If you ever visited the Balkan Peninsula, you probably know that no trip to this part of the world is complete without trying some delicious ajvar. The origin of the so-called vegetable caviar is often disputed because many countries developed their own regional versions of the traditional ajvar recipe but in our opinion, the most prized one is the Macedonian one, made mostly from red peppers called ajvarki (peppers specifically grown for making ajvar). But more about this later. Let’s start from the beginning.
What is ajvar?
To put it simply, ajvar is a blend of roasted fresh bell peppers and eggplants. Traditionally, it’s prepared as a winter food because, in many Balkan countries, vegetables have been historically scarce during winters, and preparing large quantities of jarred food was the only choice for people to get the needed nutrients from vegetables during this time of the year. Obviously, this isn’t the case anymore but ajvar is still a significant part of not only local cuisines but also cultural heritage.
One of the reasons why ajvar is still so popular and loved by locals and visitors alike is its versatility. It can be used as a side dish, as a dipping sauce, as pasta sauce, or just eaten as a snack with some fresh bread or kifli and white cheese (sirene).
As we mentioned above, the origins of the traditional ajvar recipe are tightly linked to Macedonia but the popular spread is equally popular in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Slovenia. As for the name, it originates from the Turkish word ‘havyar’, meaning caviar. Today, ajvar is often called vegetable caviar or pepper caviar and there’s actually a very interesting story behind that (read more in the next paragraph).
During medieval times, caviar was introduced to the region through the black sea. However, just like today, caviar had the status of a rich man’s food and many people knew what it is but most of them couldn’t afford it. Caviar became very popular among the elites and there were even some local production facilities that made caviar for wide consumption. But in the second half of the 19th century, due to labor disputes, production dropped and caviar was no longer available in most local restaurants.
This is where ajvar comes in. Well, technically, ajvar was already widely used in Macedonia and the Southern Balkans but around this time, it was dotted as ‘vegetable caviar’ and quickly took the region by surprise. Even today, a few centuries later, it’s one of the most popular spreads/dips in the Balkans.
Variations Of Ajvar
In addition to every country having a slightly modified ajvar recipe, there are also a few different variations to ajvar and similar dishes that share its origin. The most popular variations are pindjur (the same as ajvar but with whole pieces of vegetables instead of mashed vegetables) and lutenica (a hot-spicy variation of ajvar). One could argue that even eggplant-based dip, malijano can be counted as an ajvar variation and there’s even the ‘green’ variation made from green bell peppers as opposed to the regular ajvar made from red peppers but this isn’t very common.
And last but not least, we would round up this section of our ajvar guide by mentioning the two only branded variations of ajvar, the Macedonian ajvar and the Homemade Leskovac ajvar (Leskovac is a city in southern Serbia near the Macedonian border).
Traditionally, ajvar is prepared by roasting peppers over a wood fire or by using special iron furnaces. However, making ajvar in your oven works too. You just have to keep checking the peppers frequently and remove the ones that are done from the oven. The peppers need to be roasted until blackening. Just make sure that the only thing that’s blackening is the outside layer of the pepper. After this, they need to be peeled away and the flesh beneath the darkened skin should not be dark.
If you want a tip for easier peeling, just store the roasted pepper in a plastic container and close the lid; the heat from the peppers will soften them and make the peppers easier to peel. Another important thing is to not wash the peppers with water. If you need to clean the black portion out, use your hand or a knife.
Once you’re done with peeling and removing the seeds, keep the peppers in a gauze and let them drain overnight. The next day, you’d have to grind the peppers using a meat grinder or finely chop them using a knife.
And last but not least, once you start frying, use a wooden spatula to mix the ajvar constantly; this is very important and if you leave the ajvar without mixing for a longer period of time, it will burn and/or get sticky.
What Kind Of Peppers To Use?
The traditional ajvar recipe uses the pepper known as ajvarka in Macedonia (photo below) or Kurtovska Kapija. Since both of these peppers are local vegetables, you might not be able to find them (depending on your location). In that case, the next best alternatives are red bull horn peppers or red bell peppers.
Sterilization & Pasteurizing
As we mentioned above, the authentic way locals prepare ajvar is in bulk (meaning using 100 or more kilograms of peppers and eggplants for the preparation). After the preparation is complete, the ajvar is stored in mason jars that are consumed throughout the winter. If you intend to use this method, make sure you sterilize and clean your jars before pouring the ajvar inside.
After you fill the jars, the ajvar has to be pasteurized because if it’s not, it can be prone to bacteria. To do this, you need to keep the jars open and place them in the oven at 90°C for 15-20 minutes. When you see a crust forming on the top of the ajvar, that’s the time to pull the jars out. As an additional precaution, you can also add a little bit of oil on top of the ajvar to serve as a barrier between different kinds of bacteria and your ajvar.
Once that is done, the last thing you need to take care of is…
Storing The Ajvar
This is the last part of the traditional ajvar recipe. If you want to have ajvar to eat throughout a span of a few months, you need to seal the jars and store them properly. After you seal the jars, keep them in a turned-off oven at a temperature close to 150 °C. Alternatively, you can also cover the jars with some warm towels or kitchen cloths.
Once this is done, let the ajvar cool down for 30-40 hours, and afterwards, store it in a cold and dark place (preferably a basement) until you want to use it. The ajvar stored in this way can be consumed safely for up to 6-7 months after making it. Some people say ajvar is even tastier after a few months.
In the end, just a few more tips if you’re planning to store ajvar in the above-mentioned method.
- Some recipes use garlic but if you want to store ajvar, you mustn’t have garlic in your recipe because the ajvar will go bad very soon.
- Use only sunflower oil.
- When you fill-up the jars, always leave roughly 1 cm (0.3 inches) on the top.
Ajvar can be served as a side dish alongside dishes like tavce gravce, sarma, or zelnik, but many people also eat it as a snack alongside a simple bread or pogacha (or maybe even gibanica) and some white cheese (sirene). Alternatively, if you want to, you can also use ajvar as a dip or pasta sauce, even though this might raise some eyebrows among locals but if you like it, who cares.
A Few Things You May Need
- 7 Large Red Peppers (Ajvarka/Red Bull Horn Pepper/ Bell Pepper
- 1 Eggplant
- 1/3 Cup Sunflower Oil
- 1 Tablespoon Salt
- 1 Teaspoon Sugar
- 1 Teaspoon Black Pepper
- 1 Teaspoon White Vinegar
- 1 Tablespoon Chopped Parsley (optional)
1. Light a chimney full of charcoal and wait for it to lit. Once a few charcoals burn, arrange the rest of the coals on one side of the grate. Set the grate in place, cover the grill, and add some oil.
1a) If you’re baking the peppers in an oven, just preheat the oven to oven to 240°C (470°F).
2. After roughly 10 minutes, cut the peppers into half and add them to the grill/oven and cook for 10-15 minutes until blackened.
3. Remove the peppers from the grill/oven, place them in a large bowl, and cover the bowl with a wrap.
4. In the meantime, pierce the eggplant with a fork, add it on the cool side of the grill, and let it cook until soft and darkened (around 30 minutes).
5. After 30 minutes, remove the eggplant from the grill and let it cool down.
6. After 15 minutes, take the peppers out and remove all of the charred skin and seeds.
7. Trim the top off the eggplant and split it lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the soft flesh and discard the skin.
7a) Traditionally, the peppers and eggplant are left overnight before continuing the process, but if you don’t want to wait that long, you can proceed with the next step.
8. Take the peppers and what’s left of the eggplant and add everything in a food processor (preferably with a steel blade).
9. Add everything to a large cooking bowl and let it simmer over medium-high heat for roughly 1 hour-90 minutes.
10. Keep stirring every few minutes and add roughly 100 mililiters of oil every 20 minutes.
11. After 30 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-low and let it simmer for another 30 minutes, but still keep stirring.
12. Add the vinegar, salt, and sugar in the last 20 minutes of cooking, and mix until everything is incorporated.
13. In the meantime, take a jar and keep it in the oven at 100°C (212 °F) for 20 minutes.
14. Remove the ajvar and fill the hot jar with ajvar.
15. Add some hot oil on the top of the jar and seal it.
16. Let it cool down for at least 24 hours before keeping it in the fridge. Or, if you want to eat the ajvar right away, you can as soon as it cools down.
17. Serve it with some bread and white cheese (sirene) and enjoy.
Serving Size:60 grams
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 260Total Fat: 18.5gSaturated Fat: 3.2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 14mgCarbohydrates: 24gNet Carbohydrates: 24gFiber: 9gSugar: 3.5gProtein: 4.5g
Did you ever try ajvar? Did you like our traditional ajvar recipe? If you tried to make it at home and liked it, don’t forget to leave us a rating!
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