Join Culinary Backstreets

Sign up with email


Already a member? Log in.

Log in to Culinary Backstreets

Trouble logging in?

Not a member? Sign up!

Deserter’s Bazaar Tbilisi tomatoes

This is a piece that celebrates the odd, the misshapen and the sometimes grotesque – in other words, what to look for to find a really tasty tomato. 

Just to be clear, we are talking about tomatoes from Sakartvelo here.

Sakartvelo? You might know it better as Georgia, but Sakartvelo – literally, the dwelling place of the Kartvelian, or Georgian, people – is what natives call their country. And some Georgians say Sakartvelo should be the official name for everyone else too, to avoid confusion with a certain U.S. state that wasn’t even a colonialist’s dream when Georgia the country was already 1,200 years old, but which now irritatingly hogs all the Google limelight.

The trouble of course is that no one outside Georgia can pronounce “Sakartvelo,” so a lot of Georgian news and weather always seems to be happening in Atlanta.

We need to know which Georgia we’re talking about because the truth is that until you’ve tasted the tomatoes from this country, you haven’t really tasted tomatoes.

Georgian tomatoes vs. conventional, illustration by Andrew NorthThe best of them don’t look like any one else’s tomatoes either. Rather they resemble the aftermath of a shotgun marriage between a cabbage and a tomato, spattered with warts and scars. Stacked next to the more regular tomato shapes that have become standard around the world, you can’t be sure they’re even in the same family.  Often big enough to fill two hands, they wouldn’t make it to a supermarket-sorting depot in the West, let alone the store shelves.

But come down to Nona’s stall in that honey pot for food traditionalists in Tbilisi, the Deserterebi bazaar, and all tomato life is there. I counted seven different kinds for sale recently, including several stacks of the more conventional variety, as well as two kinds of plum tomato – all grown in Georgia.

“The tastiest?” I asked her. She reached to a tray behind and carefully picked up a beast of a tomato with two fleshy ears spiking out from its portly pink bulges. And it’s “look, don’t touch” unless and until we buy. Because not only is it ugly, this tomato can barely hold itself together. Unlike so many bulletproof American or European varieties, bred from years of laboratory experiments, the skins of these Georgian tomatoes are so delicate that one push of the finger is sometimes enough to rupture them and send a stream of juice all over your hands. And that’s another reason why you have to come here to try them – they don’t travel well!

Tomatoes from Nona's Deserterebi stall, illustration by Andrew NorthBut they taste so good they are almost addictive. The high never lasts though – and that is a good thing. As with most other locally grown fruit and vegetables, Georgian tomatoes have a season – from summer to early fall.

“I’m going to miss this,” said a friend recently, shaking his head meaningfully as we had dinner at his house. He laughed when I asked where he’s going. “No – the tomatoes. The season’s almost over.”

Related stories

Take a deep dive into the bounty of Queens on our culinary walk in this area.
June 7, 2017

Queens International Night Market: Doing It After Dark

By Dave Cook
Queens -- Something special happens when the sun goes down. Night markets, whether in Southeast Asia or in the heart of Queens, inspire a thrill — we call it a sense of wonder — that brings boundless childhood summers to mind. We still feel it, on warm-weather Saturdays, when we ride the elevated 7 train…
May 18, 2017

El Bisaura: Fishmonger to Table

By Paula Mourenza
Barcelona -- Inside Barcelona’s lesser-known Mercat de Les Corts is a small, unassuming bar offering up the bounty of the Mediterranean. El Bisaura opens up shop at 6:30 a.m., serving esmorzars de forquilla (hearty Catalan breakfasts like sausage and beans, tripe stew and grilled cuttlefish) to local workers. At lunch, it serves a more refined…
May 16, 2017

Retro: Maestro of Khachapuri

By Paul Rimple
Tbilisi -- There was a dowdy little joint in Batumi, Georgia’s Black Sea port town, where two middle-aged women churned out the most exquisite Adjarian-style khachapuri pies in an old pizza oven. It was a must-stop for every trip to the coast, as there were few places in Tbilisi that could scorch such an authentic…