I’ve always been fond of pickled and fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut, kimchi and Middle Eastern pickled turnips. So it’s no surprise that I love acar (also spelled achar), which are spicy pickled veggies commonly eaten in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Interestingly, achar, or achaar, also refers to pickles on the Indian subcontinent. I didn’t even know this until recently, when a Pakistani friend mentioned about eating achar, and I wondered how he knew about this food! Of course, South Asian achar is different, but the fact is, every country probably has its own version of pickles.
There are various kinds of acar in Malaysia, but the most well-known one, especially amongst the Peranakan community, is Nyonya Acar. It’s my mum’s favourite, and one of the many yummy things that she used to make when we were growing up. Acar is usually served as a condiment, or as an accompaniment to rice and other side dishes. But I love it so much I could probably eat it as a main course (it’s really just a salad, right?!) or straight from the jar! Crunchy vegetables and a complex combination of sweet, sour, spicy and nutty flavours makes acar simply addictive!
Traditionally, Nyonya acar has candlenuts (which look similar to macadamia nuts, and are often used in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking, to thicken sauces and curries). Some will also add in ingredients such as galangal (similar to ginger; used in Southeast Asian cooking), toasted belacan (Malaysian dried, fermented shrimp paste) and pineapple. Sometimes tamarind juice is used in place of vinegar. It’s been a long time since my mum has made acar. I know she’s got the recipe somewhere, but she’s been travelling a lot between several countries in the last 20 years, and I still need to track down all her handwritten recipes!
In the meantime, it was my sister who actually tried and liked this simplified recipe for acar, and recommended it. Not only are all the ingredients readily available at supermarkets here, but surprisingly, this pared down version actually tastes really good!! In fact, one time I made it, I didn’t have rice vinegar, so I substituted with half white vinegar and half apple cider vinegar, and it was SO amazing! I only adjusted the amount of sugar from the original recipe, which was a little too sweet for my liking. With the decreased sugar, I find that it’s a little bland tasting initially, however, if you can manage to wait just until the next day (like all pickles, it gets better with time), the flavours balance out and it’s absolutely delicious!
SIMPLIFIED NYONYA ACAR (SPICY PICKLED VEGETABLES) (Makes about 1 – 750 ml jar)
500g (about 2 medium) cucumbers, cut into 2-inch (5 cm) batons
100g (about 2 small) carrots, cut into 2-inch (5 cm) batons
100g (about 1 cup) cauliflower florets
100g (small handful) french beans, stems removed and cut in half
2 tbsp kosher salt
For the marinade (rempah):
150g (3-4 large) shallots
4 red chilis, deseeded (if you prefer less spicy)
2 dried red chillies, soaked (and deseeded, if you prefer less spicy)
1 stalk lemongrass (white part only)
1 heaped tsp turmeric
1 tbsp vegetable oil, for frying
125ml white rice vinegar (or half white vinegar and half apple cider vinegar)
large handful of freshly toasted sesame seeds
large handful of crushed freshly toasted peanuts
*Amounts are rough estimates. You can play around with the proportions of vegetables, although traditionally, Nyonya acar has a larger proportion of cucumbers. Cabbage can also be added (they will need to be blanched first).
1) For the cucumbers and carrots, sprinkle over half the salt and set aside to sweat. For the rest of the vegetables, blanch very briefly in boiling water with the remaining salt (just long enough for the water to return to a boil). Remove the vegetables to a bowl of ice cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside.
2) Preheat oven to 150 F. Rinse cucumbers, drain and set aside. Pat dry the rest of the vegetables (carrots, cauliflower and french beans) and spread out on a baking sheet and place in the oven for about 30 minutes.
3) While the veggies are drying out in the oven, pound/blend your rempah ingredients (shallots, chilis, lemongrass and turmeric) and then fry the paste in oil over medium-low heat until aromatic. Add the vinegar and sugar, bring to a boil, and then let cool.
4) While it’s cooling, squeeze out the excess water from the cucumbers and pat dry. In a bowl, combine with the other vegetables, then pour the rempah over. Add in the sesame seeds and peanuts. Mix well. Don’t worry if it seems the marinade can’t cover all the vegetables; they will start releasing their own juices as they pickle.
5) Store the acar in glass jars. Let the vegetables marinate for at least a day before eating.
Note: Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month