It's quite interesting, what I learn reading up before writing a post. The second thing I've learnt is that achar is traditionally fermented in this very lovely, ornate pot called kamcheng, Hokkien for covered jar:
A kamcheng may be used to hold any food, not just achar. What's in the little nyonya's kamcheng? Well, I'm sure it's empty but let's imagine it's full of the most delicious achar made with rempah that she's pounded lovingly, in slow motion . . . . I wonder if she leaves her achar to ferment under the bed, as the Chinese do with homemade wine?
I learnt how to make achar from my landlady's maid who, when she came and cleaned my place every week, occasionally left me little gifts in the fridge. I'm usually too shy (yes, really!) to ask anyone for recipes but I liked her achar so much that I did. She not only wrote it down for me but also – bless her! – brought all the ingredients to my place and showed me how. Years later, after I bought The Best of Singapore Cooking, I realized that the written recipe she had given me was from Mrs Leong Yee Soo's cookbook. What she actually made, however, was quite different – and better – than Bibik Leong's, with less oil and more sugar. I guess it's important to 'season to taste', which was what I did when I recreated the achar recipe I had forgotten because it wasn't written down. That's why I'm writing it down now!
Achar is a great dish for Chinese New Year, which is just round the corner. When I feel stuffed after inhaling too many pineapple tarts, there's nothing like a sour pickle to reboot my appetite. With a few nibbles of tart and spicy achar, feasting and drinking in the Year of the Rabbit can go on and on . . . like the Energizer rabbit!
Good things must be shared, so Peranakans have the tradition of giving achar as gifts on festive occasions. Bringing wine or chocolates to a dinner party is so predictable, isn't it?. What could be more impressive than homemade pickle in an ornate kamcheng?
The 'hostess with the mostess' must look like a swan swimming across the lake – calm and elegant. No one must see the feet underwater pedaling away furiously. And if the pedaling can be done ahead of time, why not? If there's a bowl of achar in the fridge (or under the bed, fermenting away), that's one dish already done.
So there you go, three great reasons to make achar. What are you waiting for?
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Pork & Olive Vegetables
|NYONYA ACHAR (MIXED VEGETABLE PICKLE)|
(Recipe for 24 portions)180 g shallots (18 pieces), peeled and washed
1 piece turmeric, small thumb size, peeled and washed
1 piece ginger, thumb size, peeled and washed
3 red chillies, trimmed and washed
4 tbsp chilli powder
½ cup unsaturated vegetable oil
1 cup white rice vinegar
1½ cups water
2 cups sugar (400 g)
2 cups white rice vinegar
2 cups water
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 kg cauliflower, cut into florets
1 large carrot (150 g), peeled, trimmed, and cut into thin batons
300 g cabbage, cut into large bite size pieces
1 kg cucumber, trimmed, and cut into batons
3 tbsp salt
300 g peanuts, roasted, skin removed, and coarsely chopped
3 tbsp white sesame seeds, toasted
(1) Use unsaturated oil, such as corn or rice bran oil, that doesn't solidify when it's cold. (2) You'd need a non-reactive bowl or pot that can hold at least 3 litres for storing the pickle. (3) Don't let the turmeric or chilli stain your clothes!
Grind or pound shallots, turmeric, ginger and chillies till fine. Mix thoroughly with chilli paste and 2 tbsp water. In a non-reactive pan/wok, stir-fry spices in hot oil over medium heat till fragrant and colour darkens, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar, water, sugar and salt. Bring to a gentle boil. Simmer gently for 1 minute, covered. Turn off heat. Uncover and leave till cool.
Bring ingredients for blanching to a rapid boil. Briefly blanch cauliflower, carrots and cabbage in batches. After blanching each batch, liquid should come back to a boil. Spread out vegetables to cool on large trays.
Sprinkle cucumber with salt. Mix well. Leave to sweat for 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with kitchen towels.
In a non-reactive bowl, mix everything except one third of peanuts and sesame seeds. Marinade should cover maybe 70% of vegetables at this stage. As liquid is released from the veggies, the 'water level' will rise.
Place achar in the fridge, covered. Stir now and then to mix everything thoroughly during the first 12 hours.
After 12 hours, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. It should taste a bit spicier and sourer than how you'd like it. Flavours will be rounder and less sharp in another 24 hours.
Pickle may be served after marinating for 24 hours, though 36 would be better. It's best in the first few days, but may be stored in the fridge for up to 1 month.
To serve, transfer pickle with a slotted spoon to a serving plate, draining most of the marinade. Top with more peanuts and sesame seeds.