It was our last day in Tbilisi, and Matt and I were zigzagging through the stalls and secret alcoves of the city’s famed Deserter’s Bazaar. Armed with negligible Georgian, fortified by curiosity, we were guided only by our eyes and noses. We were on the hunt for a sight, a smell, a taste to store in our memories to bring back to the United States as a reminder of our two-week adventure in the Republic of Georgia.
There is no logic to the dizzying layout of the Deserter’s Bazaar other than “this is how it’s always been.” The Bazaar gets its name from the soldiers who pawned their weapons there after defecting from the army in the 1920s, but it is now a colossal open-air market surrounding the Station Square metro station, where the scent of young walnuts dances with the salty river spray of fresh trout and the intoxicating sweetness of black Saperavi grapes on the edge of fermentation. Everywhere the distinctly Georgian aroma of blue fenugreek and marigold perfumes the air, lending even the second-hand clothes splayed on the sidewalk an air of Near East elegance.
Our senses pulled us around corners, through half-parted curtains and under banners of dried chiles until we found ourselves at a large table laden with spices and herbs. The magenta-haired proprietress, a Georgian empress surrounded by crowns of dried marigold flowers, responded to our enthusiastic pointing with the Georgian names for her wares. Matt fell in love with one of the larger garlands of marigolds, but I was drawn to a small plastic container overflowing with an emerald green paste.
“Ajika?” I asked the Spice Empress.
She nodded nonchalantly and proclaimed. “Ajika.”
I had a passing familiarity with ajika, the Georgian chile paste associated with the Western Georgian regions of Samegrelo and Abkhazia, where heat is King and the people are born with tongues of steel. My knowledge of ajika was limited to the recipes I read in Georgian cookbooks: dried and fresh chiles ground with sweet peppers, garlic, walnuts and fresh herbs into a homogenous, fiery paste. I had eaten ajika just once, in the kitchen of the Armenian woman who ran the hotel we stayed in one night in the isolated city of Akhaltsitkhe near the Armenian and Turkish borders. It was store-bought, no doubt from the market across the street, but its subtle tang and innocuous heat, like a jarred salsa, was the perfect match for the oil-soaked starch of the fried potatoes she served us. That night, I wrote in my food diary, “Ajika with potatoes – delicious!” But I sensed that my ajika affair had just begun.
The Spice Empress dipped the end of a spoon into the ajika and handed it to me. I closed my lips around the cool metal, and my tongue jolted to life with the unmistakable zest of summer. There was grassy dill, the breeze of cilantro, the sun and heat of fresh green chiles and the smoked earth of blue fenugreek. I asked her how much and felt like a thief as I handed her five Lari, a measly sum for the gift of summer on a gray November day.
After that, I gave into ajika frenzy. Everywhere I looked, there it was. There was red ajika, thick and concentrated, blazing like an August sunset in glass jars, a soupy red ajika in plastic bottles, and more green ajika, lush as the Caucasus mountains in the distance, stuffed into old beer bottles. It was if everyone had decided that summer may never come again, and they had hurried to concentrate its essence into any empty vessel they had on hand, saving it for a rainy or snowy day. I bought two more containers of red ajika, and Matt and I headed back to our rented apartment to nap before our late-night flight.
I made it back to New York with my little stash of green ajika intact. As the plastic container went from bursting to empty, I too found myself looking for a way to preserve not only the brightness of summer, but the magic of discovery I experienced in a hidden spice stall on that distant November day.