Ajvar: Spreading the Love

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Sunday’s jar of ajvar that has been consumed in less than a week. Sometimes ajvar is the perfect midnight snack.

by Alexis Traussi

BELGRADE, On the shelves of any Serbian refrigerator sits one of the brightest condiment you’ve ever seen: ajvar. Fire-red, like the dwindling end of a cigarette, it catches your attention immediately. Ajvar has such an intense color that it seems almost too spicy or too artificial to eat.

Ajvar is so abundant within—and unique to—the western Balkans that even the bartender at a local café spoke animatedly and proudly about it, as he placed a drink down on the table. He said its preparation “begins in October,” as the oppressive heat of a Balkan summer dissipates.

The markets are lined with paprika peppers as red as a Valentine’s Day card and eggplants plump as a newborn. Mothers pad their bags, heading home to white-hot grills to char the produce to a crackling black, then to peel and chop everything into submission, adding a bit of garlic.

A brand-new jar of ajvar. There are bits of burnt pepper skin that was not completely peeled off.
A brand-new jar of ajvar. There are bits of burnt pepper skin that was not completely peeled off.

Physical labor completed, the mush is cooked down with vinegar and salt—to preserve the entire batch for the winter—until it resembles the relish you would spoon onto a hotdog at Yankee Stadium. Once completed, jars are filled to the brim with this wintertime delicacy, though that does not exclude your ability to find it in any Serbian grocery store.

This specialty is best enjoyed on a lazy morning, spooned onto breakfast toast, although ajvar is as equally delicious as a side for lunch or dinner. A smoky aroma drifts through the air, while you taste the complex balance of stringent garlic and a mouth-warming pain that rouses your taste buds to the pitch of spicy, but never crossing “too much” line.

Two women sitting in a small, pale-yellow dining room laugh about their moms having to hide ajvar from their families around the house. When asked who they believed made the best version of it, they simultaneously yelped, “Me—My mom!”

This fight will always continues throughout Serbia as ajvar worked its way to receiving the International Certificate of the World Intellectual Property Organization, according to International Radio Serbia.