A staple of Balkan cuisine, ajvar (pronounced eye-var) is a delicious rich red pepper spread that’s perfect with fresh rustic bread, pasta, crackers, baked potatoes, etc. And best of all… it’s naturally vegan!
Autumn is traditionally the time of year to make ajvar, and it’s a great way of using up surplus peppers, plus ensuring a plentiful supply of Vitamin C throughout the winter (each 25g serving provides 43% of our daily VitC needs).
Some purists claim that ajvar should only be made with peppers – that Slovenians adulterate it with aubergine (eggplant), and that it’s actually closer to pindjur (a Bulgarian/Macedonian relish made with tomatoes, peppers, aubergine, garlic, and chilli). That may well be true but I happen to really like it with aubergine; I find it gives the ajvar an added of layer silky, smooth, creaminess, so for now, the aubergine stays!
Living the life of a wanderer, as I do, I come across this kind of attitude all the time; that such-and-such a recipe is not the ‘one true’ recipe, or that a certain nation cannot possibly make this dish or that dish as well as a certain other nation. Some particular individuals become quite vehement when sharing their opinion of what makes a dish ‘proper’ (just mention that you ate burek in Croatia or Slovenia to a Serb, and they’ll often tell you in no uncertain terms that it’s a Serbian pie… despite it actually being brought to the Balkans by the Ottomans).
But really, none of that matters – dishes travel, and over time, they evolve to suit local tastes and available ingredients. In general, Indian food in Britain, for example, is really not much like Indian food in India; it has evolved to become its own thing, and British Indian curries are loved the world over. There’s a British guy living in Chiang Mai (Thailand), who has built up a decently-sized business, selling pre-made BIR (British Indian Restaurant) curries to the expat community. There’s another in Germany, who’s done the same, and exports his curries right across Europe, as well as having a local bricks-and-mortar shop.
My point is that if the food is good, does it really matter whether it’s 100% ‘authentic’ or not? I don’t think so.
The key to a rich, creamy ajvar is to make sure that the peppers are roasted until their skins blacken, and then, after the veggies have been peeled and smooshed, simmer the spread over a very low heat. Some people swear by simmering overnight but I think a couple of hours is fine. Do be aware that you may need a diffuser if cooking on gas, otherwise your ajvar might catch.
Ajvar (Serbian Red Pepper Spread)
- rich and silky
- full of goodness
Keep a jar in your ‘fridge as a standby for those times you really can’t be bothered to cook (c’mon, it happens to all of us!); chuck a potato (sweet, or otherwise) in the oven to bake, and then when it’s done, slather over some ajvar, serve with a crisp green salad, and boom – you’re good to go!
Or cook up some pasta, and use ajvar as a quick and convenient sauce.
Or simply have it with some crackers, or fresh crusty bread, some tomatoes, olives, and your protein of choice, for a super-speedy, nutritious lunch.
Ajvar really is pretty versatile!
How would you eat your ajvar?
Ajvar (Serbian Red Pepper Spread)
- 1 large aubergine/eggplant - washed dried, and cut in half lengthways
- 3 large red peppers - washed dried, cut in half lengthways, and de-seeded
- 3 -4 large fat cloves of garlic
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil + 1 tsp + a drizzle
- 1 tsp white vinegar
- ½ tsp sea salt or to taste
- 1 chilli very finely chopped (remove the seeds and veins if you don't want too much heat)
- Pre-heat your oven to 225c/435f.
- Massage 1 tsp of oil over the peppers, aubergine, and unpeeled garlic cloves, and place cut side down onto a baking sheet lined with parchment.
- Bake for around 25 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft, and the pepper skins are blackened.
- Remove from the oven, and put the peppers into a Ziploc bag for 10 minutes.
- Very carefully, scrape the aubergine flesh away from the skin (please don't burn yourself), and place into the bowl of a food processor.
- Remove the peppers from their bag, and peel away the skins. Add to the aubergines, and pulse a few times, just enough to break up the veggies.
- Put the oil into a heavy-based pan, add the ajvar, and stir. Allow to just sit in the pan for 15 minutes, so that the ajvar absorbs the oil.
- Turn on the heat, and bring the ajvar to a boil, then immediately, lower the heat, and allow to simmer for a couple of hours, to really bring out the sweetness of the peppers.
- Squeeze the roasted garlic from its paper, and smoosh it into the ajvar, along with the vinegar, and chilli (if using).
- Taste, and season with salt.
- Put into a sterile jar, drizzle with a little more oil, and seal.
- Once opened, the ajvar should keep in the fridge for several weeks... if, indeed, it's around that long.
- 1 cup = US cup = 240 ml
- 1 tbsp = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml