Achar (or acar) is, in my opinion, the prince of pickles. As a condiment, plain pickles can sometimes seem banal, but this Malaysian version has all the fiery elements of a great curry. Achar is characterised by an assortment of veg that are marinaded in South East Asian spices. It’s a favourite in Malaysia, where survival in the hot and humid climate requires the cooling effect of a cold pickle and the demanding palettes of locals necessitate flavour above all else. It’s the contrasting cool, yet heated flavours that makes achar an alluring dish.
There are lots of different versions of achar, a testament to it’s influence across Asia. But most of them start with a spice paste (or rempah), filled with classic spices that are found in curries around the world. Tangy lemongrass, sun-soaked tumeric and vampire-warding garlic all make the cut in most recipes. But some variants will surprise with ingredients that may be a little foreign, like belacan, the fermented shrimp paste that, for Malaysians, is like the bacon of the sea. Pungent and perhaps foul-selling to some, belacan, when cooked, creates a layer of umami-goodess that elevates all dishes.
To make achar, a spice paste is cooked in a pool of oil and tossed with nuts and an array of vinegar-blanched vegetables. Typically, these include at least cabbage, carrots and cucumber, which make for an enticing rainbow display against the rich, golden tapestry of the rempah. This colour is key to the success of a good achar, which aspires to attain pleasure from the eyes as much as the taste buds.
The final cooked achar tastes intensely of acid and spice, but this untamed flavour explosion matures over time, and the heavy asperity of the pickles gives way to a pleasantly mellow, curry offering.
One of the best ways to eat achar is as an accompaniment to nasi lemak – a malaysian coconut rice dish. But you can use it as a side to any Malaysian or South Asian cuisine or on top of prawn crackers. I’ve even used it as a burrito filling. (Yes, I’m guilty of bastardising food like everyone else).
The recipe below is from my grandmother, so it’s tried and tested. While the long list of ingredients makes this recipe seem complex, the actual process is no different than making a curry from scratch. Once you’ve mastered it, you can play around with the types of vegetables used, perhaps throw in some long chillis, pineapple, baby onions or cauliflower into the mix.
The biggest hurdle to making achar the time taken to prepare the ingredients, so perhaps recruit a friend to share in this culinary adventure. The amount of oil looks like a lot but is absolutely necessary, as is the amount of sugar. Happy cooking!
Achar (makes enough to fill a 3-4 L jar)
- 2 lemongrass stalks (use only the pale, lower part of the stalk)
- 60g galangal, peeled
- 4 shallots, peeled
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 60g belacan
- 6 candle nuts
- 10 – 12 dried chillis, rehydrated in hot water for 15 minutes and drained (you may remove the seeds)
- 2 tsp tumeric
- 2L white vinegar
- Quarter – half cabbage, cut into large chunks
- 5 carrots, skin removed and cut into batons (or sliced)
- 2 cucumbers, sliced vertically, seeds removed and cut into batons (or sliced)
- (Feel free to substitute some of the veg with others like cauliflower, baby onions/shallots, long chillis or anything else that’s crunchy)
- 250mL vegetable oil
- 150g dried shrimp, rehydrated in hot water for 15 minutes, drained and then pounded using a mortar and pestle
- 400g peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped or food processed
- 100g sesame seeds
- 200g sugar
- 1tsp salt
- Place all of the spice paste ingredients and 100 mL of water into a blender and blend to form a smooth paste. You may wish to add the tumeric at the very end, to avoid staining your appliance.
- Heat the vinegar in a large pot until boiling. Then, blanch each of the vegetables in turn for 30 – 60 seconds. The time taken depends on the size of the vegetables – aim to very slightly cook the vegetables while keeping them crunchy. Once blanched, drain the vegetables.
- Heat the oil in a large wok. Add the dry shrimp and cook for 5 minutes or until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Remove the shrimp from the wok, keeping the oil inside.
- Add the spice paste to the hot oil and cook for about 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The spice paste should darken in colour and split, meaning that the oil in the paste should separate and pool on the sides of the wok. The aim of this step is to cook off as much moisture in the spice paste as possible.
- Turn off the heat and add the fried shrimp, salt, sugar, sesame seeds and peanuts and stir. Then add the vegetables and coat thoroughly. Taste the mixture and adjust levels of salt, sugar and vinegar if necessary.
- Let the achar cool before adding to jars. Seal and store in the fridge for several days before eating.