Tuesday, October 25, 2011

His majesty - Ajvar

Everybody who has met a Macedonian in person has for sure heard about her majesty The Rakija and his majesty The Ajvar. I’ll talk about the healing abilities of rakija in some other blog post. This post is all about ajvar, baby! The king of the Macedonian cuisine and Macedonian specialties.

What’s so special about ajvar? It’s not a main dish because you don’t have ajvar for lunch, and it’s not a side dish because you never have just a bit of ajvar. There is a nationwide consensus in Macedonia that it is the most delicious recipe from the traditional Macedonian cuisine. I haven’t met a foreigner who has been introduced to his majesty the ajvar and didn’t like it. But it’s not just the taste of ajvar. It’s the whole preparation ceremony that makes it special.

Ajvar is usually prepared during weekends. Some people are a bit masochistic and try to finish the whole thing in one day, some take it more slowly, decide to enjoy the process of making ajvar and reserve the whole weekend for it. It all starts with buying the paprika. No idea how the type of paprika is called, but they have to be red and big. You can either buy a whole sack, and then (in most cases) get screwed with some bad paprika in the middle of the sack, which either have to be thrown away, or cut in half, or buy them in a way in which you choose each paprika manually. In the latter case you pay a bit more, but considering the fact that in the first case you through away 1/4 of the bought quantity, the price is in both cases the same. Bought quantities vary from 30kg – 150 kg. Yeah! 150 kg paprika! My family is not so masochistic and buys usually 50 kg paprika. The ajvar then usually holds out for a month or so, and the rest of the winter season we buy ajvar from the supermarket and talk about how much better home made ajvar is.

Ajvar is made on the open, either in a yard, or at the country side. Under no circumstances in front of your building since it is forbidden by law. (you people from the rest of the world reading this might think it’s ridiculous, but till a couple of years ago people, who don’t have yards or country side houses, used to do this) Although to some people it seems as a quite provincial habit typical for peasants that recently moved to the big city, there is something cute and charming about this public gathering. If we Macedonians were a bit more conscious and didn’t leave garbage behind, it could become a national trademark and a tourist attraction. But our incompetence to monetize national heritage is a different subject.

As I said, Ajvar is made in the open. Usually all members of the family are engaged (not always on their free will) to help. The men are responsible for baking the paprika, women for peeling. Paprika are baked on a kind of a grill, called kjumbe. It’s never electrical. Don’t know why. I guess we like to stick to the old-fashion way of getting things done sometimes. The paprika is being washed, and the handles and seeds are being removed from the paprika before even lighting the grill. As usually men are responsible for the grilling part, it is almost always accompanied by a glass or two of rakija, with a small amount of salad. If your neighbors see you are making ajvar, they come over for a rakija or two as well, sitting next to the grill with the man in charge of the grilling, discussing the minuses of lasts year ajvar and what both have done to make it better this year. The conversation ends with promises on both sides that once the ajvar is done, there’s gonna be a jar exchange, in order to find out whose ajvar is better.

Baking the paprika (photo taken from here)

The baked paprika are put and left in a big closed pot for some time. Now comes the hardest part of making ajvar – peeling the paprika, for which usually the women are in charge. Chairs are being put in a circle-like shape somewhere in the yard, and the pot together with a big plastic bag (for the garbage) is put in the middle. It usually starts quite cheerful, since everybody is imagining the ajvar, that is going to be eaten after that. Women discuss if this year the paprika is being pealed easier than last year, and in case they are not, they always make plans how they go to the seller and tell him to his face that he ripped them off and sold them low quality paprika. They never do. As time passes, and your back starts hurting more and more, you always end up asking yourself if it is really worth all the effort. You always know it is, but it is typical Macedonian mentality to complain about how hard things, nobody forced you to do, are.

After the paprika is being baked, the next in line is the eggplant. Same procedure as the paprika – bake, leave in a close pot for some time, peal.

The pealed paprika is cut in half, cleaned from some leftover seeds and left for a while to drain. Once the water is out, they are being put in one of those minced meat machines. Not an automatic one. A manual one. Yes, you manually provide the paprika as input with the one hand and manually rotate a handle with the other one. As I said, we like to do some things old fashion style. It’s not that there are no automatic machines available in Macedonia, or you can’t afford one. That’s just the way it’s done. The output is a reddish paste that smells fabulous and doesn’t look attractive at all.

The minced paprika together with the minced eggplant and some oil are put in a huge (I mean really huge) pot, and the grill is back in the game. Hence the size of the pot, the amount of paste and the danger of the paste being burned, it has to be stirred ALL THE TIME. This is usually the second time you start loudly expressing dissatisfaction that instead of enjoying your autumn weekend, you’re gonna have to deal with MUSKELKATER  the next couple of days. The others then start reminding you that it is soon going to be over and you have to hold out just a bit longer. A shot of rakija or two usually achieves this.

Here’s how the stirring looks like (Btw, this is a commercial for a sunflower oil brand. One of Macedonia's most epic commercials ever made.)

Half an hour to an hour of constant stirring and the ajvar is ready! Kids usually wait in front of the pot with a spoon, a peace of cheese and a peace of bread for a permission to do the primary tasting of the ajvar directly from the pot, as the person in charge of the stirring usually chases them away. Now the ajvar has to be poured into jars and that’s it. You never buy jars. Never. You collect them all year long from mayonnaise, olives, marmalade or whatever it is that is sold in jars. Before pouring the ajvar into the jars, they have to be sterilized. First washed, and after which they are being put in the stove at 50 degrees for about an hour or so.

Once all jars are full, the remains are being wiped out of the pot with small peaces of bread. Kids express their huge satisfaction, although their tongues are burned, and they demand that they have ajvar for dinner. You then come home, have a couple of slices of bread with ajvar, take a short shower and go directly to bed. And then you sleep like you have been sleepless for a week. The next couple of days your back hurts like hell, but that’s is completely irrelevant, cause your kitchen is full of jars filled with homemade ajvar.

If you still haven’t tried ajvar, I suggest you go to the supermarket and buy yourself a jar. Homemade ajvar cannot be compared to the one produced in factories, but they get better and better every year! Automatic production of ajvar is pretty new in Macedonia, a couple of years ago people didn’t even want to hear about buying ajvar from the supermarket, so some time needs to pass till the factories will have mastered this. But they are still pretty good. As for trying homemade one and witnessing “the making of ajvar” , visit Macedonia in September! The whole country has a charming smell of baked paprika. It’s simply beautiful.


Balkan Food said...

Great article Jovana. Is it ok to place link to your post at our site? Thanks in advance

Anonymous said...

you are crazy!!!!!!!!!!! hahaha
I was looking for a recipe! LOL

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. I traveled to Macedonia and fell in love with Ajvar myself. I was looking for a recipe online and stumbled on your website. FYI, in American English language, "paprika" refers to a spice that is made by ground red bell peppers. Americans would say that Ajvar is made by "red bell peppers" (or peppers for short) rather than "paprika".

Јована Тозија said...

Thx, for the remark, I'll keep this in mind :)

Simona Kafedziska said...

"My family is not so masochistic and buys usually 50 kg paprika." - My favorite sentence.

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