Thursday, 2 August 2012

August's Nonya Achar


I've been going through cucumbers shockingly fast recently. Aside from self-indulgently placing circles of them over my eyes, I find cucumbers just the most perfect thing to munch into on a hot summer's day, its cool juices instantly soothing my parched throat. Actually, the sun I was whining about in the previous post has stormed off in a spite (I'm sorry please come back), and the rains and cool weather have returned, but I still can't get over the cucumber kick.

I think it might be down to these cucumbers I get at the farmer's market. They look really quite scary with little spikes poking through their twisted bodies, kind of like extra large caterpillars, but this is why you should never judge a book by its cover. These cukes have a refreshing sweet crunchiness that puts the usual pretty smooth ones to head-hanging shame. I've made 2 jars of your everyday dill pickles with them, not bothering with oak leaves and all those messy tips, and they remained perfectly crisp. Pickle-perfection guaranteed, I decided to move on to a more ambitious recipe: the most shit-amazing, irresistible pickle of them all, the nonya achar.


It is also the most strategic time of the year when the other ingredients required to make achar are oddly in season all at once, from the summery cucumbers and beans, to the more wintry nights-evoking carrots and cauliflowers. Even the chillies required for the spice paste to smother your vegetables in is bang in season right now. In fact, almost all the ingredients in this are British. I have a scan of a handwritten recipe from my aunt, legendary achar maker, which is surprisingly even simpler than my "simplified nonya achar", no toasted belachan or candlenuts or galangal at all, and I've further messed around with the recipe, but am surprised this tastes even more shit-amazing. I've also made the achar sans pineapple, it isn't an essential and is definitely not necessary when you've got all these brilliant local produce shining in their own right.

NONYA ACHAR ("Best of British August") 
Ingredients*
500g (two large'scary') cucumbers
100g (a small bunch of baby new) carrots
100g (two fists-sized) cauliflower
100g (small handful) french beans

For blanching/salting
2 tbsp kosher salt

For the marinade
150g (3-4 large) shallots
4 red chillies
2 dried red chillies, soaked
1 stalk lemongrass
1 heaped tsp turmeric
1 tbsp groundnut oil, for frying
125ml white rice vinegar
200g unrefined light cane sugar

To finish
large handful freshly toasted sesame seeds
large handful of crushed freshly toasted peanuts

*Cabbage (esp the tender new season ones) can also be added. Proportions are very rough estimates. You can add more of whichever vegetable you like, though do use a heavier portion of cucumbers. Because you'll drain away quite a lot of their weight in water later, and because I insist they're the best part of achar.

Method
1. Chop all the vegetables into finger-length batons. 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. Lay out to dry if it's a hot sunny day, or chuck into a very low oven.
2. You've got about half hour of waiting to do, so take the time to pound/blend your rempah ingredients and then fry the paste in medium low heat till aromatic. Add the vinegar and sugar, bring to a boil, and then let cool.
3. While it's cooling, drain, squeeze and pat dry the cukes. Combine with the other vegetables and the sesame seeds and peanuts, then pour the rempah over, and mix well. Don't worry if it seems the marinade can't cover all the vegetables, they will start releasing their own liquid as they pickle/ferment (use non-reactive bowls or glass jars). Let the vegetables sit in the marinade for at least a day before eating.



If you've never had nonya achar, think of it as a spicier, more aromatic, more, well, peranakan picallili.  Each bite yields a different texture on the tongue, a delightful crunch of the best of this season, and each crunch gives way to a flavour explosion of sweet, sour and spicy. The toasted sesame seeds add a very different sort of crunch with a very different sort of fragrant explosion, so that, altogether, it's like fireworks going off in your mouth. It's usually had as a little fermented side pickle with heavier rice dishes, just something to stimulate a healthy appetite and digestion. But really, it's pretty hard to resist picking at it straight out of the jar anyway. Do make more, it should last 3 weeks in the fridge and the flavours only meld and become more explosive with time.


Side newsflash: My article "In search of perfect rice" for Crumbs Mag has been mentioned in this week's New York Times Diner's Journal. AHHHHHHH.

50 comments:

  1. This looks awesome; now that I have liberated my kilner jar of the kimchi I made, I will be making this asap.

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    1. Wow your kimchi has been going strong. You must have made a massive batch then.

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  2. This looks great, not made anything like this before!

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  3. I think those are the same kind of cucumbers we get at our farmer's market! I've never even heard of nonya achar, but it sounds amazing--must try!

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    1. We get both kinds at the market, but the farmers convinced me I have to try these scary ones! I'm so glad I did!

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  4. LOVE this, thank you for a recipe - I can't wait to make it!

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    1. Are you thinking of nasi lemak and chicken rice now..? (:

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    2. Nonya achar: DONE!
      http://littlemacaroon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/47th-party-menu-happy-birthday-singapore.html

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    3. AHHHHHH so happy you made the achar! and that they (esp your husband) liked it! The whole party looks like an absolute winner from the menu don to the good morning towels, well done you! (replied you on your page too)

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  5. looks really good. but no pineapples? really?? haha...

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    1. Yes really. Haha. If I make this in Singapore, I probably would throw them in, but wanted to keep this entirely local and seasonal. Surprisingly didn't miss it in this recipe. (Say hi and thanks to your mum! Btw, just to be sure, there's only that 1 page of recipe right? No extra ingredients, I didn't see wrongly right?)

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  6. Try using Asam juice instead of vinegar, it tastes more authentic! I love Nyonya Achar, it's da bomb!

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    1. I thought the vinegar is not there just for the sour taste but to help preserve the vegetables too? But I do love the sweet-sour flavour of assam! Maybe I'll try replacing half next time, thanks for the suggestion!

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  7. I love this idea! Canning, preserving, and making jam were all rituals of the late summer when I was growing up. I think that this practice is only used by a few stalwarts now, but lucky them as they take deep satisfaction as they pop a jar lid in December and enjoy the fruits of labor way back in August!

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    1. I love these traditional rituals, and do wish everyone would get into them more instead of resorting to storebought canned stuff. Unfortuantely though, I doubt my achar can last all the way till December. I've already gone through one jar.

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  8. I had never heard of nonya achar, but I'm sold! Definitely want to try this, though I'm still a wooss when it comes to spice... This reminds me a bit of the Japanese pickled vegetables. Thanks for sharing :-) loving those gnarly spikey cucumbers as well! (for their looks AND their bite!)

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    1. Don't worry helene, this is actually not too spicy, it leads with sweetness, followed by a sour tang, and then finally the heat comes in. Use less spicy chillies if you're dubious! Haha I'm so glad I got myself to try these scary looking cucumbers, not sure abt their looks still, but loving their bite!

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  9. I haven't had achar for more than a decade. So thank you so much for sharing the recipe! I always thought it'd be ridiculously difficult to make it but your recipe is pretty straightforward.

    BTW, just to let you know that I've featured you on my Pass It Forward series.

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    1. I've just read the post and am really really flattered you thought of me. Thanks so much for the wonderful words and hope you enjoy the achar recipe! x

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  10. Congrats on the NYT mention Shu Han! Been following your blog for a while now, and love the new changes and how you're developing a "brand" of your own. :)

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    1. Aw thanks so much akoh! So happy to see a long-time follower comment here (: I'm really really honoured that you like my blog (:

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  11. I love spicy pickled things (although I haven't tried nonya achar). I love everything about this recipe, especially the chillies. This certainly wouldn't last a week in my fridge. And congratulations on the NYT feature!

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    1. I give you 2 days.

      (and thanks!)

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  12. i don't think i've ever had anything like this before, i am intrigued. i also have a plethora of farmer's market bounty (i'm coming to a close of a week long raw food cleanse) that could be used up in this delightful pickle. i've gone ahead & pinned this so i can remember to attempt this.

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    1. wow you are hardcore. I don't think I can do a raw food cleanse without succumbing to hunger/greed. glad you plan to attempt this, and congrats on the end of your cleanse. you deserve this achar ;)

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  13. Hi sweetheart, yufang here. you make any asian parent proud ^^ i've been cooking a huge deal myself in sg but nothing as delicious (: it's been a long time shuhan. <3 we're all grown up now.

    your graphics are to die for.

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  14. Aiyoo! It's been ages I did not eat achar! Now so tempted to make after looking at your mouthwatering Nyonya achar!! What the difference between normal achar & Nyonya char? It's good that no toasted belachan in it coz I don't really fancy belachan actually! heheheh

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    1. I *love* belachan kit, but this makes it a lot simpler for those of us not in sg to do it, and I'm quite surprised it works well without it too!

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  15. I love pickling cucumbers and lately have had a hankering to make spicy pickles. I'm going to try this next week! Will report back with my results.

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  16. First of all, congratulations for the article! You must be proud of yourself! And we are all proud of you of course :-)
    I love this achar. The spices, the colours... and must say I have never had anything like this before, but I love fermented vegetables (like kimchi for which there is always some place in the horribly packed fridge) and vinegared pickles too, so I'm sure I would love this combination of both. It's funny because I have recently taken several very similar shots -the first photo- of some pickles... (Of course with my skills and compact camera it doesn't look half as good as your photo). Pickles often look so beautiful photographed from above.
    As for the cucumbers, as you say these are the perfect ones to pickle. If you find some of these not over-fertilised (even organic fertilisers can spoil them), you can make fermented cucumbers, a real delicacy.

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    1. Sissi I actually use a compact camera too, well it's a semi-pro so slightly better than your average camera but none of those bulky massive lenses. I do love how good pickles look when photographed too, it's all those colours! These are organic cucumbers, quite sure they aren't overfertilised, and yes they are a real treat! (and thanks for the congrats!)

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  17. Congratulations on the article being featured Shuhan - that's really cool :) I know what you mean about those cucumbers. I love cucumber... sometimes I cut off a big length and just chomp away, but occasionally I can get a hold of these ones - smaller, with thicker, tougher skin, innards which are way more crispy and delicious. It's a pleasure to eat those and they make excellent pickles. I've never heard of nonya achar though - it sounds amazing!

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    1. Me too, when it's a hot day (which is not very often here) I just chop up little circles and go through them like a rabbit. These ones are especially crunchy and lovely for pickles (and munches)!

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  18. So colourful and crisp-looking. I've never had nonya achar but I love my pickles - maybe I need to try making some on my next day off!

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  19. I love good pickles and have just started learning about Nonya cuisine. Ergo - I MUST MAKE THIS! ;D

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  20. Wow, how delicious! Love, love, love all this summer goodness!

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  21. Hey Shu Han!Does it ever scare you to take an unconventional path from the rest of your schmates? Most ppl would have gone to local uni to study med/law/engineering while you are doing smt so diff.

    Your curious fellow Singapore from the UL ;P (its me again! if you rem I posted the other time)

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    1. Hello again! Well, I must say, it wasn't a very easy decision. In fact, I'm the only one in my batch here studying design at central st martins. (I'm from RJC, so prety much everyone I know has gone to law/engineering/med/finance). But I just couldn't picture myself doing sth that I hated for the rest of my life. It scares me, I'm still scared, but I'm learning to believe and trust that everything will turn out well if I do it with conviction and passion.

      hey if you want to talk more about it, drop me a note on fb x

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    2. AHH What should I say:SS I am kinda a technological dinosaur :/ I don't have a fb!(used to have one but it was too distracting for me)

      Perhaps I could try PM you with my twitter acc? :)

      Fellow Singaporean in the UK

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    3. okay see you on twitter, what will your twitter name be?

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  22. I love how you use "shit-amazing" as an adjective! Hilarious.

    Nonya achar definitely looks like August in a jar. I love how there are so many different colours and flavours going on. It's gorgeous!

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    1. Shit-amazing is a proper word, I insist (: Thanks kyleen!

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  23. I make Indian pickles (also called achar) very often, but never made the Singaporean version. Sounds very interesting and flavourful!!

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  24. your acar looks lip-smackingly good! perfect to go with deep fried fish and rice!

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  25. Hi! I'm a new reader and am currently stuck in France desperately missing Sg food! After reading your blog I realize there IS hope!

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    1. Aw! You are too cute! Thank you. You made my day with that comment :)

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