Last year, when I first went to the international foods store here in Rochester, I spotted, at the end of the main aisle, an array of glass jars containing a type of relish called ajvar. The jars were stylish: they had wonderful curved contours, and some even had a cloth draped over the lid, held in place by a golden string. I was quite taken by the appearance of these jars, and the bright red color of ajvar had me salivating.
Ajvar is made from red bell peppers, eggplant, garlic, chili pepper, and vegetable oil, and is popular among the people of the Balkans. When I tried my first jar (which I had some difficulty opening) I found it as delicious as I’d hoped it would be. My way of having ajvar wasn’t by any means Balkan. I had it as a side dish to flavor the last course of my evening meal - I had it, in other words, with the Tamilian staple of rice and yogurt.
Around the same time, I found, to my delight, that a Serbian couple lived on the top floor of my apartment. Who better to ask about ajvar and its nuances! We got acquainted and they invited me to their place a few times last winter. We talked of many things – I remember how much they liked the system of arranged marriages in India, and said they wished Serbia had it too – but I steered the topic towards food, asking about the ingredients in the pancakes they’d offered me, and inevitably, about ajvar.
“What’s a good brand of ajvar to buy?” I asked, “The one I’ve bought says it’s home made.” I described the shape of the jar, hoping that would suggest something. It didn’t. I went down to my apartment and brought the jar to them. They inspected it, and nodding vigorously said, to my great pleasure, that it was the right brand.
“You see”, they told me, “this brand is made in Macedonia. The climate there is ideal for the ingredients that go into ajvar. In general, when it comes to these sorts of products, buy ones that are made in Macedonia.”
I gladly followed their advice. But soon I faced a new obstacle. The second time I bought Macedonian ajvar, I couldn’t open the tightly sealed lid. Try as I might, no matter how much I twisted my wrists and fingers or tried such tricks as using a towel to cover the lid, it wouldn’t open. I was left only with aches and a terrible disappointment. The ajvar sat on my kitchen table for a week; I would look at the jar every day and then suddenly, in a burst of newfound confidence and anticipation, I would unleash myself upon it and attempt to open it, but to no avail. I went back to my Serbian friends. They taught me the technique of knocking on the lid with a fork in a friendly manner, as if soothing an unruly steed, then slowly prising the lid with the fork to let the pressure out, before opening it with ease.
Thus empowered, I bought and consumed jar after jar or ajvar. I stopped only once, to ask my friends upstairs if something so delicious could possibly be healthy. They told me what I wanted to hear: it was used as a winter salad and spread, and was quite harmless.
The spree went on during the winter months. I was laden with empty jars of ajvar, and since I was so enamored of them, I couldn’t dispose them. They proliferated in my kitchen; I knocked over them while chopping onions on the cutting board; they jostled for space with the plates and cups in my shelves. It took me a while to realize I could put them to good use: I could use them to store my spices.
So the jars now hold all kinds of Indian spices: mustard and cumin and assorted tadka seeds; manthakkali vathal (used to make the incomparable south Indian vathal kozumbu); vangibhaat powder – to name just a few. My craze for ajvar has now passed – replaced this summer by my obsession with expensive cherries – but the jars are constant reminders of just how much I craved for this relish not too long ago. Who knows, I might turn back to it again some time soon – but then what will I do with the new jars?