If you grew up in an urban or suburban environment in a high-income country, like me, you are probably used to having most fruits and vegetables available in the supermarket year-round and recognizing most of what you see in the aisles. So, when you find yourself in Georgia, here is a guide to 10 of the more unique local fruits you might find in the markets, in various seasons!
Mushmala (Nushmala) / Loquat
This little fruit is a native of China, and is popular in Asia, parts of the Middle East (Lebanon, Turkey) and southern Europe (Spain, Cyprus), and of course Georgia! They are bright yellow-orange, have fuzzy skin like a peach, and grow on knobby, woody stems. They bruise easily, but don’t be turned off by a few brown spots. I think they taste like a sour pear, others describe the flavor as sweet and citrusy like a peach-mango blend.
Hurma, Karalioki / Persimmon
Hurma and karalioki are both types of persimmons, very popular in the late summer and fall. Karalioki are my preferred variety – with flesh a bit like a slimy pear...it’s better than it sounds, I promise! They are amazing chopped up in a salad with spinach and pumpkin. Hurma are a bit different. Their flesh is softer, almost like a tomato, but sweet with a touch of cinnamon. Since they look quite similar, it can be hard to tell the difference between hurma and karalioki. Karalioki are ripe when firm, while hurma are ripe when soft. If you bite into an unripe hurma, thinking it is a karlioki, you will be in for a nasty surprise as the sour, bitter fruit warns you to wait a few more days.
Komshi / Quince
I have tried and failed to unlock the secrets of komshi in my own kitchen. This mysterious fruit looks like a lumpy yellow apple, but most people don’t just take a bite out of it as the raw flesh is tough and lacks flavor. A ripe quince gives off a heady fragrance of vanilla and citrus. When cooked, its flesh turns a soft pink color and tastes sweet and mild!
Askili / Rosehip
These hard, red berries are about the size of a blackberry. While you can eat fresh askili raw, it’s a daring process as the fruit contains lots of small irritating hairs. A more inviting prospect is to turn the fruit into a tea. Boil a handful of askili in a pot of water on the stove for 10-15 minutes, strain out the berries, and enjoy a natural, locally sourced, bitter-sweet rosehip tea – sounds exotic, doesn’t it?
Tqemali, alucha / Sour Green Plums
I’ve lumped these two together because, even though they are technically different fruits, the untrained eye can’t really tell the difference. The taste is different, though, so best to ask. Tqemali is smaller and has various species – red, yellow, and green. While alucha gets a bit fatter and is sweet when ripe. A bowl full of bright green alucha on the kitchen counter makes a colorful centerpiece and a fun, tart snack. The real treasure of tqemali is the traditional Georgian sauce of the same name, which garnishes oily fried potatoes and brings out the spicy tang of mtsvadi (grilled meat). Tqemali ripens in mid-spring, and alucha is ready a few weeks later. Sour plums are popular throughout Asia and the Middle East in cooking and for eating, so there are lots of great recipes to experiment with.
Okay, okay, I admit – this small greenish blue oval is not a Georgian fruit. BUT the native of South America is quite popular here in compotes and soda (called ‘lemonades’), and cultivation of the fruit itself has gained popularity since the mid-20th century. Feijoa is ripe in early-mid fall. The raw skin is inedible, but some people like to bite into the whole fruit and suck the juice out! The tropical flavors of guava and lime are perfect for holding on to the last hints of summer as long as possible.
Aplepikha / Sea Buckthorn
This is a crazy one. What is a buckthorn? Does it grow in the sea? Why have I never even heard of it before? Aplepikha (from the Russian облепиха/oblepikha) is a small, tender, orange berry with an almost transparent skin. Its most famous Georgian iteration is a thick, bright orange juice packed with vitamin C, but it can also be found in jams, teas, and oils. This mysterious little fruit claims a plethora of health benefits, including preventing aging, promoting heart health, and clearing up the skin. The raw fruit is extremely sour, but their bright color makes them popular for decorating gardens, in addition to the processed possibilities.
P.S. – Sea buckthorn in fact grows in bushes, not in the sea...
Zghmartili / Medlar
The zghmartili is an odd fruit. It is a member of the rose family, grows on trees, can get up to about 5 cm in diameter, and is a rosy, rusty, brown. It is a distant cousin to the smaller mushmala, with the top bloomed open like a flower. They are native to Georgia, but not overwhelming popular. Zghmartili is actually rather persnickety because the best time to eat them is a small window, right before they rot, in a process called bletting. It’s best to eat them right off the tree. The ready-to-eat flesh is soft, mushy, and brown, and tastes like sweet apple butter.
Leghvi / Fig
Yes, I know you know what figs are. You’re rolling your eyes. But wait for it – have you ever picked a fig straight off a tree and squeezed its purple-red flesh straight into your mouth? Fresh figs are sweet and bright and juicy, and Georgia enjoys a rare abundance of fig varieties. There are the small green ones with crunchy seeds, and the fat ones whose skin is almost black, so full of fruit that the pulp leaks out along the seams. You can probably tell I love figs...the best way to explore their beauty is to tour a market in the late summer or early fall, and taste test until you find your bliss.
Brotseuli / Pomegranate
Again – I’m sure you are familiar with pomegranates. Just across the border in Azerbaijan and further south in Iran, pomegranates have been worshipped for centuries by followers of the Zoroastrian religion. In Georgia, it’s common to find pomegranate trees along the roadside or spilling out of private gardens. By late summer, you can find overripe pomegranates splattered on the sidewalk. What has become an expensive, trendy health food in much of the western world has long been a staple in Georgia. The delicate red seeds adorn traditional Georgian dishes from pkhali (spinach with spices) to kupati (thick, spicy pork sausage) to satsivi (meat in walnut sauce). At most tourist sites in the country, vendors sit behind carts piled with oranges and pomegranates ready to squeeze you fresh juice.
The fruits of Georgia are just one reason to visit this spectacular country – and whatever time of year you come, there is sure to be something to delight and amaze!
By Samantha Guthrie
Main photo: tibenabvi.pk