Monday, November 28, 2011

acar (mixed vegetable pickle)

The fact that my maternal Portuguese Eurasian grandmother was raised by her Chinese Peranakan stepmother,  and taught everything she knew, by her stepmother, sometimes gives me grief, when talking with fellow Eurasian or Chinese Peranakan foodies and friends.

Because of the early Peranakan influence in her life, my grandmother's cooking style evolved into one that was a hybrid of Eurasian and Nyonya cooking styles, and so it goes, that I too find that the way I cook at home is occasionally at odds with how many local Eurasians and Nyonyas cook. My Eurasian dishes tend to have Nyonya influences and vice versa - great for adventurous palates and truly, truly, I believe I have gained what I see as the best of both worlds. 

Of course there are the heated arguments with Eurasian friends who insist I am bastardising my pesce singgang (Eurasian fish curry) by adding limau purut leaves or  Peranakan friends who blanch when I eat my babi pongteh (pork braised with fermented soy beans) with sambal belacan (chilli and prawn paste relish)  instead of hand ripped green chillies. *deep deep breath*

The typical Eurasian acar which is a lot like the British piccallili is less spicy than my version, which actually more closely resembles Nyonya acar. My grandmother kicked up the spice quotient a few notches, like the Peranakans do, but unlike them, she never added sesame seeds or crushed peanuts to hers. So, in the interest of neutrality, I have refrained from labelling this version and simply call it acar. Make of it what you will, but know that it is delicious, addictive and complements such a wide range of foods, that it borders on the schizophrenic. It is equally at home cosying up to rice and spicy Asian dishes, getting friendly with a burger or rubbing elbows with fried ham and eggs.

Prep 45 minutes                    Cook 20 minutes                        Makes 2 ½ cups

600 g (2 small) cucumbers, discard core, leave skin on and cut to your preference
250 g (1/4 head) white cabbage, discard tough core and cut into bite size pieces
200g (2 small) carrots, peeled and cut to your preference
1 handful chilli padi
1 1/2 tbsp coarse salt            

Spice Paste

10 shallots (bawang merah or bawang kecil), peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 cm (1 in) length ginger, peeled
7cm (2.5 in) length turmeric, peeled
2 fresh red chillies, seeded

1 tsp brown mustard seeds                        
Walnut sized piece belacan (fermented shrimp paste)
100 – 150 ml (1/2 – ¾ cup) white vinegar                                              
¼ tsp salt (or to taste)
3 tsp sugar (or to taste)
1 tbsp toasted black or white sesame seeds (optional)

Put cleaned and cut vegetables into a large bowl and sprinkle over the 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt. Toss well and set aside for 20 minutes, tossing and mixing the vegetables every 5  minutes.  Discard juices from vegetables and squeeze the vegetables as dry as you possibly can.  Set aside.

Process onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric and chillies to a smooth paste.  Heat about 6 tablespoons vegetable oil in a deep pan and when moderately hot, add the mustard seeds.  When seeds start to pop, crumble in the belacan and fry until the pungent smell dissipates. 

Add in the ground spice paste and continue frying until fragrant and oil seeps out.  Pour in half a cup of vinegar and the sugar, stir well and taste. Keep adding until you are satisfied with the taste. Turn off heat and add leave to cool.

When spice mix is cool, add vegetables and stir thoroughly until the vegetables are coated. Taste and add as much salt as you think it needs. Do not add salt until the vegetables have gone in as they already contain salt. Add more vinegar and sugar if you feel the acar needs it. Sprinkle over sesame seeds if using, and stir through.

The flavour should be pleasant and balanced, but with a tangy bite and a subtly sweet aftertaste. Serve with Christmas roast meats, fried eggs and ham with thickly buttered bread for a Boxing Day brunch, Hainanese chicken rice, burgers, fried fish or chicken, or anything you damn well please.

Note : To prolong the shelf life of your acar, always use a clean, dry spoon to dish out from the   jar. Take only what you can finish as leftovers should not be returned to the jar. Never touch the acar with your fingers and use a separate serving spoon for the acar at the dining table. Both vinegar and turmeric will help to preserve the acar so don't stinge on these ingredients and be sure to squeeze the vegetables as dry as you possibly can. In warm weather, refrigerate the acar. Moisture and heat should be avoided at all times or your acar will turn mouldy.


  1. Acar bring back memories of the CNY eve reunion dinner. I know acar is not a typical dish for CNY but it is my mom's signature dish and she makes a huge batch of it to distribute to family and friends. Now, whenever I visit, she will make it for me. It is a lot of work and I have not attempted it in all my years here. I have asked for her recipe but like all her other recipes, there are no measurements. I do have the ingredients list and will have to figure it out someday. In the meantime, I'll just enjoy yours. I like the black sesame seeds contrasting so nicely with the vegetables. It is making my mouth water.

    BTW, I love that first shot of the jar :)

  2. I had no idea this was your mum's speciality! It is pretty labour intensive, but it tastes way, way better than store bought acar, which is usually either too sweet or too vinegary. If you do try this, I hope it keeps you happy enough till you get to taste your mum's :)

  3. hi denise, did not know you had another blog over here :)

    i enjoy achar - it is so appetizing with rice!

  4. Hi Denise, wow anther blog? Looks great as do these gorgeously spiced pickled vegetables! I do not think I have ever had pickled veggies like this...but they sound wonderful :)

  5. Hui Leng and Alisha - Hi :) Great to hear from you both! I will be making an announcement soon about my food blogging/writing path. Just wetting my feet here and trying this new venture out for size. Thanks for dropping by.

  6. Hi DENISE! How do you do it??? Manage so many eggs in so many baskets. Kudos to you my friend :)

    Chow! Devaki @ weavethousandflavors

  7. Hi Denise!

    Long time no talk. I love this post. it looks delish! It reminds me of what filipinos call atchara, which in essence is pretty much the same thing - pickled vegies.

    Le :)

  8. it sounds delicious!i have been looking for this sort of recipe for ages and i'm going to try it out next week... i would like to know how long it keeps though?

  9. Hi Maynie, this acar will easily last 2 weeks in a covered container at a relatively cool room temperature (below 25 C). If you are living in warmer climates like I am, I strongly recommend keeping it in the fridge, where it will last 4 - 6 weeks.

    I've updated the recipe with advice on how to make the acar last as long as possible. Thanks for your helpful feedback and I how the recipe turns out well for you.

  10. They look delicious! Such an intricate recipe! And a lot of history :-)

  11. Hi Denise, I love this Acar recipe idea. I tried it out with fresh mango included....Voila, it hit the right spot! Many thanks for this Denise. Another lovely recipe of yours. xx
    For the photos, please drop by
    Thanks again.


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