Across the Balkans, specifically in Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, ajvar is about as fundamental as toilet paper; it is the butter of the Balkans, the salsa of Serbia, and can be found with just about every dish during every meal. Its origins, like much of Balkan cuisine, comes from a Turkish dish containing red caviar and eventually evolved into a dish made of red pepper. It is exemplary of how Ottoman incursions into the Balkan region brought new recipes. Now, it is ritual to cook ajvar every fall in order to have some through the winter, they say “every good Serbian smells like ajvar in September.” This tradition is called “zimnica,” which loosely translates to “cooking food in the fall that can be preserved throughout winter in jars (think pickles).”
If you are lucky enough to be traveling around the small villages of the Balkans in autumn you will likely see these black stoves roasting kilo after kilo of red bell peppers. The key here is to have enough to last the winter. I was told that is about 40 kilos per family! They cook the bell peppers on stoves until they blacken, then they peel the skins off the peppers and use the soft meaty insides. Some recipes also call for eggplant to be skinned and mixed in. Then, with vinegar, oil, garlic, and some spices the peppers and eggplant get smashed and smushed into a paste.
I first tried ajvar in Nis, Serbia. I was staying with a host and she and her mother had just made their winter’s ajvar. They offered me some and it was life-changing. The smoky flavors from the traditional woodburning stove encapsulated the sweet roasted bell pepper and mixed perfectly with the garlic, vinegar, and local olive oil. It was savory and fresh. I first had ajvar with my eggs. We mixed in some creamed cheese, fresh bread, and yogurt. It also can go with meat, and really just about anything. Then, later while walking down the street we saw a family making their own ajvar and snapped the photo that is above.
For the next two months, I had ajvar everyday (not an exaggeration). A telltale sign that a food is truly local is when you compare the store bought version to the homemade version. A true local street food cannot be replicated in a factory. I have never found this to be truer than with ajvar. For months, I would buy the store bought version with the hope that I could replicate the flavors that I had in my host’s home. I found good ajvar, but alas, it was never the same – and that authenticity is the beauty of a local food.