in Georgia. A foodlover’s paradise.



    • May 4, 2014 8:42 am

      I’m sure you’d love it Rosa.

  2. May 2, 2014 6:26 pm

    I’m hungry now!

    • May 4, 2014 8:42 am

      Impossible not to be there – and the stallholders were great at letting you taste things.

  3. May 2, 2014 6:37 pm

    Lovely. I totally agree with you about getting to know a place through its markets. I lived in Cusco in Peru for a while & there was weekly market where people came from all over the region (sometimes travelling 12-15 hours). The region had a varied climate & typography so you could find, strawberries & figs from the lower valleys, potatoes from high planes, fruit from the rainforest and fresh coffee & cacao from the cloud forest & all manner of weird & wonderful flowers, herbs, animals and cheeses. You never knew what would turn up next. It was also an amazing social event as people who lived in remote places met up to exchange news. I miss that place

    Georgia looks gorgeous in your photos & your blog reminded me of a Gerogian stew I used to make years ago. It had a complex spice mix, wine, tomatoes & then handfuls of 5 different fresh herbs thrown in at the end. I need to dig that recipe out, it was really delicious.

    • May 4, 2014 8:44 am

      The market in Cusco sounds incredibly exotic. Now that would be a market visit and a half… Let me know if you find that recipe…

      • May 6, 2014 9:06 pm

        I will do. I think the book is in my sister’s loft so it is a project in itself to get it back.

        I think you would love that market. If you ever make it up into those mountains ask for the mercado Huancaro.

  4. Lika permalink
    May 2, 2014 10:17 pm

    Flour like a pyramid is a corn flour for Mchadi and cheese it’s Guda cheese (cheese from mountain region) sheep’s milk made in bags (guda) of sheepskin (with the wool inside)it’s quite salty.

    Oh, I’m getting hungry,


    • May 4, 2014 8:46 am

      Thanks Lika – really appreciate the info as it was impossible to record everything – so many new things to learn and discover.

      • Lika permalink
        May 4, 2014 5:19 pm

        You’re welcome Sally 🙂

        If you’d like to taste seasonal/local fruit and vegetables, best time is May and June, I think tomatoes on your photo are imported from Turkey, they are too plastic for me like tomatoes in UAE markets. The best local tomato is juicy pink Choporti tomatoes. September and October is the best time for me, the weather is sunny and pleasant it’s the end of grape harvest (rtveli) also on October …. (I don’t remember the date) you can attend cheese festival in the Open Air Museum of Ethnography in Tbilisi…

        Watching your post I’m getting nostalgic of delicious georgian supra (feast)


  5. andreamynard permalink
    May 3, 2014 2:15 am

    Definitely agree about getting to know a place through its markets and your point about the wrinkled apples and the pickles is so interesting – I’m such a fan of seasonal/local produce and love supporting good local producers but this has made me realise how rarely I visit somewhere that has such a lack of imported food.

    • May 4, 2014 8:47 am

      I think some of the produce was imported as this was end of March but it didn’t look like it had travelled far…..maybe from Iran…who knows.

  6. May 3, 2014 10:07 am

    Market pics must be my favorite travel photos – so many great ones here! Looks like delicious and fascinating fun!

    • May 4, 2014 8:49 am

      I had to sit on my hands not to publish more pics…..I have quite a few

  7. May 3, 2014 9:05 pm

    I am Farmer’s Market shopper and I judge every place by it’s market produce. I was amazed by the Chuchkhela and the 40 different kinds of khachapuri made me drool.

  8. May 4, 2014 1:36 am

    now THAT looks Devine! The perfect playground!

  9. May 4, 2014 2:47 am

    Sally, what a glorious post! I don’t know where to start – the feet up chickens, or the bread in what looks like a tandoor oven – I can almost smell the market as I read your words! And I’m reminded that we really fuss too much – over there, everything is rebottled and sold in recycled packaging, but we’re obsessed with using new and clean and sterile. It would be better for the environment if we just eased up a bit! 🙂

    • May 4, 2014 8:38 am

      Wouldn’t it just Celia. Thanks for such an energetic and thoughtful comment. The bread for the table was cooked like this everywhere – super delicious.

  10. May 4, 2014 11:36 am

    A lovely post and pictures that captures the spirit of the food and market so well. Love those chicken feet ;D

  11. May 4, 2014 11:45 pm

    Oh! What a wonderful post and just the most fabulous photos – I love those chicken feet too. I never visited the market in Tbilisi, I would so love to go. One day 🙂

  12. May 7, 2014 11:42 am

    I want to go back to the market. We barely had any time. And next time I will be bringing extra suitcases.

    • May 7, 2014 12:37 pm

      I know, I know – kicking myself for not getting blue fenugreek and more honey, and more churchkhela …and some cheese…. and ….and….


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