Tuesday, 25 April 2017



Balkan Culinary Wars II: The Epic Battle over a Vegetable Relish



Balkan Travellers   
Ajvar, lyutenitsa, zacuscă or biber salçası? The peppers, tomatoes and aubergines purée is to inflame as much hostility as the Macedonian issue a century ago. The whole thing must have started innocently enough, with the intoxicating smell of autumn peppers, grilled over a metal plate.

Somewhere in the Ottoman Empire’s central parts, the aroma-filled smoke of the India-imported vegetable must have risen and – carried by the wind, spread around the streets and courtyards, luring the passing, curious and starving wanderers from the Balkans.

Hours later, stuffed and happy, they must have made an oath to try and prepare at home this wonderful vegetable dish: minced peppers, flavoured with tomatoes, aubergines, garlic and vegetable oil.

And then things developed in the manner of summer fires in times of drought. Nowadays, there isn’t a Balkan nation that is not familiar with some form of the sterilised vegetable paste, even though its texture varies from a purée-like substance to one consisting of larger, chopped pieces, and the list of ingredients may include or exclude about a dozen vegetables and spices.

In Turkey, where the original likely came from, it is called biber salçası and it is seriously dominated by red chili peppers.

In Bulgaria, it was carried over with varyingly softened taste. Tomatoes are added some of the time but garlic is mandatory. Here, it goes under the name lyutenitsa and, like many other traditional dishes, it fell victim during socialism, when it was reduced to a simple purée mostly consisting of tomatoes.

Tenacious housewives with backyards at their disposal, however, preserved and even developed the tradition with surprising creativity, adding new components, like minced walnuts, to the mix.

Romanians have strayed from the path the most. They call this relish zacuscă, and cook it as a spread made of roasted eggplant, red peppers and cooked beans.

Meanwhile, the Western Balkans perhaps remain the closest to the Turkish original. This is made apparent partly by the word they use in reference to their version – ajvar. Supposedly, it comes from the Turkish word havyar, meaning ‘caviar’. Though unrelated to fish eggs, ajvar has a similar, grainy texture.

Today, ajvar, under this name, is a popular dish throughout Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It could be ordered in most restaurants in the former Yugoslavia and it is an
Spot the difference: Is this ajvar or kopoolu - another Bulgarian version of the disputed relish, cooked with aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and lots of garlic?
extremely popular condiment to the grilled meats typical of the local cuisine.

And here socialism also caused damage to the otherwise excellent dish – nowadays some key Serbian producers sell it on the mass market in enormous, ugly jars that, for some reason, are filled mostly with pepper skins.

And still, there are few things that compare to the well-prepared ajvar, generously poured among ten ćevapčići (oblong pieces of grilled minced meat), and a solid pile of chopped onion.

The rivalry between the Balkan nations over ownership of the vegetable relish has been smouldering for a long time, but it blew up with new strength in February, when Macedonia’s government took steps to trademark its version of ajvar, with aubergines.

“The Macedonian government is attempting to make ajvar a world-recognised product," government spokesman Ivica Bocevski told SETimes.com, adding that “branding would allow production to be standardised with the ingredients and its preparation listed on the labels. This, in turn, will guarantee quality and competitiveness at home and on the world markets.”

The initiative is pressing ahead despite earlier efforts by a Slovenian company to patent the product that failed when ajvar was deemed a generic name and not subject to trademark protection as one country’s property.

The Macedonian government’s move already provoked protests in the former Yugoslav countries, especially in Serbia – the vegetable relish there is not only known under the same name but it is also one of the true, and deserved, sources of national pride.

The Macedonians’ bid may develop in the latest epic battle of the Balkan Culinary Wars, as Macedonia is trying to trademark the product under the brand name Macedonian Ajvar. If the trademark request is granted, the brand would receive protection as a product with a certain geographic origin.

The stance of the authorities of the Greek province Macedonia is yet unclear.

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