Food / Travel

Ajvar: A Little Summer Sunshine in a Winter Pantry

Bit-Pazar-ajvar-1

Every traveler knows that one of the rewards of visiting new places is experimenting with regional foods. A vast array of local ingredients, herbs, spices and cooking techniques guarantee an almost limitless supply of new dishes to tempt the palate.

And on our trip to the Balkans it was all about peppers: banana or bell, red or white, hot or sweet, we had pepper dishes of all types.

stuffed-white-peppers-at-pod-volant

In Podgorica, Montenegro we dined on stuffed white bell peppers at the Pod Volat Restaurant that set the high bar for all other meals on our trip, and made us stuffed-pepper converts.

picnicking-in-kotor-montenegro

Of course, restaurant meals are one of the joys of travel, but after being on the road for a while, we’re always looking for local foods that can be eaten on picnics or as a light dinner in our hotel room. And on this trip we discovered a new, delicious go-to food for just these occasions: ajvar (eye-var).

ajvar

This tasty relish, made with roasted red bell peppers, eggplant, garlic, oil and vinegar, is a staple in this part of the world. Some people like it mild, and others add roasted hot peppers to “kick it up a notch” to medium or hot. A healthy dollop of the hot variety, slathered on a slice of crusty, brown bread ignites fireworks on the tongue and a glow in the heart.

ajvar_10844189665

Ajvar is very common in the Balkans and I’m sure that every country claims to have the original recipe. But like grandmother’s chicken soup, it’s a family secret lovingly passed from generation to generation.

peppers-for-ajvar

We were there for the fall harvest and market bins were stacked to overflowing with plump, colorful peppers. They’re dirt cheap at this time of year, and we saw lots of people carrying bulging sacks of these red beauties home for roasting to make this smoky spread to bring a little summer sunshine into a winter pantry.

If you think ajvar isn’t serious business hereabouts, have a look at these supermarket shelves in Skopje, Macedonia: hot, medium, mild – take your pick. The Cyrillic labels were beyond us, but I’m sure that some of the store brands claimed to be “homemade.” But the jars available in the Bit Pazar market needed no labels to convince us that they were indeed handcrafted at someone’s home.

Bit Pazar-ajvar-2

There wasn’t a day that passed that didn’t involve a bit of ajvar at some point. We always had it in our hotel room and it even made a tasty breakfast a few times: a good kick-start to the day. And we became so addicted that we vowed to make our own when we got home. Our next post will show you how we went about it, and here’s a little hint, it’s a labor of love.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

peppers

Photo Credits:
5. Ivana Sokolović via Wikimedia Commons

42 thoughts on “Ajvar: A Little Summer Sunshine in a Winter Pantry

  1. I shall very much look forward to your food blog post! Those supermarket shelves are amazing. I was trying to think of what item has that kind of variety in Canada. Still stumped. 🙂

    • Sue, it’s not a great comment on our diets, but in the US the only grocery item that I can think of for variety and sheer volume is the chip aisle. It’s such a temptation that I try to avoid it. ~James

    • We have a couple of Middle Eastern markets that stock reasonable selections of ajvar. It’s nothing like the selection in the Balkans, but it’s enough to keep us happy. And after making it at home, I’m glad to be able to buy it off the shelf. ~James

    • I couldn’t agree more Pam. After a long day nothing sounds better than returning to our apartment (or hotel), having a drink and picnicking for dinner. PJs also come out at some point as well. ~James

  2. As I was reading this post, I was thinking that this is something I would like to make. Peppers and eggplant – sounds divine!
    Then I got to the end … woohoo! Glad you’re going to include a discussion on making it 🙂

    • Joanne, as you’ll see in our next post, I smoked my peppers and eggplant on the grill, but doing the cooking in an oven would simplify the process considerably. But then I wouldn’t have an excuse for firing up the grill and having a drink on a nice, sunny day. ~ James

  3. James you mention white bell peppers,we have red,yellow.orange and green but I have not seen white do they the same or very mild?

    • Joyce, before our trip to Serbia and Bulgaria, we hadn’t seen white peppers. Yes they are mild and they make the perfect stuffed peppers. They will grow in KY, because our neighbor (who’s from Croatia) grows them in her garden in Lexington. Hope all is well with you and Dascal. Love, JH

    • Cathy, you won’t have any problem finding ajvar anywhere in the Balkans. Ajvar, crusty bread, and a bit of meat and cheese makes a great meal or picnic. Start with medium and if that’s too mild go to hot – but it’s all good. ~James

    • Laura, this photo was taken just outside the old city walls of Kotor, Montenegro. Given the fabulous state of preservation of this beautiful Medieval town, the presence of the shark was a surprise. It was tethered on a long rope and just blew around the canal. How it got there, I have no idea. I wondered if someone would comment. ~James

    • Lexie, I’m gad to hear that I was responsible for upping your heartburn quotient. I love this stuff and it’s amazing how many times I have it for breakfast: Ajvar – breakfast of champions! ~ James

  4. Ajvar looks & sounds delicious although I would most likely stick to the milder version as I am not a lover hot & spicy. Looking forward to reading about your labour of love!

    • Yes, it really is a massive plastic shark Alison, and just outside the walls of the wonderfully restored Medieval city of Kotor, Montenegro. Somebody has a strange sense of humor. ~ James

  5. It is surprising how the foods of other cultures infiltrates ones cooking. We have a lot of ethnic food stores here (Canada) and it’s a real delight to try something new to us.
    Leslie

    • Leslie, we visit just about every ethnic grocery store that we pass, and we always leave with a few new things to try. Our favorites in our town are Indian and Mediterranean. The Indian grocer has fresh, hot samosas under a heat lamp right by the checkout … and I usually finish mine in the parking lot. ~ James

      • I have a great recipe for that. I use a philo pastry instead of a heavy one that is often used. They are to die for!

  6. Those golden colors and pops of red in your photos are amazing! I agree that, while eating out is fun when traveling, it gets old and awfully expensive too. Visiting the grocery stores is one of our favorite things to do in a new country and figuring out how to use unfamiliar foods can quickly turn into a guessing game a lot of times. Looking forward to your recipe as we have some lovely red, yellow and green bell peppers that are very inexpensive here in our part of Portugal. Yum! Anita

    • We are totally simpatico Anita. We’re in Salamanca, Spain and today’s trip to the supermercado yielded a wedge of wonderful Spanish blue cheese, some perfect (and cheap) Spanish strawberries, multigrain baguettes, tasty mushroom soup, and a €2 bottle of red wine … and chocolate digestives. Livin’ large is what we’re doin’. ~ James

  7. Ajvar sounds like something I would love. I think it would taste good slathered on a Spanish tortilla!! Stuffed peppers are one of my favourite things to eat. What did they stuff it with?

    • Darlene, ajvar will probably be hard to find in Spain, but I wonder if there’s a local equivalent? The peppers we had in Montenegro were stuffed with some sort of ground meat mixture, but it was loaded with herbs which we couldn’t identify, but were delicious.

      • We were just in Spain, and it was interesting to see all the different versions of salsa. In the US we pretty much just get the Mexican version. There are also some fruit versions (e.g. Mango) that aren’t to my taste. James

  8. Looks amazing. I was always amused by the tangle of Cyrillic letters and pronunciation in that part of the world. I think in Ukraine a similar concoction is called adjlika – delicious. Hope we’ll get a recipe 🙂

    • I agree Susan. We carried a Cyrillic cheat sheet that had the alphabet. Most things we could figure out from pictures and context, but we took a number of trains and buses and we certainly didn’t want to get on the wrong bus. ~James

  9. Love this colorful post! Ajvar looks extremely delicious and I look forward to seeing how you make it. Could be something I would like to try in Mexico – there is certainly a variety of peppers (though many of them are dried).

What do you think? We'd love to know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s