Penang Nonya pickles or acar (pronounced achar) are not bit players on the stage of that cuisine. Eaten as main or side dishes as well as snacks, the vast range of acar forms an entire branch of cookery in its own right.
One of the tests of a good Nonya cook is the ability to strike the the perfect balance of spicy, sour and sweet flavours, the right degree of crunchiness in texture and visually appealing colour with her acar .
Every ingredient has to be of excellent quality, including the vinegar. The preparation is quite painstaking: the fruit or vegetables to be pickled must be properly cut, then salted and sun-dried to the right degree of dehydration; complex spice pastes have to be made up.
Golden yellow acar hoo (fish pickle) has pride of place at wedding banquets. It is made by marinating fried fish in freshly prepared turmeric oil and spiced vinegar. Generous amounts of garlic and ginger, sliced and fried until golden, and whole semi-dried green and red chillies are added to the mix.
Dried salted fish acar is another popular piscatorial pickle.
Whilst the dishes made of fish innards might have been born of "waste not, want not" practices, acar purut ikan (pickled fish intestines) is today considered a delicacy.
Fruit and Vegetable Pickles
Acar of fruits and vegetables provide perky side dishes at every meal table. Acar timun (cucumber pickle) is done in a turmeric marinade that is similar to that used for acar hoo .
Pickling marinades for fruits like pineapple, lime and mango involved complex blends of spices and aromatics such as coriander, cumin, star anise, fennel, cloves, turmeric, chillies, garlic, onion, etc. Papaya, on the other hand, is pickled with a simple solution of vinegar, sugar and a touch of salt.
Acar Awak , a mixed vegetable pickle, is the most famous of all the Penang Nonya pickles. It will perk up even the most jaded appetites. It is eaten as a snack on its own as well as a vegetable dish alongside other main dishes being served with rice.
ACAR AWAK (Mixed Vegetable Pickle)
The proportions of the different vegetables does matter in this recipe to achieve the right balance of textures and flavours. The weights below are the prepared weights ie after peeling, de-seeding etc. When shopping, buy slightly more than the weights shown below to allow for wastage during prep. You do have to allow more weight with cucumbers as there is a fair bit of loss with the de-seeding.
400 g cucumber (about 4 - 5 Lebanese cucumbers)
200 g snake beans (available from Asian grocers)
200 g French beans
200 g carrots
200 g cauliflower
200 g cabbage
4 fresh red chillies
4 fresh green chillies
10 red Asian shallots
10 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon salt for each type of vegetable
10 dried red chillies, deseeded and soaked in hot water until soft
4 - 6 fresh red chillies, deseeded
2 stalks lemon grass, white section only
Approx. 2.5 cm galangal (30 - 40g)
Approx 0.6 cm thick slice of blachan (shrimp paste)
30 g fresh turmeric or ½ tbsp. turmeric powder
oil for frying spice paste
12 tbsp quality white or cider vinegar
8 tbsp white sugar
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
For blanching the vegetables:
750 ml quality white or cider vinegar
Equal quantities of toasted sesame seeds and coarsely ground roasted peanuts. The amount you add is a matter of individual taste but allow at least 200g of each for the above quantity of vegetables.
1. Prepare The Vegetables.
- Cucumbers: Cut the cucumbers into quarters length-wise. Using a sharp filleting knife, remove the seeds. Cut into 3.5cm long batons.
- Carrots: Peel and cut into 3.5 cm long batons.
- Snake Beans: Top and tail. Cut into 3.5 cm lengths.
- French beans: Top and tail and de-string. Cut into 3.5 cm lengths on a slant.
- Cauliflower: Using a small sharp knife, cut into small florets.
- Cabbage: Slice to approximate the size of the other vegetables.
- Chillies: Make a slit down the side of each chilly and remove the seeds.
- Shallots: Peel. Leave whole.
- Garlic: Peel and leave whole. (See alternative treatment in Note 1 below).
After cutting up each type of vegetable, toss it with about ½ tsp of salt.
Spread each type of salted vegetables on dehydrator trays (or put them onto racks to dry in the sun). Leave them to dry until most of the moisture is removed but not to the point where they are dried to a crisp. It will take about 4 hours in the dehydrator set at 35C.
2. Prepare The Spice Paste
In a food processor or blender, grind all the spice ingredients (except the oil) into a smooth paste.
Heat a heavy based pot over moderate heat. Add several tablespoons of oil and heat until light smoking. Add the spice paste and gently fry until it is fragrant. Leave aside until ready to blanch the vegetables.
Just before you blanch the vegetables, reheat the spice paste. Add the marinade ingredients to the hot spice paste and stir until well combined. Remove from heat.
3. Blanch The Vegetables
Bring the 750ml vinegar to the boil in a non-reactive pot.
Blanch each type vegetable in the vinegar in small batches. (Let the vinegar come back to the boil before adding each batch.) Use a skimmer to remove them from the blanching liquid, giving them a shake to drain them well. Add the blanched vegetables to the spice paste as you go.
Discard the blanching vinegar.
4. Mix And Store
When all the vegetables have been blanched and added to the spice paste, stir thoroughly until the vegetables are evenly coated with the paste. Taste to check for salt. Don't be concerned if the mixture tastes a little bit sweet. The vegetables will have soaked up vinegar in the blanching process and the sweetness will balance out over the next day or two.
Put the mixture into a glass jar or a large glass bowl. Cover and leave to sit for at least 1 - 2 days in the refrigerator. It will keep well for at least a month in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator.
4. To Serve
Several hours before serving, dish out the required amount of acar into a large bowl. Mix in a generous amount of the roasted sesame seed and coarsely ground peanut mixture. Leave it, covered, to allow the acar to come to room temperature before serving.
Note 1. Alternative treatment for garlic: If you prefer, you can slice the garlic cloves thinly before salting and drying them. Fry them in a tablespoon of oil until golden and then add to the spice paste together with the vinegar-blanched vegetables.