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")
500g (two large'scary') cucumbers
100g (a small bunch of baby new) carrots
100g (two fists-sized) cauliflower
100g (small handful) french beans
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
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.
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.