Monday, 9 May 2011

Simplified Nonya Achar (Peranakan Spicy Pickled Vegetables)

Having the cucumber and shallot pickled salad and the sambal chilli together made me think of a spicy cucumber pickle that is one of my absolute favourite accompaniment to most things coconut. It's the Nonya achar!

The Peranakan culture is unique to Singapore and Malaysia, a result of the marriage between the Straits Chinese and indigenous Malays, and the best part about this (to me) is the Nonya cuisine that develops, a mix of chinese cooking techniques and ingredients with malay spices-- the best of both worlds! The Nonya achar is quite different from your usual pickled gherkin, nor the Indian achar. It's more like a super aromatic and spicy piccalilli, and besides cucumber, can have cauliflower, long beans, carrots, and cabbage.

I used the vegetables that I had at hand/were on offer, and replaced a lot of the more exotic ingredients with the ones that I could find readily, so I guess it's not as authentic or mind-blowing as it could be, but it's still very good.

Simplified Nonya Achar
makes about 2 cups (this is a small batch achar)
1 medium cucumber
1 medium carrot
small handful of stringless runner beans
1/2 cup of chopped fresh pineapple (for natural sweetness (: )
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds (and/or chopped toasted peanuts)
3 tbsp kosher salt
2 tbsp unrefined cane sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 tbsp whey (optional)

For the spice paste (rempah)
6 shallots (or 1 red onion)
1 clove of garlic
1 cm slice of ginger
1-2 tsp ground turmeric (originally fresh turmeric)
1 tbsp hot chilli powder (originally a mix of dried red chillies, fresh red chillies, and birds' eye chilli)
1 tbsp toasted belachan (fermented shrimp paste)
2 macadamia or brazil nuts (originally candlenuts, but it's harder to find out of southeast asia)

1. Chop the cucumbers and carrots into bite sized sticks, and slice the runner beans diagonally.

2. Sprinkle 1 tbsp of sea salt over the cucumbers and leave them for 30 mins to sweat.

3. Bring the vinegar to the boil with 1/2 cup of water, 1 tsp of sea salt and 1 tsp of sugar. Blanch the carrots and the runner beans.

4. Dry your vegetables! This makes for crunchier pickles!

Drain, rinse and squeeze the cucumbers.

Lay the carrots and runner beans out on trays to dry
(In Singapore where it's 36 degrees celsius almost all the time, just leave them out in the sun. Here in london where the skies are grey, I chose to dry them out in an oven turned to a very low heat)

5. Blend all the rempah ingredients. Add oil to a hot pan and stir fry the spice paste over medium low heat till aromatic, about 15 min. Add the remaining rice vinegar, sea salt and sugar, bring to a boil and then remove from heat to let cool.

6. In a glass (or other non-reactive) bowl, mix the rempah with the vegetables pineapples and whey (if using), sprinkling the toasted sesame seeds over.

7. Resist the temptation to eat it straight away and let the vegetables sit in the marinade.

It will seem like the marinade can't really cover the vegetables, but just press them down into the jar. The next day the vegetables will release some of their own water.

Fragrant with toasted chilli and spices, and bursting with a tart sweetness, this pickle gets better after a day or two in the fridge, and can keep for about a week (I read a month somewhere. hmm oh well you will definitely finish before then). That's the key to a good pickle-- time! The flavours start to meld and become more intense.

This is a small batch achar because it's my first time making it. I looked at this, this, and this for reference. The achar turned out really good, but my aunt's achar still wins. Maybe when I go home for summer I'll grill her and try this again with the proper ingredients. For now, I'm very very happily eating my way through my simplified Nonya achar (:

This is part of Hearth and Soul Blog Hop, Simple Lives Thursday, Pennywise Platter Thursday and Malaysian Monday.
UPDATE: I've made this again with tips from my aunt and it's an even simpler recipe this time, using ingredients that are wholly british and in season, sans pineapple and belachan. Quite shit-amazing.


  1. You really have some great recipes here! This sounds great though I've never heard of fermented shrimp paste. I so have to look around your blog closer, that pumpkin ravioli looks awesome! Thanks!

  2. I love this dish.Try to add some round cabbage and sprinkle some ground delicious.My sister will do this every Chinese New Year.

  3. Gosh, you can really cook! This entails quite a lot of 'labour'! Thumbs up!

  4. Oh wow, this looks awesome!! I love your pictures and the colorful dish. I've had Malaysian food a few times and I've always been blown away. It may be time to attempt making it myself in my own kitchen. =)

  5. I've never tried this before but I think the flavors would be incredible!

    Thanks for sharing at the hearth and soul hop.

  6. thanks! this is simplified so it's a lot less labour hahah (:

  7. Hi Shu Han
    Thanks for browsing my Blog (Lazy Mum Yummy Bites)which I have not been updating for quite some time and hope you enjoy picking up those recipes which you like.

    Sure, the Ingredients are as follows : The ingredients provided are based on my own judgement (pick this from my Nyonya mum) when preparing for 2 cucumbers, 2 carrots, 8 pcs longbeans, 1/4 cabbage

    Rempah Ingredients :
    4 pcs lemon grass
    2 thumb-size turmeric
    2 thumb-size galangal
    10 pcs red chillies
    5 large red onions or 20 shallots

    some rice vinegar - to your taste
    some sugar - to taste
    some salt - to taste
    200 gms grounded roasted peanuts

    1. Just blend the rempah ingredients into a paste
    2. Saute the paste in 5 Tbs oil till fragant, then add rice vinegar, sugar, salt
    3.Then add in the carrots, cabbage and stir mix well before adding in the longbeans and finally the cucumber**, allow it to simmer for a little while till the vegetables are tender
    4. Finally, serve with the grounded roasted peanuts generously sprinkle on top

    * to get the cucumber to stay crunchy, do remove the seeds. Mix the cucumber with 2 tsp salt and allow it to rest for 30mins and squeeze dry before cooking. Do not scald the vegetables as this will spoil the wonderful taste of the vegetables.

    Happy cooking and have fun.

  8. I love this esp with nasi briyani or nasi minyak or nasi tomato! the list can go on and on. lol. Btw, thanks for dropping by at my blog. ;)

  9. i love it with nasi briyani too! (:

    and thanks jean for the BETTER achar recipe! I'll definitely try it out now that i'm in Singapore and can get hold of these ingredients more easily!

  10. It's 6am and I am HUNGRY for these vegetables! Gah.

  11. Did you ever talk to your aunt about her recipe? Would love to have another lacto-fermented achar recipe for my family.

  12. Nyonya acar is the best pickled food. It even better than kimchi and somtum imo!

  13. Dietary experts recommend that every person should eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

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  15. Nice but theseare not lactofermented. Vinegar itself kills the good bacteria needed for lactofermentation.Boiling the vinegar and blanching the vegetable in that's totally killing the good bacteria and probiotics. You get the taste but not the probiotics

    1. You're right! I wrote this years ago and only just realised the error - I've edited it, thank you! And yes you lose the probiotic effects with vinegar pickling - definitely delicious however, and more predictable outcomes. I'll have to see if I can devise a lacto-feremented version of this x