The proud country of Serbia is the home of two great and honorable friends of mine, Lazar and Nikola. In addition, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known was Serbian – the incomparable Nikola Tesla.
One of the most beloved of Serbian recipes is Ajvar (Serbian Cyrillic is Ајвар – pronounced aye-var), which is a type of relish made principally from red bell peppers with garlic. It may also contain eggplant and chili peppers.
Original homemade ajvar is made of roasted peppers and depending on the capsaicin content in the bell peppers and the amount of added chili peppers, it can be sweet (traditional), piquant (the most common), or very hot. The ajvar can be consumed as a bread spread or as a side dish.
Ajvar originated in Serbian cuisine before spreading throughout the Balkan region, and was therefore long known as “Serbian salad” or “Serbian vegetable caviar”.
The name ajvar comes from the Turkish word havyar, which means “salted roe, caviar” and shares an etymology with caviar. Prior to the 20th century, there was a significant local production of caviar on the Danube river, with sturgeon swimming from the Black Sea up to Belgrade.
Domestic ajvar, meaning caviar, used to be a very popular dish in Belgrade homes and restaurants. However, the domestic production of ajvar/caviar was not steady starting in the 1890s because of labor disputes.
Eventually a special pepper salad was offered as a substitute in Belgrade restaurants under the name “red ajvar” or “Serbian ajvar”, due to a strong sense of irony by local Serbs who could no longer obtain true caviar.
My recipe is quite traditional with the exception of using Turkish Urfa Biber pepper flakes for heat and Spanish smoked paprika to simulate the roasting of the peppers over an open fire. You can use regular chili flakes and regular paprika if these rare spices are unavailable.
Ajvar is utterly delicious served with meat, crackers or any food you think might benefit from its complex flavors.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
4 large red bell peppers (or, if possible, use fresh paprika peppers or New Mexico reds)
1 medium eggplant
1 large yellow onion
1 tsp of crushed black pepper
1 ½ tsp of salt
½ cup plus 1 tbsp of olive oil
¼ cup of white vinegar
4 cloves of garlic
2 ½ tsp urfa biber pepper flakes (or use red pepper flakes if unavailable) – optional
1 tbsp Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tbsp. smoked Spanish paprika (or use standard sweet paprika if smoked is unavailable)
Preheat oven to broil. Halve each pepper, discarding stems and seeds.
Wash the peppers and eggplant and dry them well. Peel the onion, cut in half and reserve.
Cut the peppers in half, discarding both stems and seeds. Place peppers, cut side down, on an old baking sheet or one lined with foil.
Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and score with a knife, drizzle it with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt and place it on a second baking sheet.
Place one of the oven racks roughly 3 to 4 inches below the heat; place peppers on this rack. The eggplant should sit on a lower rack.
Broil the peppers and eggplant, turning the peppers occasionally until they are well roasted on all sides, roughly 15 to 20 minutes. The eggplant may be done first; if so, remove it and set it aside to cool. (You can also use an outdoor grill to cook the peppers and eggplant.)
When you remove the peppers from the oven, place them in a bowl, sprinkle them with a little water, and cover with a clean dishcloth. This step steams and lifts the skins, making it easy to peel the peppers once they’ve cooled. (Another method to loosen skins is to place the peppers in a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap until the peppers have cooled.)
Remove the skin from peppers and cut them into one inch pieces. Use an ice-cream scoop to remove the pulp of the eggplant, leaving the skin behind.
Cut the onion into one inch pieces. Mince the garlic.
Put all of the vegetables, paprikas and salt and peppers into a pot on your stove top on medium heat, add the ½ cup of oil and ¼ cup of vinegar and cook for at least two hours steering frequently. Carefully (it’s HOT!!!) blend your ajvar (ideally with an immeresion blender) and return it to the pot for just a few more minutes.
While your ajvar is cooking, you can prepare your jars for canning. Wash them thoroughly and then put into the oven on 170 for about half an hour. Once ajvar is ready to be canned, heat 1 tbsp of oil on the stove top.
Pour ajvar into the jar and return to the oven on 350 for a few minutes so it forms a thin crust on the top, then pour oil over it, just enough to cover the top. It should make sizzling sound when it touches ajvar. Put the top on and you are done! You can keep it like this for at least three months.
Even though this is best served with meat, this is also great spread on bread or with some cheese or scrambled eggs.