I’ve realized that I mention my mum a lot in this blog. And why wouldn’t I? It is her food that I grew up on… the packed lunches, the wholesome dinners, the cheeky home-fried snacks for TV time. The value of home-cooked food was a high one in my family, so I’ve had very few memories of eating processed food. And that I’m extremely grateful for… without that upbringing, I doubt a blog like this would have ever come out me!
One of my mom’s favourite snacks she would make for herself was Nyonya Acar: a pickled vegetable dish spectacular in taste complexity. It’s not your regular pickled item. It not only uses vinegar but a whole host of ingredients that adds spiciness, sweetness and the unmistakable linger of lemongrass to the tang.
My mother learned about making Acar from her sister-in-law. My father’s side has Peranakan roots. The Peranakan, also known as Straits Chinese or Baba Nyonya, were Chinese migrants who settled in Penang, Malacca, Singapore and some parts of Indonesia as early as the 15th century and married locals; a cultural union which, enhanced with wealth attained from engaging in trade and business during colonial times, developed an intricate new variation of customs, clothing, architecture and food. The wealth particularly explains why Nyonya-style cooking is so elaborate; because of the access to a vast array of ingredients, and kitchen helpers to work on impressive guest-pleasing dishes.
Acar is one of several Peranakan dishes I have been blessed to have been exposed to since young. The traditional way of bringing out the best of this dish is to leave out the pre-cooked vegetables under hot mid-day sun for an hour or two; this gives an extra crunch to the Acar. I haven’t tried this yet, but I can imagine it really raising the bar!
The vegetables I’ve featured are the traditional ones for Acar, but you can put your own spin on it like replacing plain cabbage with purple cabbage (I’ve done this before for my Rainbow Warrior guest chef gig), or feature other crunchy veggies available to you locally, like cauliflower, snow peas or even parsnip!
The thing that makes Acar shine is the sauce. My mum says that the leading taste profile has to be sweetness. Therefore, eating on its own is nice after a bite or two, then the sweetness might get to you. It is suggested that you eat this sparingly on its own, or to eat it together with other dishes on plain steamed rice.
My favourite thing about Nyonya Acar? It is by default is a vegan dish! So you can look it up and find other online recipes to experiment with.
I have yet to let my mother try my version, but when I eat it it reminds me of her, so I have a feeling she will be proud nevertheless! I hope you will enjoy it too.
Nyonya Acar (Malaysian Pickled Vegetables)
Crunchy blanched vegetables pickled in a sweet, spicy, tangy sauce with peanuts. An ideal accompaniment to a meal comprising of main dishes and plain steamed rice.
- 1 cucumber
- 1 carrot
- 1/4 head of cabbage
- 100g long bean
- 1/2 a pineapple
- 1.2 litres water
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1/2 cup ground peanuts, roasted
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds, roasted
- 2 1/2 tbsp cooking oil
- ACAR PASTE:
- 8 tbsp rice vinegar
- 7 tbsp palm sugar
- 3 tbsp water
- 1 bulb garlic, roughly chopped
- 10 shallots, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 stems of lemongrass (about 5-6cm of the white end)
- 2-3 dried chillis, de-seeded and cut into small pieces
- Step 1 Cut cucumber, carrot and long bean into strips about 1/2 – 1cm wide and 3-4cm long.
- Step 2 Chop cabbage into strips.
- Step 3 Dice pineapple into bite-size pieces.
- Step 4 Add vinegar to water in a pot and bring to a boil.
- Step 5 Place carrot, cucumber, long beans and cabbage inside pot and blanch for 3 minutes.
- Step 6 Remove pot from heat and drain water from vegetables. Set aside.
- Step 7 Heat cooking oil in a wok.
- Step 8 Place all sauce ingredients into a blender (or the milling attachment of the blender) and blend until smooth.
- Step 9 Put sauce paste into wok, add vinegar and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Step 10 Add vegetables and pineapple pieces. Stir until the paste has evenly coated the vegetables and pineapple.
- Step 11 Stir in peanuts and sesame seeds to coat vegetables evenly. You can also sprinkle some extra on top for decorative purposes.
- Step 12 Serve immediately, or keep in the fridge up to 3 days as a chilled appetizer.