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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
James & Terri
5. Ivana Sokolović via Wikimedia Commons