Vague terms, generalizations, stereotypes that shift a lot of beautiful diversity on this world into obscurity, an ignorance cherished by everyone in some realms of live. Who doesn’t know them?! Designations like African, Slavic, Arabic, Asian usually don’t say anything. This is why I wished to speak about Serbian cuisine but need to revise this concept now. A Serbian friend of mine told me once that there is nothing like Serbian cuisine for him. Yes, there are regional cuisines in Serbia, with their traditions and specialties. However the next level will be already the Balkan one. The history of the region, shared by the majority of the area for several centuries, led to a common cultural heritage, visible as soon as we enter local kitchens. As a part of one empire for al least three to four centuries, Balkan people were learning from each other; their ideas spread, cultures shared their achievements. There is a spectrum of products, which you can find only here but at the same time in almost every corner of the peninsula. Think of feta-like cheese, rakija, kebab, sujuk sausage, shopska salad, ljutenica, stuffed paprika, kofta meatballs, börek, sarma, pita, baklava, and dozens more. So as a mater of fact, to a big extent, I need to agree with his point of view.
Here you go – one example of Serbian specialty, which is in fact known in the whole Balkan area: AJVAR. In my opinion, this is one of the best products of the Balkans and this one is indeed originally from Serbia, from where it later spread over the peninsula.
Ajvar is a word derived from Turkish though. It comes from ‘havyar’, which is salted roe and so the term ajvar shares its origin with the word ‘caviar’.
So what is the magnificent product bearing such an oriental name? We could probably talk about a relish based on red bell peppers, which are roasted and peeled, before the are blended or chopped and mixed with onion, salt, sunflower oil, vinegar, and sometimes also eggplants, treated as the peppers. As it’s a very simple product, its quality is dependent first of all on the aroma of peppers, which luckily feel in the region much at home since half a millennium.
Peppers were brought to Europe by Columbus. The plant soon conquered the stomachs of the whole Southern Europe, reaching Balkan very early, probably already in the 16th century. It is also from where it entered the Hungarian, and later also Austrian cuisines. In the northern countries of the continent, like Germany and Poland it basically remained unknown until the 20th century.
Here, in Serbia, the region, which is particularly famous for its red bell pepper, is the southeastern part of the country, around the city of Leskovac. Accordingly, also the best ajvar comes from there.
The relish is used as bread spread or as a side dish, but in my opinion it might be paired almost with everything. I add some to many pasta sauces, put it on ham, especially pečenica, or baked potatoes with horsemeat sausage, and even enjoy a layer of ajvar on bread with kajmak.
The best ajvar is the home made one that you can buy here from old ladies at pijaca, kind of farmers’ market, a true treasury of Balkan flavors and aromas. This is not surprising, of course. But there are also plenty of companies offering excellent products too. I had delicious ‘Leskovački cepkani ajvar’ (Chopped ajvar from Leckovac) from ‘Strela’ or ‘Domaći ajvar od pečene parpike’ (Homemade-like ajvar from roasted peppers) from ‘Zdravo’, which is organic. Basically everything is good if not from mass production, which offers low prices and the same low quality.