Mittwoch, 23. September 2015

How Ajvar is Made

This is a practical guide on how to make ajvar [ayvahr]. Let's start with some background info. Ajvar is a versatile dip made from peppers, and it is a winter food typical for the Balkans region. Although it is found from Bulgaria to Slovenia (as well as wherever the Balkan expats live worldwide), it is most commonly associated with Southern Serbia and Macedonia. These are also the regions where the appropriate variety of peppers is grown, to be used in the manufacture of ajvar. I say manufacture, as it is indeed a product of manual labour. Although some industrial ajvar can be found in stores, the quality is not satisfactory, and most people either make their own or purchase it directly from small manufacturers.

The Pepper - Paprika

For quality of the taste, and practicality in the manufacturing process, ajvar is made from large, relatively regular shaped, as flat as possible on the sides, red peppers. The flat sides help to roast the peppers evenly, which is important for the peeling of the skins.

The particular variety is called "ajvarka" (pepper for ajvar), and is rarely found in regions where ajvar is not traditionally produced. Ajvar being only one of a number of winter foods in the Balkans which are made from peppers, green markets offer a large choice of pepper varieties. The peak of the season is in September when the weekly green markets are bustling with sellers and buyers, and the smell of roasted peppers spreads through the neighbourhoods. 

The Equipment

The peppers are roasted on stove tops, most commonly on special stoves for preparing winter foods, jams and such, called "kube" [koo-beh]. This can be a specially made stove, or a repurposed segment of a metal barrel. Some people use other types of equipment ranging from regular stoves, to any metal plate over an open fire - I've seen stolen traffic signs being used for this.

For people living in houses with gardens, making winter food is a convenient opportunity to burn any cut branches or other organic material which is free. Otherwise, people use fire wood.

If you are making typical quantity for a household in Serbia, the quantity is such that you will need extra large pot(s) for the cooking part. My family makes around 40 mason jars per year, which requires some 80 kg of peppers, several kilograms of eggplant and condiments. We use a 35 litre pot with a diameter of 70 cm.

Other equipment you might need are colanders, knives for taking out the stems (we find it easier to take the stems out before roasting), and for this purpose you best find something similar to an apple core cutter, preferably a bit larger. Another thing you'll need if making a large quantity is a large wooden ladle. For mincing the roasted peppers you'll need a mincer - mechanical or electric. We went electric some years ago and life is much easier now. Tongs are very convenient for turning the roasting peppers. The rest of the equipment is stuff easily found in most households - baking trays, knives, bowls, pots with lids...

The Recipe

Every family has their own recipe. Opinions on what makes a good (perfect) ajvar vary. Some would say that ajvar has to be made from peppers only, or that it should have garlic, or to be spicy. If you feel something is off in the recipe you're using, feel free to make adjustments to taste. That's the beauty of it - if you make your own, you can make it perfect.

For around 20 mason jars (0.7 l) of ajvar you'll need:

- 40 kg of ajvarka peppers
- 8 kg of eggplant
- 2 l of sunflower seed oil
- 50 gr of mustard
- 4 spoons of salt (or per taste)
- 1 small cup of sugar (Turkish coffee cup)
- 1 small cup of wine vinegar
- 15 gr of preservative

...and a lot of labour. Making a batch of ajvar this large takes two days. It is doable in one day (three of us did it this year), but at the cost of making one of the more difficult phases longer. Not allowing the roasted and peeled peppers enough time to drain the excess water means the frying phase takes longer. Standing over the stove and constantly stirring ajvar for 4 hour is not easy. That's around an hour longer than with drained peppers. You can count on spending one weekend making this batch, and that is with minimum two people. Number of people is not that limited, but you need at least two people during the key phase - frying requires one person constantly stirring and one fuelling the fire. The fire needs to be strong so constant stirring is a must.

Phase 1 - Washing, Drying, De-stemming 

We're skipping the phase zero - finding the right peppers, making sure the ones on the bottom are as nice as ones on the top, buying the peppers, haggling about the price, fighting off other buyers, and the logistics of bringing it all home and organising your workforce. Let's assume you took care of that splendidly, and are now ready to get down to it.

Wash all the peppers individually, like you would for a salad. Ideally, you would organise a Ford-like conveyor belt where one person would be washing the peppers, another drying them off with a cloth and a third already de-stemming them. Makes you miss your family if they're not around to lend a hand.

If you spot any peppers with a small round hole, around a millimeter in diameter, you can discard those - they have a worm living inside. Other imperfections are usually acceptable, presumably they can be cut off. 

Remove the stems and the seeds. The seeds are edible and any grandmother would tell you that they are good for digestion, but some people don't like them. If you don't want any, try to take out as many as you can at this phase, but don't worry if some remain - you'll be able to take out the rest in the peeling phase.

Clean, dry peppers without stems are ready for roasting. Roasting can overlap with phase 1.

Phase 2 - Roasting

This is a pretty straightforward phase - roast the peppers until they are soft and the skin has large black patches, but don't burn through the skin. Keep the fire medium to strong and constant. One person could do this, but everything is easier if you have company.

Put the roasted peppers in a sealed pot (we use a vat with a lid) so they get steamed further. This will make peeling them that much easier. The peppers will need some time to cool off before you can proceed with peeling. 

Parallel to preparing the peppers, you'll need to prepare the eggplants. Peel them, cut lengthwise into four pieces and put in an oven on 200 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes, until they are soft. They are to be minced with the peppers in the mincing phase.

Phase 3 - Peeling

Peeling the peppers is a relatively slow process, but not that difficult. You'll have time to talk to your family or friends, listen to music and unwind. The goal is to remove as much of the skin as possible, especially the black parts. 

We sit around a colander, the container with roasted peppers and a trash bin. Another thing you'll need is a bowl with water so you can rinse your hands every once in a while. The skins tend to stick to your fingers.

Take ten or so roasted peppers into your tray and start peeling. Put the unpeeled peppers in one end of the tray and the skins in the other. You can open the peppers and remove the seeds as well. Opening the peppers also helps with the draining in colanders. Don't forget to put a bowl under the colander and make sure it's deep enough, you can expect a couple of centimetres of drained water.

Phase 4 - Mincing

As I said, you can proceed with mincing and frying the same day, but you'll pay for that with extra time needed for the frying and stirring part. An electric mincer will help complete this phase in no time. You can also add the roasted eggplants to the mincer.

Phase 5 - Frying

Put around half a litre of oil in the pot. Keep the fire strong and constant, to speed up the process. You'll add the rest of the oil throughout the frying. Don't forget that you need to thoroughly stir ajvar all the time*. This is not an easy job, and perhaps soon someone will invent a machine to do it, or have they invented it already?

Ajvar will reduce by several centimetres, and the trick in knowing when it's done is in the consistency of it. Put your ladle perpendicular to the pot all the way on the bottom and pull towards you - if you can see the bottom and ajvar doesn't close the gap right away, it's done. 

Now is the time to add the salt, sugar, vinegar and mustard. Taste it and add more salt if needed. In the end add the preservative and you can take ajvar off the heat once it's been throughly stirred in. 

Phase 6 - Canning

You'll need to prepare the jar and the lids parallel to frying. This is where a third person comes in handy. The jars and the lids need to be washed, sterilised and pre-heated in the oven. This prevents the glass from cracking and helps create an airtight seal once you put the lids on. Put them wet and upright in the oven, on 75 degrees for 20 or so minutes, until the dry off. The lids should stay in shorter, so they don't burn. Around 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can machine wash them, and slightly pre-heat them afterwards.

Use a ladle to fill the jars. Don't add too much at once, add a ladle to each jar, then repeat until they are full.

Spread the ajvar on top evenly and tighten the lids. Then wrap the jars in a blanket and leave to cool naturally, to avoid condensation under the lid. This will also create an air-tight seal.


Unopened jars can be stored in a cellar or pantry, but open jars are best kept in the fridge.


Ajvar goes best with white cheese, like Greek feta, or traditional Serbian cow cheese. Bacon, garlic, fresh hot white bread are all friends of ajvar.

Ajvar fried with bacon and cured meat and eggs, with a side of couscous and Serbian white cheese

And again, eggs with bacon, with couscous, cured meat, Serbian cow cheese, and ajvar on the side.

*Video courtesy of Milan Stojkovic.

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