My mother always told me to never discuss my Serbian roots. “People will think you are dangerous,” she would whisper with narowed eyes. While it is true that the Serbs are a feisty race one cannot deny their beauty, survival skills, their passion for life and their weapon-sharp minds!
My glamorous Serbian grandmother who never went to bed without a perfectly made up face (if she died in her sleep she wanted to be found looking beautiful) always had a stash of homemade ajvar on hand. She swore that the vitamin C in the red peppers was responsible for her impeccable complexion and wrinkle-free skin.
Ajvar is a type of relish, made principally from red bell peppers, with garlic. It may also contain eggplant and chili. Ajvar originates in the Serbian cuisine, and was therefore long known as “Serbian salad” or “Serbian vegetable caviar”. It became a popular salad (side dish) throughout Yugoslavia after World War II and is nowadays popular in the Balkans. Original homemade ajvar is made of roasted peppers, while some industrial producers use cooked peppers, which leads to a lower quality. Depending on the capsaicin content in bell peppers and the amount of added chili peppers, it can be sweet (traditional), piquant (the most common), or very hot.
Ajvar can be consumed as a bread spread or as a side dish. Original homemade ajvar is made of roasted peppers, while some industrial producers use cooked peppers, which leads to a lower quality of ajvar. The preparation of ajvar is somewhat difficult, as it involves a great amount of manual labour, especially as regards the peeling of the roasted peppers. Traditionally, it is prepared in mid-autumn, when bell peppers are most abundant, conserved in glass jars, and consumed throughout the year (although in most households stocks do not last until the spring, when fresh salads start to emerge anyway, so it is usually enjoyed as a winter food).
The anti-aging and health benefits of eating red bell peppers – the principal ingredient in ajvar are as follows:
- Bell peppers are low in calories! So, even if you eat one full cup of them, you get just about 45 calories. Bonus: that one cup will give you more than your daily quota of Vitamin A and C – both spectacular anti-aging vitamins.
- They contain plenty of vitamin C, which powers up your immune system and keeps skin youthful by boosting collagen and fighting free radicals. The highest amount of Vitamin C in a bell pepper is concentrated in the red variety.
- Red bell peppers contain several phytochemicals and carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene, which lavish you with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- The capsaicin in bell peppers has multiple health benefits. Studies show that it reduces ‘bad’ cholesterol, controls diabetes, brings relief from pain and eases inflammation.
- If cooked for a short period on low heat, bell peppers retain most of their sweet, almost fruity flavor and flavonoid content, which is a powerful nutrient.
- The sulfur content in bell peppers makes them play a protective role in certain types of cancers.
- The bell pepper is a good source of Vitamin E, which is known to play a key role in keeping skin and hair looking youthful.
- Bell peppers also contain vitamin B6, which is essential for the health of the nervous system and helps renew cells.
- Certain enzymes in bell peppers, such as lutein, protect the eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration later in life.
Unfortunately, my grandmother’s ajvar recipe is long lost. However, click on the below links for traditional Serbian ajvar recipes. These recipes are particularly useful as they come with pictures… Beware – real ajvar can be time intensive to make. I recommend finding a local Serb and getting yourself invited to their homes as they are quite particular about the quality of their ajvar and usually always have it on hand! Discover their source…
I eat ajvar practically every day – usually on bread with feta and parsley or with fish.
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