Obsessions: A Smoky Serbian Relish, by Way of New Zealand

Spread tangy, red pepper–laden ajvar on bread, steak, and just about everything in-between

Ajvar Serbian red pepper spread
Matt Taylor-Gross

I used to work for a pretty crazy dude called Ned. He was the head chef and owner of the Italian restaurant in Taupo, New Zealand, where I had my first cooking job. He was Serbian slash Croatian slash Macedonian slash he said he was Italian (this was to convince the Kiwis, who really didn't know any better and thought an accent was an accent, that his food was authentic). Whatever he was, one thing was certain: dude was crazy. But he sure could cook, and he taught me a lot. I went from pizza maker to head chef in a matter of 2 months (due to the fact that he would sneak off in the middle of service to carry on drinking and bet on the horses at the bar next door, in addition to my obvious aptitude for Italian cooking).

Dude was crazy.

One of the many things he introduced me to was ajvar. Made primarily of roasted red peppers and garlic (and sometimes with chile and eggplant), ajvar is a slightly smoky, often tangy, and sometimes spicy relish, as well as my go-to many nights when I didn't have time to sit down for a meal before service. We would bake garlic bread and I would dip it in ajvar in between tickets when I had a spare moment or hand to shove something in my mouth. My boss had friends back home in Serbia send him cases of the stuff, and we would keep it in the back by our walk-in fridge. Sometimes, we'd add it to the menu to serve alongside the garlic bread, and sometimes he would just give jars of it away. I almost always had some at home, too, and I would smear it on steak on my nights off.

I had forgotten about ajvar until this week when I was at the Fancy Food Show in New York City and saw it as I wandered the aisles. Bright, burnt orange in color, I coerced Laura Sant, our digital editor, to try it with me. One taste and I was back in Taupo at the restaurant working with Ned. Now that it's available in the U.S., I've stocked up on a couple of jars (not cases, yet), and have returned to my old ways, slathering it on bread whenever I get a chance in between testing recipes in the SAVEUR kitchen.

Va-Va Mild Ajvar, $7 at fastpakstore.com