Ajvar [aye-var] is a savoury relish made from roasted red peppers, eggplant, garlic and chili peppers. Onions, string beans, vinegar, lemon and even tomatoes are sometimes added for extra flavour. Thought to originate in the Serbian cuisine, ajvar is a popular speciality throughout the Balkans, with each country and household having its own variation. We have a similar relish in Romania called zacusca; but while zacusca is dominated by eggplant, ajvar gets its unique flavour from the red peppers.
Although the process of making it is simple, it is time-consuming, especially when making large batches, as it involves roasting, peeling, seeding, chopping or blending, and cooking. Ajvar is typically made in autumn, conserved in glass jars and consumed during winter. It can be served as a dip, bread spread, side dish or salad. Depending on the chili content, it can be mild, medium or very hot. It is also known as "vegetable caviar" - the name comes from the Turkish "havyar" which means caviar.
I made ajvar for a birthday gathering and it totally stole the show. I loved the combination of red peppers and eggplant so much that I ended up adding roasted red peppers to the Arabic moutabbal. I fell in love with this dish the moment I tasted it. That was five years ago at the Kod Cece Yugoslavian Restaurant in Limassol, Cyprus. Trust me when I say that you can't have enough of it. With all the different versions of this dish, it was hard to find a recipe that would replicate what I had tasted in Cyprus. I got my inspiration from Cake and commerce and settled for a ratio of at least 4 peppers to 1 eggplant. If you'd like to make it, I strongly advise charcoal grilling, as it enhances the smoky flavour of the relish.
What you need...
- 2 large eggplants
- 4 pointed red peppers
- 5 red bell peppers
- 1 small red chili pepper
- 1/3 cup sunflower oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, mashed
- 2 Tb lemon juice
- salt, black pepper
- Roast the peppers and eggplants on a hot grill, gas flame or in the oven on high heat until blistered and darkened. I prefer using a griddle on the stove to cook the eggplants until the skin has charred; that keeps them soft, white-brownish inside, as compared to other methods that turn them greenish.
- Place the peppers in a container and cover for about 10 minutes. Then peel off the skin and remove the stems and seeds. Put them in a colander and let drain for a few minutes. Place the eggplants standing in a colander and leave uncovered for 15-20 minutes till just warm. Remove the charred skin and place the flesh back into the colander to drain for a few minutes. Note: you can skip draining the vegetables and turn this into a dip. Draining them saves a lot of cooking time.
- Blend the eggplants into a smooth paste. Blend the peppers into a slightly chunky mass (add only half of the chili pepper and taste, then add the other half if needed).
- Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onion, sprinkle a little bit of salt over it, reduce the heat to low and cover until soft and translucent. Add garlic and stir for a few seconds till fragrant. Add the pepper and eggplant paste, the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper (note: in order to retain the vitamin C in the lemon juice, add it just before serving). Bring the heat up to medium and keep stirring until it becomes hot and all the oil is incorporated. Remove from heat and let cool. Note: large quantities are stewed for a couple of hours until the water content has reduced; this ensures better conservation.
- Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with freshly chopped parsley. Serve with soft bread.
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Did you know...
Red peppers are loaded with vitamin C. They are an excellent source of minerals, vitamins (especially B6), carotene and the antioxidant lycopene. High heat has negative effects on these phytonutrients, therefore low heat over short cooking time is recommended.
Red chili peppers contain high amounts of vitamin C and carotene, are a good source of B vitamins (particularly B6), potassium, magnesium and iron. Vitamin C can significantly increase the uptake of iron from plant sources.
Eggplant (aubergine) is an excellent source of B vitamins, folate, manganese, potassium and dietary fiber. It helps reduce cholesterol and block the formation of free radicals.
Sunflower oil is rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats and has more vitamin E (antioxidant) than olive oil.
Garlic is packed with vitamin C and B6, manganese, selenium,calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc. It is also a good source of other B vitamins, magnesium, potassium and is very low in sodium. It has antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antioxidant activity. Garlic is used to prevent and treat common cold and flu and is instrumental in managing high cholesterol levels. It gives sweat a pungent smell and is a natural mosquito repellent.
Lemon is a nature's wonder. Packed with vitamin C, minerals and other vitamins, it has a wide range of health benefits. It has antiseptic properties and helps stop bleeding. It improves the appearance of the skin, giving it a natural health glow; it's also an anti-ageing remedy, helping to remove wrinkles, blackheads and acne. It relieves symptoms of indigestion, fights throat infections, acts as a diuretic, blood purifier and cleansing agent, relieves bad breath and hiccups, and minimizes toothache when applied locally. Due to its high potassium content, lemon is great for people with high blood pressure. It reduces mental stress and depression, enhances mood and cognitive performance. Used as a preservative, it prevents certain foods from turning brown after cutting (apples, pears, bananas, avocados, potatoes etc.).