Ajvar and caviar

« previous post | next post »

Many of us first learned about the Balkan red pepper sauce / relish / spread called "ajvar" in this post:  "Bosnian menu" (7/28/22).  Simplicissimus contributed a nice comment in which it was averred that the BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) "word ‘ajvar’ and the English word ‘caviar’ both derive from the same etymon, the Ottoman Turkish word ‘havyar’ (which, in turn, derives from the Persian ‘xâvyâr’) — now that I think about it, it’s not unimaginable to me that ‘ajvar’ got its name on account of a vague resemblance to red caviar."

Since I was one of those who had not previously heard of ajvar but was quite familiar with caviar, Simplicissimus' remark really piqued my fancy because neither did the two food items in question resemble each other very much (fish roe vs. red pepper sauce), nor was the phonological resemblance that great (thinking especially of the "c" at the beginning of "caviar" and its absence from "ajvar").  So I decided to dig more deeply into the relationship between ajvar and caviar.  Turns out to a fascinating linguistic, cultural, and culinary story.

We begin with general and etymological information on ajvar, then will move on to caviar.

Ajvar (pronounced: /ˈvɑːr/; Cyrillic script: Ajвар, Aйвар) is a condiment made principally from sweet bell peppers and eggplants. The relish became a popular side dish throughout Yugoslavia after World War II and is popular in Southeast Europe.

Homemade ajvar is made of roasted peppers. 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. Ajvar has a few variations. One variation contains tomato and eggplant. Another is made with green bell peppers and oregano.

The name ajvar comes from the Turkish word havyar, which means "salted roe, caviar" shares an etymology with "caviar", coming from the Persian word "xaviyar". Prior to the 20th century, significant local production of caviar occurred on the Danube, with sturgeon swimming from the Black Sea up to Belgrade. Domestic ajvar, meaning "caviar,” used to be a very popular dish in Belgrade homes and restaurants, but the domestic production of caviar became unsteady in the 1890s because of labor disputes. Eventually a special pepper salad was offered as a substitute in Belgrade restaurants under the name "red ajvar" (crveni ajvar) or "Serbian ajvar" (srpski ajvar).


Caviar is much better known to practically anyone who has gustatory pretension or appreciation.

Caviar (also known as caviare; from Persian: خاویار, romanizedkhâvyâr, lit.'egg-bearing') is a food consisting of salt-cured roe of the family Acipenseridae. Caviar is considered a delicacy and is eaten as a garnish or a spread. Traditionally, the term caviar refers only to roe from wild sturgeon in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea (Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga caviars). The term caviar can also describe the roe of other species of sturgeon or other fish such as salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, whitefish, or carp.


caviar (n.)

also caviare, "roe of certain large fish, salted and served as food," 1550s, from French caviar (16c.), from Italian caviaro (modern caviale) or Turkish khaviar, from Persian khaviyar, from khaya "egg" (from Middle Persian khayak "egg," from Old Iranian *qvyaka-, diminutive of *avya-, from PIE *ōwyo‑, *ōyyo‑ "egg," which is perhaps a derivative of the root *awi- "bird") + dar "bearing." The Russian name is ikra.


Alteration of earlier caviarie (probably from obsolete Italian caviari, pl. of caviaro) or from French caviare, both from Turkish havyar, from Persian khāviyār, probably from a Caspian Iranian dialect variant of Persian khāya-dār, egg-holding (as in māhī-i khāya-dār, egg-holding fish) : khāya, egg (from Middle Persian xāyag; see awi- in Indo-European roots) + -dār, holder; see zamindar.

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed. (2016)

There is little doubt that ajvar was intended to emulate the texture of caviar, since the peppers were originally passed through a meat grinder and reduced to little pieces similar to fish roe.  See the richly informative and well illustrated article on ajvar in Philosokitchen.


Selected readings


  1. wsa said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 12:58 pm

    I wonder if muhammara had any influence on this. It's a levantine dip of roasted red peppers, walnuts, breadcrumbs, pomegranate syrup or some other sour thing, and often boosted with hotter pepper flakes. The name is Arabic, "reddened." A very similar dish in the Caucasus is adjika, from Abkhaz "salted," apparently, and in southern Turkey is called "acuka."

  2. bdeskin said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 1:43 pm

    re: “The Russian name is ikra.” Baklazhannaya ikra, or eggplant caviar, is an ajvar-like spread that's more eggplant and less pepper than ajvar. ZerGut sells both ajvar and eggplant caviar: https://www.amazon.com/stores/page/5CF92653-FC9D-49DB-B9FD-5A93512661F5

  3. Jamie said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 2:31 pm

    I have just learned that the Japanese word for salmon roe (ikura) comes from the Russian ikra. Nice

  4. Martin Schwartz said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 5:38 pm

    Persian xāvyār 'caviar' most probably has its origin as a borrowing
    from some Caspian Iranian language (there are a number, independent from Persian, including at least one of which merely traces survive). I would tentatively reconstruct Proto-Iranian *āwya-dāra- *'egg-holder', but the diachronic phonological details require examination. I'll see if a Caspianist colleague can help.
    The second "source" cited above has its "qvyak"
    from some kind of typo. Incidentally in Modern Persian
    xāye-dār would mean 'testicle-holding'. I think beluga
    is ultimately from Turkic BALIK/Q 'fish'.

  5. Charles in Toronto said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 6:02 pm

    For those who do enjoy their caviar in spreadable form, though, Greek taramasalata is delicious.

  6. Daniel Deutsch said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 6:49 pm

    Just about to have ajvar with our roast chicken!

    We discovered it many years ago in Istria.

  7. Martin Schwartz said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 7:23 pm

    @Charles: Yes, yum. The Wiki "taramasalata" lists as forms
    for 'roe caviar' Bulgarian and Romanian forms which
    show the metathesis of the vy of Turkish havyar to yv
    as in ajvar etc.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 10:11 am

    Etymonline quoted above:

    (from Middle Persian khayak "egg," from Old Iranian *qvyaka-, diminutive of *avya-, from PIE *ōwyo‑, *ōyyo‑ "egg," which is perhaps a derivative of the root *awi- "bird")

    Never seen a q in a Proto-Iranian reconstruction. However, the kh (x) is apparently real – it is the preserved PIE *h₂ of *h₂ōwyo- "egg" and likely *h₂awi- "bird".

    *h₂ has survived pretty often in western Iranian languages as /x/ or /h/ (and similarly in Khotanese). Check out Martin Kümmel's academia.edu page for a number of works that develop this discovery.

  9. SlideSF said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 3:08 pm

    When I was a kid in the 1960s, my mother, who is Slovenian from Chicago, would make what she called "poor man's caviar" from eggplant and red peppers. I don't know what else she put in it, nor ever heard it referred to by any other name. I never tried it (eggplant was anathema to my callow palate), and I had never had caviar either. But I knew caviar was fish eggs, and that the "poor man's" version looked nothing like them. I always wondered why it was called that. Alas, my mother is no longer around, so I can't ask her where the recipe came from. I always assumed it was common among her university faculty cocktail-party set. Perhaps the connection was more familial than that.

  10. Easterly said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 7:19 am

    Speaking of Slovenian, I was told in the mid-1990s that Slovenia or a Slovenian entity had trademarked or otherwise staked a legal claim to "ajvar" before the other former republics with an actual historical claim to the condiment could get their act together. In any event, this was one of those things that was too good an exemplar of Slovenian entrepreneurialism (other nationalities used different descriptive terms for the phenomenon) to fact check so I never did.

RSS feed for comments on this post