One of the most popular culinary staples in the Balkans, ajvar (can be spelled aivar in English) is a traditional appetizer that dates back over a thousand years. The consistency is one of chutney or relish, and it is made of roasted red peppers and garlic.
In the Republic of Macedonia, however, ajvar is unique because of the variety of peppers used. Philip Evans, trained chef and co-founder of Pelagonia, a gourmet foods company in Skopje says,
“Macedonian Ajvar has an excellent reputation because Macedonian peppers are known to be bigger and sweeter. If you visit markets in Belgrade and Zagreb they will write ‘Macedonian’ Peppers to show they are good quality.”
His company takes advantage of the position that the Republic of Macedonia has versus other Balkan countries because of the amount of sunshine it receives. This allows for sweeter peppers, which are prime for making the best ajvar. As a result, many companies often outsource their production to Macedonia because of the quality of the peppers.
Though everyone has their own recipe, according to Mr. Evans’ experience, “Macedonian ajvar tends to have more aubergine than other countries giving a thicker and creamier consistency to the product.”
This Balkan comfort food is commonly made in the fall and winter months. Peppers are bought in bulk and then roasted over fire. Once they are roasted, the skin and seeds are removed and the peppers are mashed or pureed. After two hours of cooking, the ajvar is ready to be placed in jars. Though the process is often time consuming, it is made into a fun family experience. Families and friends gather and make it an all-day affair. After all the hard work, the reward is a rich, thick topping which is often eaten over bread and with a slice of cheese. One of my kids’ favorite ways to enjoy ajvar is with a family rice recipe.
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp salt
1 cup ajvar
2 cups rice (white or brown)
4 cups water
Combine the ingredients in a crockpot. Cook on high for 1.5 to 2 hours. Add in some veggies and chicken if you like or just enjoy the ajvar rice by itself. Serve the rice with a spoon of ajvar on top for additional color and to add more texture and depth to the dish.
Pelagonia offers a variety of ways to take advantage of the rich flavor of ajvar. Recipes such as Ajvar and Eggs Bake, Mini Pizzas with Ajvar, and others can be found in their book #52Ways With Aivar. We suggest you try some of these fantastic recipes.
When you visit the Balkans, you will undoubtedly have an opportunity to try this local staple. You can make a batch at home, buy a jar at a local grocer, or have any of the local fast food vendors add it to your sandwich. Back in your own kitchen, we suggest you try a range of recipes and bring the Balkan cuisine into your home. Be sure to let us know your favorite. Enjoy!
Special thanks to Philip Evans for his contribution to this post.