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For the Love of Red Peppers
I had to travel all the way to Macedonia to discover how incredible peppers are — and how they make a delicious concoction called ajvar.
I was surprised the first time I heard that red peppers are a fruit — technically, a “berry” — and not a vegetable like everyone thinks.
And I felt truly shocked when I learned that red and yellow bell peppers are actually just green peppers that have been allowed to fully ripen.
And how about the fact that paprika — the spice — is made from dried red peppers?
But for red peppers to absolutely blow my mind, I had to travel all the way to the Balkans — specifically, to Ohrid, North Macedonia, where Brent and I just spent a month. This is where I discovered just how amazing red peppers truly are.
We’ve been living in countries around Central and Eastern Europe for several years now, and I’ve long noticed all the peppers. You see mountains of both green and red ones in groceries and public markets throughout the area. These are “sweet peppers,” not the “hot peppers” common in other areas of the world.
In fact, peppers arrived in Europe from the Americas in the 15th century and quickly spread throughout the Balkans thanks to near-perfect growing conditions. Macedonia, for example, has some 300 days of sunshine.
In this area of the world, peppers are usually eaten stuffed with different kinds of meat, or roasted and eaten as a vegetable — er, fruit — accompaniment to the main dish.
Living in nearby Bulgaria four years ago, I also fell in love with a concoction known as lutenitsa, which is a stewed blend of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. It’s usually served as a spread on bread, but is sometimes used as a dip as well.
In Macedonia, I discovered ajvar — pronounced “eye-var” — which is a different spread entirely, made from, well, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. Or just peppers and tomatoes. Or sometimes just peppers (and salt and olive oil).
The truth is, recipes vary, even in Macedonia.
Ajvar is extremely popular throughout the different Balkan countries, and is often a point of national or regional pride. Indeed, the dish is so popular that there is now a dispute as to where exactly it originated — and also which version is the best and most authentic.
The first recorded use of the word “ajvar” comes from a restaurant in Belgrade, Serbia. But before Serbians claim victory, it should be noted the restaurant was run by a family from Macedonia.
Almost everyone agrees that the name probably comes from the Turkish word “havyar,” meaning “salted roe, or caviar,” which ajvar does sort of resemble. This makes sense since the Ottomans controlled the Balkan area when bell peppers arrived in Europe.
Grocery stores in Macedonia always stock plenty of ajvar, but many Macedonians also make it themselves — especially in the fall, after the late-summer harvest. The cooking process perfumes the air with the smell of woodsmoke and roasting peppers.
In fact, walking home to our apartment one night, I caught this very smell coming from our neighbor’s yard.
I saw someone tending a fire, and I immediately thought, I wonder if they’d mind if I took a few pictures…
Yes, I can be kind of brazen sometimes. Then again, what’s the worst that can happen? They tell me to get lost?
Tentatively, I called out, “Dobra vecher?” which means “Good evening.”
An older man looked over at me, and he must have seen the curiosity on my face, because he motioned me closer.
Sure enough, he was roasting red peppers over glowing coals, much of their bright red skin already charred. Next to the roasting peppers, a woman stirred a large pot bubbling with a tangy-smelling orange mush.
I’d barely asked if I could take a photo or two when I was suddenly seated on a stool holding a plate with fresh bread slathered with still steaming ajvar. As I ate, I was also offered a glass of rakia — a kind of local fruit brandy.
Brent had been expecting me home, and a few minutes later, he poked his head into the yard. Naturally, he was invited to join the party as well.
I love ajvar in all of its variations, but I doubt I’ll ever taste any as good as what I had that night. It had literally just finished cooking! Some folks add spicier peppers to the main ingredients, but this was a sweeter version, just bell peppers and tomatoes.
They even gave us their recipe, which I’ve detailed below. I wouldn’t share it except it’s so ridiculously simple.
It sometimes pays to be brazen, I guess.
Now that I knew what to look for, over the following days, I saw similar scenes of people making ajvar everywhere. And they usually shared the experience with their families and neighbors.
Indeed, a nomad friend, Karen, was invited by her Airbnb hosts to spend an entire day participating in the whole process with three other women.
She told me it was very hard work, but that, of course, the load was lightened by the women laughing together, sharing stories, and getting to know each other.
Before peppers can become ajvar, they’re hung out in the sun to ripen — usually strung up in strings hung from the eaves of houses.
Once ripened to peak flavor and sweetness, the peppers are roasted over an open flame.
After being nicely charred, the peppers are placed into a covered pot (or plastic bag) where they steam themselves. This makes it easier to peel the skin from the flesh.
But the skinning process still isn’t easy, at least according to Karen. It’s hard, messy work!
Next, the skinned peppers are either finely chopped by hand — or run through a hand-turned grinder, if you’re lucky enough to own one. Then they are thrown into the pot, along with the tomatoes, salt, and olive oil.
“Preferably, Greek olive oil,” one Macedonian friend told me. “We’re not always crazy about the Greeks, but even we can see they make great olive oil.”
As I noted, some ingredients are optional: spicy peppers or eggplant (which, it should be noted, is not the usual Macedonian way). Truthfully, I’m still not entirely sure how ajvar is different from Bulgaria’s lutenitsa.
Anyway, the ajvar is then cooked over a steady heat for three hours, and it must be continuously stirred.
Thankfully, the making of ajvar really is usually a friends-and-family event — and hey, sometimes the nomad neighbors are invited too! — so there tend to be plenty of hands available for all this roasting, peeling, chopping, and stirring.
Eventually, the ajvar will have simmered into a rich, tangy cream, which can be eaten warm or cold, and served as a dip, sauce, or relish. Some will, of course, be immediately shared by the group, definitely with homemade rakia. The rest is sealed in glass jars for future use.
As promised, here’s our neighbors’ recipe for ajvar, with some additional instructions from Karen. Yes, it calls for a large amount of ingredients, but be forewarned that this will boil down to only about five kilograms of ajvar — which should be just about enough to see you through the long, cold winter ahead.
20 kg bell peppers ripened to red
5 kg tomatoes
1 kg olive oil
Salt and sugar to taste
Roast the red peppers over an open flame until the skin is charred to black.
Place peppers into a plastic bag or covered pot and let steam for fifteen minutes.
Chop tomatoes and place into a large pot. Remove peppers from the bag, peel, and remove the seeds. Mince peppers and place into pot, slowly stirring in olive oil. Once all of the oil is added, stir continuously for three hours, adding salt and sugar to taste.
For different variations, you can add black pepper, hot peppers, garlic, eggplant, and/or vinegar.