It’s a poblano

The first time it was their sheer beauty. That simple. I bought them solely for their appearance. For their deep inky green colour and for the lustre of their skins. I’d no idea how I would use them, or even what they were, because the supermarket selling them had given a price, but no identity. OK, I knew they were a member of the Capsicum genus of flowering plants, but exactly what kind of member, and more to the point, what kind of note would they add to a recipe?

The extended capsicum family includes hot varieties and mild or sweet varieties, and they’re all native to the Americas. Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced the plant to the rest of the world and it’s become an important ingredient in many cuisines. Imagine Indian or Thai dishes without chilli, Korean kimch’i minus the heat, or Hungarian cooking before paprika.

A bit of digging and I discovered my purchase was a poblano chilli, a cultivar of the Capsicum annuum species. It’s named after the state of Puebla in central Mexico were it originated. So no surprise, it’s common in Mexican dishes like the classic chile rellenos in which the roasted vegetable is stuffed with cheese, coated in egg, then fried. Immature poblanos are green, maturing to a brownish-red colour, at which point they may be dried and change their name to be known hereafter as anchos.

Poblano chillies

Quite large—the ones I bought were 9-12 centimetres long—with a hint of heart-shape, the poblano was a mystery to me and that gave it a special allure. It stood out among the supermarket’s rainbow display of its fellow nightshades (Solanaceae): red capsicums, yellow, orange, purple, and a whole spectrum of greens from watery pale to the dark intensity of the poblano.

Capsicums, a.k.a. peppers and piemento, were relative latecomers to Australian kitchens. ‘The flavour of green peppers, or capsicums is still unknown in many households,’ ran a sub-heading in a Sydney newspaper from 1950. Six years later The Argus (Melbourne) wrote that ‘with the influence of European migrants on local food tastes, it is inevitable there will be an ever increasing desire to grow peppers, or capsicum, in the home garden.’ A regional Queensland newspaper offered a different slant on the story: ‘American troops, stationed in Australia during the war, not only increased the immediate demand, hut also helped to make capsicums popular with Australians.’

Back to poblanos. While they tend to be mild in flavour, occasionally and unpredictably they can be hot, hot, hot. (The same is true of many capsicum varieties.) And the ripened red poblano packs more of a kick than the green.

When I brought my first poblano home, I cut off a slice to taste it raw. It had a subtle acidity and a fruitiness, which was enhanced by roasting. Their skins are robust and on the thick side, so I decided to experiment with stuffing them. First I tried a mix of cooked rice, smashed chick peas (also cooked), onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, cumin and a dash of cinnamon. Then I tried crab mixed with a small amount of béchamel and topped with breadcrumbs.

I liked the first stuffing better, but as with all culinary experiments, there’s a lot of trial and error. I needed to make it a second (and third) time to adjust the balance of flavours and spicing. I went back to the Coles where I’d bought my first poblanos. Fortunately there was a fresh supply, and this time they were (mis)labelled—as bullhorn chillies. But that’s a thing with the capsicum family, isn’t it?—lots of aliases and local names.

Ajvar

‘There was a clean kitchen with tin pots and pans, strings of garlic hanging from the rafters, a neat larder stocked with pickle barrels, jars of ajvar and onions and rose-hip jam … ’

That’s from Téa Obreht’s 2011 novel The Tiger’s Wife. She’s describing the house where the narrator’s grandfather grew up, in Yugoslavia as was—although as far as I can remember, the country is never actually named. The book interweaves the grandfather’s richly-coloured recollections with the narrator’s coming-of-age during a/nother time of political strife.

Back to ajvar, pronounced ‘eye-var’. What is it? Well, it’s a roasted capsicum condiment, also known as Serbian caviar (Spriski ajvar), but in fact popular in so many countries that it’s difficult to determine the precise origin. In The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe Lesley Chamberlain reminds us that Serbia as much as Hungary is the home of the vegetable the British and Americans call peppers and we know as capsicum. The word ajvar most likely derives from the Turkish havyar which translates into English as caviar—although there are no fish roe involved in ajvar, be it from Serbia or elsewhere. From the fourteenth century until the early twentieth, much of the Balkans was under Ottoman rule. Not surprisingly, local cuisines picked up flavours and culinary practices from their eastern rulers, and several traditional Balkan dishes share common roots with those of Greece and Turkey. I reckon the borrowing probably went both ways, because food doesn’t recognise national borders; it belongs to the people who grow, prepare, and eat it.

Ajvar 3

In the early 1980s I travelled in Yugoslavia. The country was still part of the Soviet bloc and my food memories are not positive: a lot of gristle and grey. A bright spot—both literally and flavour-wise—was ajvar. Especially if it was homemade. The ajvar I eat in Australia is shop-bought not homemade. And despite the fact that most recipes you’ll find in cook books or online add eggplant to the mix, the ajvar I buy usually consists of just roasted red capsicum with garlic, salt and olive oil. Smooth or chunky, it comes in 3 levels of spiciness: sweet, mild, or hot. I’ve only ever seen it made from red capsicum, but in Mediterranean Cooking, Paula Wolfert describes it as ‘Adriatic eggplant and green pepper paste’.

Part of the winter store cupboard along with preserved chillies, pickled cabbage, marinated plums, cherries and anything else you can fit in a jar and conserve for the cold months, ajvar is versatile. It’s a dip, it’s a relish, it’s a salad, a spread, a side-dish, it’s go-anywhere, add-to-anything, utterly delicious, utterly addictive stuff. Often served with grilled meat, I like it with a rustic omelette and a slice of sour dough. Or with yoghurt, humus and warm fingers of Turkish bread.

I imagine recipes passed down the generations and across the oceans. The stories we tell about the old country and the new life and how we migrated from one to the other. I imagine the sweet, smoky breath of roasting vegetables and women with babushka scarves stirring huge pots and talking about the good old days when everything tasted better. Even if it didn’t.

Ajvar 2

I took these photos in the Hamilton IGA in Newcastle a couple of months ago. I don’t know if the demographics bear this out, but I always have the sense of a strong Slavic presence in Newcastle. Evident in these rows of ajvar on the supermarket shelf, obviously, but also there, albeit less obviously, in other aspects of the city.

In the deli section of my local IGA, they sell tubs of something called ‘Capsicum Turkish Salsa’ which looks like ajvar, and tastes … mmm, like a hot ajvar with a hint of cumin.

Towards the end of The Tiger’s Wife, in the fictional town of Sarobar (read Mostar of the destroyed bridge) the grandfather and another man order up a magnificent last supper. To a surround soundtrack of gunfire and explosion, they sit, sole customers, on the balcony of a once-grand but now almost deserted hotel. ‘“Can I entice the sirs with some mezze?” the old waiter says. “We have an excellent ajvar with garlic … ”’