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A Deep Dive Into Tbilisi's Dezerter’s Bazaar

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Halal, to a point.

It is 10:45 in the morning and the bazaar is swinging, the busiest place in a city that doesn’t start to rub the sleep from its eyes until 11:00. I am with two couples - a pair of Americans from Chicago, and a Frenchman and Hong Konger who are eager to see Tbilisi from the inside out. That is why we are here at the Deserter’s Bazaar, our largest and oldest open air farmer’s market.

Named after deserters from the Czar’s army who allegedly came to sell their equipment here over a 100 years ago, it is a raw bungle of unprocessed victuals delivered daily, directly from the countryside and where many of the city’s restaurants and mom and pop shops get their produce. When I moved to Georgia in 2002, I lived two blocks away. This was my playground.

There were no supermarkets or shopping malls back then, just several bazaars scattered around the city. There was also a total disregard for law and order. The Dezerter’s Bazaar is part of a larger complex near the central train station commonly called Vagzalis Bazroba, or station bazaar, roughly a six block radius of second hand clothes, electronic devices, counterfeit sport shoes and Levis, and assorted contraband. It was an excellent place to get ripped off at one of the dozens of currency exchanges and to get your pockets picked by a legion of thieves operating around the station.

I tell my guests about how my wife, a photographer, did a story years ago about the bazaar with a local journalist friend. The two women stopped into a grungy little wine bar full of local riffraff and a man bought them wine. The friendly gentleman said, “you don’t have to worry about a thing. You are our guests. I am head of the pick-pocket’s union, nobody will bother you.”

Around 2005, the government began a process of civilizing the bazaar by forcing sidewalk peddlers to move into newly built kiosks and turning the impenetrable (and unpronounceable) Tsinamdzgvrishvili Street into a functioning two-way road. They also tore down the Soviet-era main bazaar building, a cornucopia of all things food under one tin roof where the air was packed with the odors of fish, fowl, cheese and spices, along with the dissonance of hatchet whacks into sides of beef, dickering over prices and the sing-song chants of “hot khachapuri, bread, cigarettes, plastic bags” from wandering vendors.

When they rebuilt the new building, few sellers returned. Today there are rows of crates of apples from Gori, otherwise the space is often empty, depending on the season. There are stalls around the perimeter selling more or less the same things: candle-like stringed nuts dipped in grape roux called churchkhela; sauces in re-puropsed bottles, preserves, dried fruits, and plastic buckets full of spices. We stop at number ten to meet Tina Nugzarashvili, my tkemali girl. Tkemali is a zesty, earthy sour plum sauce Georgians use as a condiment on eggs, meat, potatoes, or for dipping bread into. Many families make it, but no two recipes taste the same, even though the ingredients may be identical.

“Sprechen sie Deutsch?” Tina asks my guests, always on the look out for a German speaker.

Before she worked the bazaar, Tina was a cardiologist during Soviet times and traveled the eastern bloc. Now, she supplements her pension of 180 lari (about $70) by working her stall in the new building. Her tkemali has a red pepper kick that plays off on the tartness of the plum. Her satsebeli (red tomato sauce) also packs a bit of a kick and is the perfect accompaniment to mtsvadi (roasted pork) and kabobi (skewered ground spiced pork and beef).

“Maybe some chacha?” she invites, flicking her neck with her second finger and a mischievous smile.

The bazaar is the best source for any number of things in Tbilisi, chacha, pomace brandy, is just not one of them. I prefer my firewater smooth. But certainly one little shot won’t hurt us at 11:30 in the morning. Downstairs, next to a shoe repair man under a basketball hoop, is a tone, a traditional tandoori-like oven that makes some of my favorite lobiani (bean stuffed bread) in the city and helps soak up Tina’s chacha. This section is much more orderly nowadays. Vans are parked under roofed stands displaying seasonal fresh cabbages, red and green bell peppers, warty cucumbers and vivacious tomatoes. But the trolley men haven’t changed, plowing their iron carts through the crowd like steamrollers. They will clip the back of your legs if you’re not careful.

We say hi to Zura, who has rock hard dried pork from Racha, a mountainous region known for this salt bomb cured pork, good for adding to a pot of boiling beans, and for its Kvanchkara wine, a semi-sweet blend all too often counterfeited. He offers us a sample of his from an old Coke bottle. I buy a kilo of cucumbers. We stroll to the entrance gate, past the woman with boxes of spicy peppers and the guys with baskets of berries and stacks of watermelons, and towards three men sharpening knives and scissors at their wheels. Upstairs is the old Central Bazaar building. When the city razed the old Soviet bazaar, many traders squeezed into this old building, including Ilia and Gia, who sell honey from the regions of Svaneti, Imereti and Kakheti, along with honey combs, bee pollen, propolis and wax.

Gia is manning the stand today. He must have woken up on his good foot because he is inviting my guests to pose for pictures and then ambushes us with cognac. “Sarajishvili,” he insists, naming Georgia’s foremost brandy which never, ever, comes in a plastic bottle. Nevertheless, this is remarkably smooth.

We thank Gia and roll through the “cheese gauntlet,” a narrow aisle loaded with stacks of cheese wheels. One of the many things Soviets destroyed was the art of cheesemaking. Industrialization virtually wiped out the regional artisanal cheese culture. The typical cheese platter in most Georgian restaurants today is a communist legacy of Sulguni, Imeretian and Guda.

Miss Nana is the only person in the aisle that sells traditional Guda, straight-razor sharp sheep cheese aged in the sheepskin, inside out. Most Guda sold in Georgia has been aged in plastic. Dato offers us samples of Karkhunli, or “factory cheese,” which can be a wee bit like cheddar. I like Darejan’s west Georgian Imeruli because it is always soft and fresh and a bit squeaky. I ask her how she always manages to choose such good cheese from her sources in Imereti and she replies, “I never buy cheese from men with dirty fingernails.”

Because the Mozzerella-like Sulguni from Samegrelo in west Georgia is a family favorite, I buy this most often and try to distribute the love among various sellers. Some, however, do not appreciate such diplomacy. One woman at the end of the aisle once shouted at her neighbor for “stealing her client” and I stopped buying from her. Our greetings now are muted nods.

Another Gia sells cottage and nadugi, a curd made from the whey of sulguni (a good substitute for Ricotta), and sulguni “skins,” tortilla-sized discs of cheese, rolled out thinly. As Gia fills the first skin with nadugi and rolls it up for us, he asks where everyone is from. “I am Azerbaijani,” he says. In restaurants, mint is typically added to the nadugi. It’s soft, salt-free texture is a great contrast to the elastic and salty skin. At home I substitute the mint with honey.

We stop by to say hi to Mahkvala, who is always sifting her corn flour behind what she calls in English, “my snow mountain,” an impossibly tall pyramid of flour that she declares has never fallen down. Corn flour is popular in west Georgia for a polenta called gomi, and is also blended with melted Sulguni to make elargi, or mixed with water to make hand-sized patties of cornbread called mchadi. The flour from this cubby hole all hails from Abasha in Samegrelo, which all the vendors here insist grows the very best.

Mahkala sifting her flour, always.

We try to sneak past Nino, the Yazidi woman selling spices and pomegranate juice, but she’s quicker than we are and nabs us, asks where everyone is from, implores the Americans to take her back to the USA, requests her picture to be taken and harasses me for not buying anything from her. How to tell her I have a better spice girl?

Aleko is never annoying. He is the only guy I have met who is honest enough to admit some walnuts are actually Ukrainian. Nobody is that ethical at the bazaar. You need an honorable nut man in a land where it seem every recipe requires them. Georgians test their walnuts by squeezing a bit between the thumb and forefinger to see how much oil comes out. Satsivi, a popular holiday dish of poultry swimming in walnut sauce, must be finished with a drizzle of walnut oil.

After tasting the difference between Iranian and Georgian almonds, we literally bump into Aliev, the Azerbaijani butcher, who always calls me “Jimi” and gives me a big wet kiss on the cheek. He links his arm through mine and leads me over to his blade wielding comrades. “Where’s the pork?” I tease, knowing he is halal, to a point. “No, no, no! No pork!” he wags a finger, then flicks it to his neck, the gesture of “let’s have a drink.” We really don’t want more, but are intimidated by these men with such knives so close to their meaty hands, no matter how many gold teeth their smiles reveal.

“Where are you from?” they ask my guests with wolfish eyes especially fixed on the women.

Back outside we say hi to Raul, the fish monger. I tell my guests how on one scorching summer day, a cart man stopped by one of Raul’s fish tanks full of live trout and pulled the hose out for a long drink.

We visit Miss Luiza, my personal spice girl. Of the dozens upon dozens of people selling spices, I go to Luiza because I love her beautiful blue eyes and her Svanuri mareli - Svanetian salt, a mixture of salt, coriander, blue fenugreek, marigold, garlic, red pepper, and gitsruli (wild caraway seed). Again, the recipe is more or less the same but everyone has their own proportions, their own touch, but authentic Svanuri mareli must have these seven ingredients - no more, no less. Excellent in salads, especially sprinkled on cucumbers and tomatoes, the mixture is also a nice addition to soups, poached and boiled eggs, buttered bread, and avocado. Luiza, like so many people at the bazaar, was forced to leave her home in Abkhazia along with some 250,000 other displaced Georgians in the 1993 war. Many found refuge in the empty hotels around the train station a few blocks away and began working at the bazaar.

It is “wine o’clock,” time for an old school wine tasting at a stand hidden in an alley across Tsinamdzgvrishvili where Miss Lali pours an oxidized saperavi and watered-down Rkatsiteli. Sometimes I find her with a shawl over her head reading prayers over a beeswax candle and must wait for her to finish before she will pour. Around us are workers having a “liquid lunch” of beer mugs full of wine and water glasses filled with chacha.

Twenty years ago, the bazaar area was loaded with little storefront wine bars and stalls like Miss Lali’s that served wine and chacha with a selection of gratis chasers: pieces of bread, pickled cabbage, tkemali, maybe some old cheese. The wine was notoriously bad because good wine was not for sale. Moreover, no one ever considered a wine’s nose or complexity. Wine was made to be knocked back. If you were having a dinner party, a supra, you might come to the bazaar and load up, figuring 3 liters per male guest. Over the years, however, these wine dives have disappeared from the city landscape as laws became more enforced. Lali’s stand is the last plonk bar at the bazaar.

The fabulous Miss Vardo

The final stop is in a mini labyrinth where the gentle and stoic pickle king, Tamaz Gachechiladze, makes the best pickled and fermented treats in the city. While his garlic, cucumbers, green peppers, gandzili (young wild garlic), jonjoli (bladdernut flowers) and green tomatoes should be on every table, it is his marinated carrots that are gold medal worthy. I once brought local celebrity chef Tekuna Gachecheladze (no relation) here with an American counterpart, Todd English. Tamaz’s late wife, Nunu, had just mixed her carrots in the perfect combination of blue fenugreek, red pepper, coriander, salt, wine vinegar and raw sunflower seed oil. Tekuna became a dedicated customer. In fact, Tamaz’s carrots have become so popular, he rarely has any for us to sample. Today, however, I have guests radiating some sort of magical aura. Tamaz offers us the last of his own personal lunch stash, and surprise, surprise, cups of chacha to go with them.

Vardo, who makes a fiery adjika paste (great as a meat rub and excellent on cucumbers), joins us from a neighboring stall. Like most of the people at the Deserter’s Bazaar, Tamaz and Vardo work twelve hours, seven days a week. The market is not a job, it is their life and it is my sincere fortune that by bringing guests here over the past several years, I have become part of it.


Join Meet Me Here Tbilisi for a tour to the Dezerter's Bazaar


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