Monday, 11 November 2013

Ajvar - Eggplant and pepper sauce (Αϊβάρ)

Sorry, folk, I don't know where the photos went - I had borrowed them from the web, and they seem to have been taken down since I used them. For more ajvar photos, see this post

After reading my Peppers post, a reader told me about another dish I can make with peppers: ajvar (pronounced 'ay-var' or 'ay-ver') from Eastern European cuisine, which uses peppers and eggplant. It's not an unusual combination, as these two summer vegetables often grow together, and this is a great way to use up my remaining eggplant, which is not such a popular vegetable now, as other vegetables have taken its place during the summer-winter transition. The name of the dish comes from 'caviar'; ajvar is poor man's caviar. It is used as a dip, a spread and an addition to casseroles. I found a simple ajvar recipe and made just enough to last us as a side salad. It was a very tasty salad, unbelievably good for such a simple dish.

Ajvar looks simple on the surface, but it is not generally made in a small home kitchen like mine, nor is it made by one person. Ajvar has a very social role and is a village affair in parts of former communist states that were once part of Yugoslavia, like Serbia and Makedonija (often written as Macedonia in English). Take my friend Fidanka's recipe for ajvar, as she explains it to me:
"We use florina type peppers (long red sweet peppers), seeds removed, and eggplants: 50 kg peppers, and 50 big size eggplants [yo need more peppers than eggplants] The vegetables are roasted over fire, peeled, ground and placed in huge pan. We add 3-4 liters oil and we cook it over fire, outdoors for 4-5 hours, continuously stirring. This is my family's recipe, but it varies from family to family, in terms of the pepper/eggplant ratio, oil, addition of parsley or garlic, shili pepper, etc. It is usually flavoured with just salt. The hot ajvar is placed in hot jars and then the jars are placed in a big pot all together, wrapped in old blankets. The next day, the jars are cold and the sauce can last for several years like this without changing the flavour. But of course, it never stays longer on my shelves than April the following year..."
Fidanka's ajvar
I'm tempted to make ajvar again and bottle it in jars, to use in my stews and soups, and as a spread. Something so simple can create so much satisfaction, as well as the feeling of security that always comes when you see a pantry full of jars of food that you prepared yourself and you know will tide you throughout the winter months.

Making ajvar (left) and yufki (right) in the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia. 
The yufki photo is as recent as 2012.

Making ajvar is a once-a-year thing, and only when the vegetables are in season. This blog gives you some idea about the importance of making ajvar in its social context. Communally made storeable food, like making yufki (a kind of egg and milk based pasta that can be kept all year round and is used in a variety of dishes), is still popular in the former communist countries which border Greece - this is quite a world apart apart from their neighbours (ie us), who never really performed culinary tasks collectively: apart, perhaps, from keeping a pig, or making wine and raki, virtually everything else is prepared for an individual family to enjoy. The barriers of politics once ensured that not even neighbours could learn from each other.
The regular pepper variety used for ajvar is Kurtovska kapija, although other pepper varieties are now also used (eg Slonovo uvo, Palanecno cudo), but Kurtovska kapija is considered one of the best because it contains low water content and high dry matter. Fidanka should know about this: the pepper photo is from her PhD pepper experiment, although the PhD was not connected to ajvar-making (!) Her brother likes to joke that her ajvar must be the best in Macedonija because it's made by a PhD pepper expert!

Fidanka tells me that in her home town of Strumcia, which is known for growing vegetables in open fields, plastic tunnels and greenhouses, the municipality has for several years now been organising the AJVERIJADA, where housewives get together and make ajvar. A committee tastes the results and competitors are awarded.

In recent years, ajvar (as well as yufki) has been commercialised, as all home-made food has been around the world, which has to do with the easy access to technology and more people working outside the home, lacking time to take part in traditional activities, but there is still the deep-rooted belief that 'my mother's ajvar is the best' (a bit like hearing a Cretan saying 'my mother's kalitsounia are the best') especially when there many variations to each dish depending on region, taste, etc.

My own version of ajvar preserves is made with onion and garlic. I prefer my sauces to be chunky rather than smooth, so I didn't grind the vegetables. I intend to use these sauces in winter stews. Ajvar is often eaten as a spread on bread, accompanied by things like feta cheese. 

Even though ajvar is widely available commercially, in Macedonija, there is still a great sense of pride in continuing the tradition of making it communally. The taste of commercially made ajvar - as with any food product - is nearly always distinguishable from the home-made one. It all has to do with the future of food, or the food of the future, and how we see our future being shaped by world food trends.

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