Just a decade ago, Melisa Hasanspahić from the eastern Bosnian city of Goražde could not have imagined that today she would run a food production company based on a recipe inherited from her mother.
But his life changed when he started selling pots of homemade ajvar, a very popular vegan delicacy, which until then he only gave away to friends and family.
“I love ajvar; I always have,” says Hasanspahić, now a food entrepreneur, whom family, friends and clients jokingly refer to as “Lady Ajvar”.
The orange-colored paste made from roasted red peppers is not only adored by Hasanspahić, but also throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina – and the entire Balkan region – where other “Lady Ajvar” like her distribute or sell homemade ajvar in the their community.
But while Hasanspahić uses red peppers and eggplant to make the delicacy, some argue that the “real” ajvar should be made with only four ingredients: red peppers, oil, salt and vinegar.
Recipes vary, however, by region and cook. Some require, for example, the addition of garlic, others of red onion, carrot and tomato.
There are also those who don’t mention vinegar, but suggest adding sugar. And many differ in whether vegetables need to be roasted, grilled, boiled, or even freshly ground.
Whether the ajvar will taste sweet or spicy depends on the type of pepper used.
In the first known published ajvar recipe, found in Excellent Serbian cookbook 19th-century author Katarina Popović mentions peppers and eggplant.
However, Serbs usually prepare ajvar with red peppers only, while the citizens of North Macedonia are typically the ones who also use eggplant.
The discrepancy between this first documented recipe and the current method of preparation in Serbia is probably related to the fact that people have moved to the region and shared gastronomic traditions.
Dua Lipa, a British singer of Kosovar origin, in a 2020 interview called ajvar an Albanian dish (Albania and Kosovo share the same cultural heritage).
This has angered some Serbs who insist that ajvar is Serbian, which in turn has angered some Northern Macedonians who claim the delicacy belongs to them.
There have previously been heated debates about ajvar, such as when the Slovenian press reported an attempt by a Slovenian food company to protect the name “ajvar” in the German market; and when RTS (Serbian radio and television network) reported that a Serbian ajvar producer allegedly sued a North Macedonian producer for counterfeiting his product and selling it as “Leskovac Ajvar” (a famous ajvar produced in the city of Leskovac, in southern Serbia).
As shown in the 2003 Bulgarian documentary Whose song is this? on a popular folk song that all Balkan nations claim as their own, the dispute over ajvar portrays the omnipresent tragicomic nationalism in the conflict-torn region.
In the countries that emerged from the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, cultural and gastronomic heritage has helped to form a sense of identity and each country wants to demonstrate that what was a common good is uniquely its own.
Although there is little consensus on what the “real” ajvar recipe consists of, or which nation it officially belongs to, one thing is certain is that homemade ajvar is always produced in the fall, between September and October, during the “pepper season”. “.
The vegetables are cooked individually, peeled and then ground together with the other ingredients. Stored in glass jars, ajvar is considered a “winter food” but is generally eaten throughout the year.
The versatile delicacy can be used as a spread, condiment, side dish, or main course, though it is often served as part of the mezaa Balkan appetizer with cheese, salami and other sausages, or with skewers (Balkan minced meat skewer).
It can be mixed with broths, served with steak or poured over omelettes, risottos or pasta. With a silky texture and a sweet and sour taste, it also goes well simply spread on a slice of bread.
“Ajvar” comes from the Turkish word caviar, which means “caviar”. According to some explanations, the dish got its name because chillies and olive oil were expensive and considered luxury items in Belgrade in the late 19th century, and kafanas (traditional Serbian restaurants) advertised orange paste in their menu such as “red pepper caviar”.
Now, however, vegetables cost a lot less, so ajvar is quite affordable.
“Ajvar is made with chillies that are available to virtually everyone; it is easy to prepare; it is relatively cheap … It can be a main dish and a side dish: it is caviar for the poor,” says ethnologist Slađana Rajković, who he is consultant of the National Museum of Leskovac.
In the Balkans, ajvar came to represent much more than just food; it is also a source of pride and comfort and offers a sense of belonging.
During autumn and winter, for example, people in the Balkans gather at ajvar festivals and competitions to celebrate the dish, which is also enjoyed in the virtual world.
“We can show the world what the power of the Balkans is if we can get the hashtag #ajvar,” says Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, who recently tweeted a picture of different types of ajvar.
His followers have started posting their own photos of ajvar pots and commenting on different versions of the delicacy.
It has also been a trend in Balkan pop culture. Croatian musician Tonči Huljić wrote a witty song about trying to “smuggle” a jar of ajvar into the European Union, which has strict rules on food imports.
A group of Serbian musicians expressed a closer relationship with ajvar in a song whose refrain can be translated like this: “Ajvar – five letters; ajvar – one color; a vase full of serenity that is mine alone”.
And last year’s Kosovar-Albanian film, Hivetells the true story of a war widow in Kosovo, Fahrije Hoti, who founded an ajvar production company in her community to help widows recover their lives and gain power.
In the recently awarded Serbian film Ajvar – a love story about a Serbian couple living in Sweden – the popular dish symbolizes family, love and nostalgia, as its introduction states that ajvar is “commonly found in the suitcases of Serbian migrants”.
It is thanks to Balkan expats, many of whom live in Scandinavia, that ajvar has become popular in supermarkets, kitchens and even in the vocabulary of Northern Europe.
The word “ajvar” has been included in the Swedish and Danish dictionaries, in which it is usually referred to as “a chilli cream of Balkan origin”.
At the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto festivals, organized by the International Slow Food Foundation, based in Italy, it is called ajvar sauce (“salsa” in Italian).
“We have always sold all the pots [de ajvar] which we brought with us “, says Jasmina Šahović, president of the Bosnian women’s association Emina, which has been presenting ajvar and other Balkan dishes at events for several years.
In addition to being a traditional delicacy, ajvar, whose ingredients naturally adapt to modern food trends, appears to have a bright future.
It is suitable for vegetarians and vegans and is gluten free.
Some vegan food and travel sites like Yummy Plants, Simply Healthy Vegan, Slavic Vegan, and Minimalist Traveler recommend it to their followers.
With an eye to market potential, the Croatian food company Podravka, for example, has started labeling its ajvar as a vegan product.
In line with the growing demand for vegan and organic food, more and more restaurants are including ajvar on their menus.
“It couldn’t have happened more naturally,” says Željka Kisić, manager of the vegan restaurant Vegehop in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
“Ajvar is a special food that is difficult to avoid in our traditional cuisine and especially in a vegan diet”.
Regional tour companies are also seeing the potential of ajvar and are catering to vegetarian visitors curious about Balkan cuisine, which is heavily reliant on meat and dairy.
For example, those who take part in food and cultural tours in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, can taste ajvar and learn about its relationship with the local culture.
South of Belgrade, in the capital of North Macedonia, Skopje, Skopje Walking Tours uses a similar concept, offering customized vegetarian and vegan food tours that include ajvar tastings.
“A few months before the pandemic, I had the idea to start touring ajvar,” says Elena Mitkovska, founder of the company.
“My family and I were preparing ajvar in our backyard and I told them it would be a wonderful idea to welcome travelers next year and show them the whole process, but then Covid-19 started.”
Mitkovska hopes to launch his ajvar tour next fall – it will be a full-day program that will allow you to participate in the entire ajvar making process, from cleaning the peppers and cooking to family lunch.
“Over the years, I have noticed that people are looking for an experience where they can have personal contact with the local reality, and there is nothing more local and traditional than doing ajvar at someone’s home,” adds Mitkovska.
Judging by the reactions of tourists so far, Mitkovska believes his ajvar tours will be successful. And like many people in the Balkans, she is looking forward to autumn.
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