Yellow Marigolds and Blue Fenugreek : Georgian Spices

I didn’t know that tagetes were edible until I went to Georgia. My grandmother cultivated several varieties for her flower beds, and I loved the spicy, green scent of the flowers we affectionately called chornobryvtsi, the black-eyebrowed ones, since dark eyebrows are one of the hallmarks of classical Ukrainian beauty.  On the other hand, I never knew that they have an equally alluring flavor and that it forms the main accord of Georgian cuisine.

Several varieties of tagetes are edible, but the most common one is tagetes patula. That’s the same flower woven into Indian garlands to decorate gods and honored guests, but only in Georgia is it used as food. The flavor of tagetes is earthy, spicy, with a hint of green apple and orange. It plays a base note in the finished dish, lending a lingering brightness to chakhokhbili, chicken stew with tomato and herbs, spice blends, chili pastes, or walnut sauces.

In Georgian, tagetes are called kviteli kvavili, which means yellow flower, or Imeretian saffron. When sold abroad, the spice is called yellow marigold, or incorrectly, safflower. Since yellow flower or yellow marigold is the most common name, that’s how I will refer to it. Below you’ll find links to online stores on both sides of the Atlantic where Georgian spices can be found, but to help you discover this novel flavor, I’m including several photos showing yellow marigold whole and powdered. In contrast to calendula, which looks similar when dried, yellow marigold has a sweet flavor, without any medicinal, bitter notes. And unlike true safflower, it’s less vividly tinted and has more perfume and taste.

You can find recipes that use marigold either in the Georgian cookbooks I reviewed recently or online (Georgian Cooking With Nino on Youtube has few recipes so far, but they’re authentic and easy to follow). You can also try adding 1/2 teaspoon of ground yellow marigold to a bean soup or chicken stew. It marries well with coriander, cumin, chili pepper and onions. You can also fry ground marigold in butter and use it to garnish vegetable soups. It doesn’t have any substitutes, so if you can’t find it, just omit it.

Blue Fenugreek, Utskho Suneli

Another important spice in Georgian cuisine is blue fenugreek. You’ll generally find it under the name of utskho suneli, while its Latin appellation is Trigonella caerulea. It belongs to the same family as the fenugreek used in Indian cooking, but blue fenugreek has a milder, sweeter flavor reminiscent of walnuts and autumnal leaves. It’s picked towards the end of its bloom, and the seed pods are dried. When whole, they have a mild scent, but as soon as they’re ground, they develop a rich, warm perfume. Perhaps, that’s why in Georgian blue fenugreek is called utskho suneli, “suddenly appeared spice.”

Blue fenugreek is used in vegetable dishes, in any preparation that includes walnuts, with meat, poultry and a special salt blend called Svaneti salt. Its savory flavor is almost addictive, and besides Georgian dishes, you can try using it to season ground chicken for spicy meatballs, in lentil soups or  in spinach dishes. The best substitute is dried fenugreek leaves which are sold at the Indian grocery store as kasuri methi. Regular fenugreek can also be used as a substitute in the proportion of 6 crushed regular fenugreek seeds for every teaspoon of ground blue fenugreek.

Ombalo

Another unusual spice used in Georgian cooking, particularly in spice mixtures and in tkemali, sour plum sauce, is ombalo. Ombalo has a minty, delicately bitter flavor, and it can be used fresh as well as dried. Mentha pulegium, commonly known as pennyroyal, has a similar flavor. It’s used in small quantities. You can substitute it with dried mint.

Kondari, Summer Savory

The rest of the Georgian spices are the familiar variety such as coriander, cumin, black pepper, chili pepper, dried basil, lovage (celery leaves), dill, mint, and parsley. Often in Georgian recipes you encounter kondari, which is summer savory, Satureja hortensis. It has a green, minty flavor with the lemony sweetness of thyme. In my photograph, the Georgian summer savory, which I bought in Tbilisi, is on the left, while the French summer savory I found at a spice store in Brussels is on the right. The Georgian variety has a more intense color and smaller leaves than the French one, but their flavors are similar.

(Eating dry herbs is a dubious pleasure, but because I’m a geek a good researcher, I also compared the two summer savories to the herb called chubritsa in Bulgarian. It’s also summer savory, and its taste is similar.)

If you don’t already use summer savory in your cooking, I can’t champion it enough. It has a vivid flavor, but without the medicinal assertiveness of herbs like oregano and marjoram. You can use it instead of thyme, or you can pair them together. One of the simplest dishes I learned in Georgia is sauteed mushrooms. Heat vegetable oil in a pan large enough to accommodate oyster or brown mushrooms sliced thickly. Add mushrooms and toss them in oil to brown the edges. Add garlic, summer savory, black pepper, and salt to taste.

Khmeli Suneli

The crowning glory of Georgian spices is a blend called khmeli suneli. It includes up to 15 different herbs and spices and has a heady perfume dominated by the burnt orange notes of coriander seeds. It can be used in marinades for vegetables, chicken, fish, and lamb chops. You can add it to soups and sauces. You can use it in bean ragouts and seafood stews. It adds a sunny yellow color to finished dishes and a complex aroma with well-defined top, heart, and base notes.

Where to Find Georgian Spices

In the US, you can find Georgian spices at Bazaar Spices and on Amazon. In Europe, I order them from Suneli.uk, a website I highly recommend for excellent quality and fast shipping. Suneli.uk also carries pickled jonjoli blossoms, a must-try for anyone who likes pickled and fermented foods. It’s made only with salt, water and the flowers of a Colchis bladdernut tree native to Georgia, and is crunchy, tart and refreshing.

Store all spices in a cool, dry place. Khmeli suneli can be kept in a freezer to preserve its fragrance.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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37 Comments

  • Lynn LaMar: Here in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn NY, I have access to ALL Georgian spices in markets all along Brighton Ave. (Little Odessa) Georgian, Kazak and Azerbaijan restaurants and bakeries dot all the little neighborhoods of this area. khachapuri!!!? Right around the corner less than a tenth of a mile away…What a blessing I’ve been exiled here for another year and 3/4. I’m deeply ensconced in this adventure!!! October 16, 2017 at 10:02am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m kind of glad that khachapuri is not as accessible to me, otherwise it might have been dangerous. 🙂 Enjoy, Lynn! October 16, 2017 at 11:50am Reply

      • Lynn LaMar: Absolutely Victoria!!! Between the breads and the fabulous Central Asian abundance of food, my will power and discipline are both greatly challenged!! (Throw in NYC pizza and bagels and it’s t-r-o-u-b-l-e!!! lol) October 17, 2017 at 8:08am Reply

        • Victoria: As for the Central Asia food, Rego Park would be my choice, not Brighton Beach. October 18, 2017 at 11:58am Reply

    • spe: Isn’t New York City fabulous?

      It feels like the entire world is at your fingertips. October 16, 2017 at 2:44pm Reply

      • Victoria: NYC is a unique place. October 16, 2017 at 4:40pm Reply

      • Lynn LaMar: It is indeed, Spe. I grew up on the Jersey side of the Hudson and have always loved this City. Now, for (hopefully; I really want to go back to Florida!) the last time that I will spend the next year and a half here I intend to explore every nook and cranny possible!! October 17, 2017 at 8:11am Reply

  • Annie: I had no idea that they were edible. If I did, I’d harvest them from my garden this summer. October 16, 2017 at 10:08am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that next year you can try drying them. October 16, 2017 at 11:52am Reply

  • Eric: Is tagete also a perfume note? October 16, 2017 at 10:35am Reply

  • Rachel: Your post makes me want to try Georgian food! October 16, 2017 at 11:21am Reply

  • Alexandra Fraser: So interesting. Thank you Am going to plant marigolds now October 16, 2017 at 5:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve been smelling different marigold and tagete essences and wishing that I planted some myself. October 17, 2017 at 2:32am Reply

  • Jen: Interesting! I always thought garden marigolds smell foul! Are they the same thing? October 16, 2017 at 9:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: The flowers I’m talking about here have a wonderful spicy, green apple aroma, so no, it’s not the same thing. Which marigold do you mean? It’s a huge family. Calendula officinalis, for instance, is not the same thing as tagete patula/yellow marigold I’m talking about here. It tastes bitter and has a musty scent (which I find pleasant, but it may be because I associate it with summer vacations in the countryside). October 17, 2017 at 2:30am Reply

      • Marylin: That’s right. It’s a huge family and people use the names confusingly. Thank you for adding the Latin names to your post and for including such nice photos. I’m going to plant tagete patula next year. October 17, 2017 at 8:28am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you, Marylin. I’m glad that you liked it. October 18, 2017 at 12:00pm Reply

    • Marylin: They aren’t. I have garden marigolds too, but they don’t look at all like the flowers in Victoria’s photos. October 17, 2017 at 8:25am Reply

  • Karen A: Great post – inspiring and always fun learning about new flavors and flavorings! I think it was in the movie, Monsoon Wedding where one f the characters eats the marigold petals from the garlands which caused me to look it up to make sure they were edible and give it a try. (had planted them as borders around garden beds) Something really fun about nibbling on flower petals! October 17, 2017 at 6:08am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I remember that scent and whenever I cook with marigolds I think of it. October 18, 2017 at 11:55am Reply

  • Brainfodder: That’s really interesting – I was discussing whether or not marigolds were edible the other week. A family member is taking a supplement containing marigold extract – the lutein (yellow pigment) has been shown to help reverse the effects of macular degeneration. She’s had a very positive experience. October 17, 2017 at 6:21am Reply

    • Lynn LaMar: As a soap maker I use Tagetes/Calendula essential oils for a special order from a customer with children with eczema. She swears it’s the only soap that works for her kids relief. October 17, 2017 at 8:16am Reply

      • Victoria: How interesting that she mixes tagete and calendula essences. It would probably make for a richer scent too. October 18, 2017 at 11:59am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s not the same type of marigold as the one I’m talking about, but I wonder if the Georgian marigold/tagete also contains it. At any rate, Georgia has an impressively highest number of people over 100. October 18, 2017 at 11:56am Reply

  • maja: My copy of Supra is on its way and I can’t wait to read more about Georgian food. Khmeli Suneli now sounds like a must spice for this winter. 🙂
    I use chubra quite a bit and love it’s flavour especially with legumes.
    My biggest discovery, apart from tagetes in your post, is purslane. Had no idea that the weed in my garden was actually edible. My husband is still not convinced. October 17, 2017 at 9:20am Reply

    • maja: *its October 17, 2017 at 9:21am Reply

    • Victoria: My grandmother also wasn’t convinced that purslane was edible, but she ate it after I told her that at the markets in Belgium a small bunch costs 3-5 euros.

      By the way, Georgian meals go well with the carta di musica bread, as I discovered. October 18, 2017 at 10:10am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: These spices sound divine! I’ll have to get a Georgian cookbook, order some spices and experiment! Thanks so much for sharing these culinary wonders. October 17, 2017 at 10:09am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! These are too fascinating not to share 🙂 October 18, 2017 at 12:01pm Reply

  • Aurora: I am enjoying these posts about Georgia so much, Victoria. The spices sound divine and I noticed you mention using them with lentils and beans soups which are a staple food for me in the winter, so I’ll be excited to try them very soon, I have browsed the website suneli.uk which looks great and prices very reasonable, another discovery I wouldn’t have made without you. October 17, 2017 at 1:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I just received my latest order from suneli.uk, so I can testify as a happy customer that their service is very good. They’re also running a promotion now, it looks like. October 18, 2017 at 12:02pm Reply

  • Becky K.: I like the scent of marigolds from the garden, too! I grew seeds labeled, “Tagetes erecta tall,” and a few of them are nearly 6 feet tall, so it is easy to detect the green, vegetal scent of the blossoms!

    Also, anyone who enjoys spices would probably enjoy “The Spice Companion,” by Lior Lev Sercarz. It is a beautiful book packed with interesting information about individual spices. October 17, 2017 at 3:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve seen that book, and yes, it’s an excellent one for anyone interested in scents and spices. Thank you for mentioning it. October 18, 2017 at 12:03pm Reply

  • Andy: I haven’t heard of several of these seasonings, but I’m very intrigued. I wonder how the taste of tagetes would be in an herbal tisane blend? If I try it I’ll have to let you know! October 19, 2017 at 11:43am Reply

    • Victoria: I wonder. They have too savory of a taste to work as a tisane for me, but I’d be curious what you think. October 20, 2017 at 2:41am Reply

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