The Ajvar, a weird word from way back of Turkish origin, by its etymology close to the word “caviar”, is produced in many countries of the Balkans, almost all of which funnily enough in recent years have been vying to claim the exclusivity of the original recipe of this delicious, mouth watering and nutritious specialty. In Serbia, however, there is no doubt that the “leskovački ajvar” thanks to the centuries old tradition, the unique climatic conditions, and the sunny days averaging for 270 days per year fares well above and beyond.
Basically, ajvar is a fragrant pepper paste that goes well if served with soft cheeses and pork to name but a few or simply spread onto a slice of bread for any meal . The Southern Serbia, mainly focused around Leskovac region is known as a „land of peppers“ or the „land of paprika“ which is considered to be a traditional vegetable and one of the landmarks of Serbia. Ajvar can be sweet or spicy representing ‘a queen’ amongst the winter salads. It tends to be a staple food in the family meals and/or feasts of almost any sort throughout the year no local seems to be able to do without .
Mistaken by many for a simple dressing or a condiment, there is more to ajvar than meets the eye or ‘the palate’ in this particular case – it goes well with a loaf of corn bread, chunks of cheese, smoked pork, pljeskavica, a clove of garlic or two, ćevapi, palenta (corn wholemeal paste boiled in water) and so on and so forth but for those who produce and know it to its very core, it also deservedly takes up an independent, standalone , very special place among the delicacies of any feat.
The peppers having been picked and roasted, the oft blackened and a bit charred and crusty baked outer layer is peeled off the peppers . After a night of ‘rest’ i.e. letting them ‘settle’ for a bit, the paprikas are slashed, chopped, chipped, sliced up or minced in any old, traditional way one might choose. Yes, all of these little maneuvers apply depending on the person making it. Then, the peppers are placed or simply whacked into a rather bulky tin pot, called “kazan” or ‘lonac’. And then the lengthy process of cooking begins i.e. cooking, boiling, stirring, sizzling and then even more stirring for hours on end. Oil, salt, vinegar and healthy additives are added to season the mixture so that the peppers can eventually absorb the flavour . “It should not boil, but fry” with you fiddling with a big wooden ladle hovering above the ‘lonac’ all along. “You need to arm yourself with lots of patience and to make sure you do have surplus of energy because everything must be stirred by hand ‘ from the beginning to the end”. While cooking, which by the way happens to last no less than a few hours, all manner of other essential ingredients are added apparently: salt, sugar, sunflower oil, and wine vinegar.
Ajvar can be purchased at local supermarkets but we recommend that you order it directly from small scale producers or home made from the locals. We suggest looking for types without additional preserves such as leskovački ajvar, Bakina tajna (eng. Grandmother’s Secret) or the like. If you’ ve been here for a while, you are bound to get a jar or two as a gift to take home and enjoy with your nearest and dearest.
Dragana Kostica is the Belgrade-based editor in chief and founder of Still in Belgrade art, culture and club scene magazine. She holds a Master of Arts in Cultural Policy and Management in Arts (MA of Arts) and a Bachelor degree in Archaeology.