Someone once wrote that every good novel must contain at least one recipe. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I agree that food can be a window into a novel’s world and its characters’ culture. I always pay particular attention to what characters are eating, especially when a book is set in another part of the world. Last week, I spent my spare time reading Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, a novel about life and death and the stories we tell about how we get from one to the other. I highly recommend it.
The novel is set in fictional towns and cities in a region that is immediately recognizable as the former Yugoslavia. In one pivotal scene near the end, two of the main characters meet in a city on the eve of its destruction and order an elaborate meal, which they eat on a balcony from which they can see the flash of the bombs hitting a neighboring town.
It’s a powerful scene, and the reason for the enormous meal is significant, so I won’t spoil it for you. But as I was reading the names and descriptions of the dishes, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the ones I didn’t know (tulumbe, tufahije, kadaif) and happy to be reminded of some I did, such as sarma, baklava, and ajvar.
Ajvar (pronounced “eye-var”) is a roasted pepper and eggplant condiment that is popular all over the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In my family, it is familiar as “that delicious red stuff” in the jar that we buy every once in a while from the Middle Eastern grocery store. I think of it as Eastern European ketchup or salsa and use it anywhere I’d use them.
Though you can sometimes find jars of ajvar in the international aisles of larger supermarkets, the flavors are never as bright as homemade. Plus, those store-bought jars are usually full of olive oil, which though tasty, isn’t really necessary.
My homemade version keeps a little of the olive flavor by substituting a few olives for the oil, making this a very low-calorie, unprocessed sauce that you can use any number of ways–dip crackers or veggies in it, spread it on sandwiches, mix a little into hummus, or slather it onto slices of baked tofu, as I did here. You can make it as mild or as spicy as you like by adding or taking away cayenne or red pepper flakes. The possibilities are endlessly delicious.
Ajvar (Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Relish)
- 5 red bell peppers about 2 1/2-3 pounds
- 1 medium eggplant about 1 pound
- 6 kalamata olives pitted and chopped, optional
- 3-5 cloves garlic
- 1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika optional or to taste
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper or cayenne or to taste
- salt to taste
- Cut the peppers in half and remove stem, seeds, and white membranes. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise.
- Place peppers and eggplants cut-sides down on a large baking sheet and place it in the oven about 4 inches below the broiler. Broil until the pepper skins blister and blacken and the eggplant is tender in the middle. The blacker you get the peppers, the better the flavor, so don’t be shy! If you find some are blackening before others, move them around on the baking sheet so that they will roast evenly.
- As the peppers blacken, remove them to a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. When the eggplant is tender, remove it to a plate or cutting board. Scoop out the flesh, discarding any large seeds, and place it in the food processor with the olives and garlic. Process until smooth.
- Allow the peppers to steam in the covered bowl until they are cool. Then peel off the blackened skin; the more skin you remove, the better, but don’t worry if you can’t get every bit. Add them to the eggplant in the food processor and pulse to chop them finely but do not blend them into a smooth paste. Remove to a bowl and add the vinegar, hot pepper, and salt to taste. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Nutritional info is approximate.
More Ajvar Info and Recipes:
- Ajvar (Vegetable “Caviar”) and Mediterranean “Quesadillas” from Vegan Feast Kitchen
- Veggie Kabobs with Ajvar from Vegan Eats & Treats
- Ajvar, Patties, and Chickpeas at Seitan is my Motor
- Fall Brings Red Peppers and Ajvar, ‘Serbian Salsa’ on NPR Kitchen Window
- Tofu with Napa Cabbage and Ajvar Paste at Fearless Kitchen
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Boy knitterMarch 8, 2013 at 10:44 am
Fabulous!!!! This site is amazing. Keep up the good work.
Paula KuitenbrouwerMarch 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm
Thank you for this recipe. I remember Ajvar from East-Europe. It tasted so yummy. I’m printing the recipe.
Anne KittredgeMarch 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm
Hey there! I made your Smoky Apple Baked Beans last night, sans smoke flavor and had to use some chili sauce as I was also out of ground chipotle pepper but AMAZING! I think the sauce amount was just right if you were having this alone but I plan on making a batch and a half of the sauce blend next time because I served them with brown rice and the sauce was pulled into the rice so it made the dish a little bit dry. And I’ve never read all the way down to the bottom of your page, I didn’t know about the amazon link, I purchase on Amazon all of the time, sometimes twice a week, and will use your link from now on.
moonwatcherMarch 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm
This looks absolutely delicious!! I haven’t heard of it before but I’m definitely going to try your version. I really like your method of “steaming” the peppers in the bowl like that to loosen the skins.
I loved your description of the novel, too, and so agree that food is definitely a window into any good story or poem. I will put this novel on my “to read” list.
Dana @ Vanishing VeggieMarch 8, 2013 at 2:47 pm
This looks like a nice and healthy option! 😀
DanielaMarch 8, 2013 at 3:10 pm
I’m so excited you posted this because I was born in ex-Yugoslavia and had to leave when the war started when I was 17 years old. Now I live in Michigan but always make food from back home and ajvar is one of the old favorites. We are lucky here that we have an Eastern European store very close so I can always get the foods I miss from home. I can’t wait to try your version of ajvar. And thanks for the book recommendation. I have it on my bookshelf but haven’t read it yet.
JelenaMarch 8, 2013 at 4:03 pm
If you feel adventurous, you can saute your fresh ajvar in a little bit of oil (neutral flavor) – it gives it a richer taste, for a change of pace. I, too, am from the ex-Yugoslavia and am used to ajvar being made both ways. I remember jars with the red deliciousness lining the shelves in the pantry. My mom would also freeze it sometimes, in which case she would omit adding garlic until thawed.
Glad to see “our” food featured on your site!
bluegrass2March 8, 2013 at 6:06 pm
Susan, I tried to find your recipe for “baked tofu” on which you put your Ajvar but couldn’t find it. Could you please steer me to the recipe? Thanks.
Susan VoisinMarch 8, 2013 at 6:10 pm
The baked tofu recipe is here, bluegrass2: http://fatfreevegan.com/blog/2010/02/25/baked-tofu/
Lissa @ Kitchen RebellionMarch 9, 2013 at 1:32 am
Ohh this looks great! I’m always after new ways to use eggplant. It’s such a delicious vegetable, and still a bit of a mystery to me, so this recipe is much appreciated 🙂
Homemade condiments are the stuff dreams are made of, I swear.
AmeyMarch 9, 2013 at 1:46 pm
yum! I love ajvar so much. When we were in Croatia and Bosnia we ate LOADS of this stuff – probably about a jar a day. It was so fantastic. There were all these bakeries with fresh delicious bread, and then we’d get a jar of ajvar and go to town. I’ve still never tried making it myself though. 🙂
IleneMarch 9, 2013 at 6:31 pm
A family friend is originally from Romania. When I was in college I sometimes stayed at their home and she would make this. Until now I didn’t even know what it was called. I’m looking forward to trying your recipe!
Thomas K TinneyMarch 10, 2013 at 12:09 am
EmMarch 11, 2013 at 2:41 pm
I am going to make this soon- but will not eat it with those lovely rice crackers you used in the original photo- oh I love those…and thanks for the book recommendation- was looking for anew one to read
Dipti JoshiMarch 12, 2013 at 6:58 am
Love this innovative dip recipe…will going to try soon..Love the vibrant red color..
JustineMarch 13, 2013 at 9:02 am
Delicious! I cheated by using jarred roasted red peppers from my local multi-ethnic store (only 2$!) and some sriracha sauce for the spice. Thanks for the new addiction! 🙂
Renard MoreauMarch 13, 2013 at 9:45 am
[ Smiles ] Susan, you’re amazing!
Thank you for posting this roasted red pepper and eggplant relish recipe.
JuanitaMarch 13, 2013 at 5:10 pm
Took the Ajvar in a picnic lunch for the baked red potatoes I’d prepared. Used the cooked but still firm potatoes as a finger food, along with hummus, carrots, celery and other fresh veggies for dipping. The Ajvar and potatoes were the hit of the picnic. Thanks for posting the recipe. I’m always looking for ways to use eggplant, one of my favorite foods.
Cesare Raphael DiAngeloMarch 13, 2013 at 8:56 pm
Greetings from San Francisco Ms. Voisin,
Just recently registered to index your recipes but have followed you for a year. From my Italian heritage one would be right in assuming I have an addiction to olive oil, but your recipe gives me an idea to simply add the olives in way that keeps the oil out.
Despite a heritage of good food I was also one of those pathetic lazy men, as the fast food commercial mocks, who without them I would starve. I’m in your debt for not only showing me how to cook vegan but in a way that embraces the foods we were raised to love and adapt them in ways to keep us healthy. Less then 6 months ago I was overweight at 220 lbs and experiencing symptoms of breathlessness and tingling sensations in my extremities associated with the heart disease or diabetes. I have sinced dropped to 175 lbs. So not only have the symptoms vanished but I have a renewed energy and a renewed muscular body that I had in my teens, and I am eating more and enjoying eating more!
My fav is your ever adaptable hummus. I use the fat free version you suggest and add oil free sundried tomatoes. Thank you, Cesare
LetitiaMarch 14, 2013 at 2:16 am
Wow looks amazing!
LauraMarch 15, 2013 at 7:06 pm
Thank you so much for offering this delicious recipe for ajvar. Until recently, where I live there was only one brand of ajvar that contained no oil, however, they’ve recently started adding sugar.
One of my favorite ones of enjoying it, is over hot roasted or boiled corn on the cob. It’s wonderful this way. Thank you again, and love, love, love your blog. 🙂
Nicole LeighMarch 18, 2013 at 9:55 am
This looks absolutely stunning and I cannot wait to give it a try!
AirbourneMarch 19, 2013 at 12:57 am
I am always in the mood to prepare dishes that are delicious and healthy. There are so many ways to enjoy the health benefits of egg plant. The Ajvar (Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Relish) recipe seems easy to prepare. This new recipe will make a fun treat for my health-conscious family.
JoannaMarch 19, 2013 at 12:22 pm
This sounds so good: I’m a big fan of peppers and olives but never thought to combine them. It’s unconventional but I want to try it.
AleksandraMarch 19, 2013 at 9:39 pm
Hello 🙂 I’m too from ex-Yu (Serbia). I buy a jar of ajvar every Sunday, but that’s not it :D. My granny made the best ajvar.
So, about the recipe, to improve the taste and quality of ajvar you need to cook it for about 3 hours. The more water evaporates the better. Try to use eggplant as less as possible and add some cooking oil. It is more expensive this way, but this is how fancy ajvar is made.
AranMarch 20, 2013 at 3:17 pm
Since I grow my own organic veggies and do my own canning, would it be possible to process this by canner after the recipe is completed?
SashiApril 29, 2013 at 9:56 am
I am so glad to be reading the recipe for ajvar on your blog 🙂
I’m from one of those Ex-Yugoslavia countries (Macedonia), and here, every September people massively make ajvar in large quantities, so that they can eat it all throughout the winter 🙂
Your recipe is very close to what we do here, except that the proportion of peppers to eggplants is different – we make it with plenty of peppers, and just a little bit of eggplants. But, it’s a matter of taste, so there are no exact numbers and quantities 🙂 Also, after blending everything, the mixture is again cooked, adding cooking oil to it, for a longer period of time, 4-5 hours even. Try it this way, it makes it even better!
dyannneSeptember 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm
I have an eggplant and everything else but the bell peppers! Got to run down to the fruit and vegetable stand this afternoon. This sounds wonderful. I love your website. I’m SO glad I lucked onto you!
BorisSeptember 18, 2013 at 1:04 pm
I have to try this recipe! My heritage is Serbian however I find that some of the best brands of store bought ajvar are from Macedonia and Bulgaria. However, due to health concerns, I’m on a reduced fat diet known as the Swank diet. Replacing all of that oil with a few Kalamata olives is a great idea! Finding that as I get older (40), I’m doing more of the “farm at home” type things such preserves, wine and of course a garden.
Alex StoffregenOctober 18, 2013 at 4:52 pm
I have tried making this recipe twice and both times it tastes great, but never looks nearly as red as yours. I get this almost brown paste from the eggplant and olives and then the red peppers just seems to be mixed in here or there. What am I doing wrong?
Susan VoisinOctober 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm
How big were your peppers and eggplants? I used 5 really big red bell peppers (about 3 pounds worth) that completely overwhelmed the medium eggplant.
SarahMarch 1, 2014 at 3:46 pm
LOVE this!!! I just made a batch and it is SOOOO yummy. I also love that it seems to have a hundred different uses. We home school and, during our geography studies I told my daughter we would try foods from different regions as we learn them. (Why not incorporate mommy’s passion for food/cooking into her education?) Ajvar was our chosen food for Serbia and Montenegro. The only problem with it is that I like it so much, I wish I would have made a double batch. Thanks for a great recipe I know we will be making again.
MilanMarch 8, 2014 at 9:52 am
Oh WOW what a surprise to read about ajvar here! I’m from Ex-Yu (still living there) and ajvar is something quite common on our table. You can buy it everywhere here but none is as nearly delicious as the one my mother makes. Not sure what she’s doing but I’m quite sure it’s more than 30 min 🙂
Oh and the book is great indeed (I left the link to my spoiler free review in the sig).
Greetings from Belgrade!
steveApril 26, 2014 at 3:32 pm
hi susan im steve from Usa ,born in Macedonia, do you know anyone near Cincinnati Ohio who sells ajvar? thank you. I will try to make your ajvar recipe It sounds delicious.
Amybeth HurstAugust 18, 2014 at 12:14 pm
Nice recipes and great posts! Thank you. Amybeth Hurst, Portland
TamaraJuly 15, 2016 at 12:07 pm
Hey Susan! 🙂 I’m from the Balkans, and I love ajvar but couldn’t eat it anymore because of the amount of oil used in the conventional recipe.
This recipe tastes the same without the oil! Thank you for bringing back one of my favorite foods to me 😀
RonJuly 26, 2016 at 10:50 pm
Can I process this recipe in jars for canning?
SueNovember 3, 2016 at 1:17 pm
Thanksfor this wonderful recipe. Just made it!
Jenny MillerJuly 14, 2017 at 12:11 pm
I can’t wait to try this recipe! I just came back from Bosnia and was hoping to find a delicious WFPB recipe for Ajvar. This looks fabulous!
Colin HammondFebruary 2, 2020 at 12:49 pm
In Romania it’s called Zacusca