Achar Day… how I learnt to make a Nyonya specialty in 1968 and it still makes me happy every time

On December 5 1968 my classmate at St John’s Institution, Kim Low, came to my house to show my mother and sister how to make his mother’s Achar Awak.

This was after I’d gone on and on about how good it was and everyone at home wanted to try it too. I had never had Achar Awak before I visited Kim’s home for Chinese New Year and it was indescribably wonderful. It was a pickle, a salad, a mixed-vegetable offering to the gods.

At 15, I had never tasted Nyonya food, the Straits Chinese cuisine that is sometimes Chinese, sometimes Malay-Indonesian, using herbs and roots and spices that make it the taste of Southeast Asia. I wrote a story for The Sunday Times in 2005 about eating at Kim’s mother’s table and getting hooked for life on Nyonya food.

But this is about the achar. Kim brought the recipe when he came to our house in United Gardens, off Old Klang Road. He had asked his mum and written it down by hand on both sides of a sheet of lined exercise book paper. And this is what it said:

ACHAR AWAK (Penang Achar) 

INGREDIENTS FOR GRAVY

Peanuts (groundnuts, shelled) ½ kati

Dried chili – 10 cts worth – ½ of small bowl

Onions – 10 cts worth – 1 small bowl (skinned)

Blachan – a medium sized piece

Saffron (kunyit) – 5 cts, 2 sticks enough

Coconut oil

Plenty of vinegar  

METHOD

Goreng kachang (Fry peanuts in pan with no oil, till brown. Then skin it. Then pound it to smooth pieces or like peanut butter.) Keep aside for a while.

Pound chilis, onion, garlic, blachan and saffron together till very smooth. Keep aside.

SAYOR-SAYORAN

Cabbage – 50 cts  Cucumber – 20 cts

Long beans – 10 cts  Bean a la French – 10 cts

Green chilly – 5 cts Red chilly – 5 cts

Linseed (Bijan in Malay, Chee Mah in Chinese, ask the shop man) – 10 cts

Sugar Salt

 METHOD

Cut vegetables in ½-inch strips. Pulp of cucumber to throw away, take only the hard part. Then boil in 2 parts water to 1 part vinegar. Boil each vegetable separately.

Pour oil in big (huge) frying pan. Leave till hot. Then pour in mixture of chili, onion etc and fry till brown (brown means brown, not burnt). Then pour in bowl of vinegar. Add 1 cup sugar and 2 or 3 pinches of salt to taste. Leave it to boil for 5 min. Leave it to cool for ½ an hour. Then mix the gravy with vegetables, peanuts and linseed. Mix well.                                And THEN!! Makan lah!

AAveggies
You start with your favourite mix of vegetables, cut the same size and blanched quickly in a vinegar-water mix. Then you make the magic gravy that transforms it all into Achar Awak.

It was a good thing that Kim came and showed us. You had to see the quantities to know how much of each item was needed. The recipe left out tamarind until it was time to add the liquid from a golf-ball-sized lump of tamarind pulp mixed with water to the gravy.

It also missed the critical step of slicing a bowl of garlic thinly to fry till golden and then pound to a fragrant powdery paste, the magic ingredient in the gravy. You also had to dry-fry peanuts, shell them and pound them to add to the gravy.

Which all shows why getting a recipe is great, but nothing beats watching the cook at work. At 15, Kim was an expert from having helped his mother make Achar Awak.

AAinpanRempah
Making the gravy starts with frying the rempah, the spice mix, adding tamarind liquid, sugar and salt and keeping it on the fire till it looks right and tastes right.
AAinpan3
When the gravy is cool, you add toasted sesame seeds and pounded peanuts.
AAinpan2
Stir, stir, stir until you get this heady spicy mix, bursting with Southeast Asian flavours.

The achar turned out very well that day, and we had a huge bowl that disappeared so quickly, we had to make it again.

It’s a bowl of mixed vegetables, blanched in vinegary water and still crunchy, then mixed with this dressing that is spicy, redolent of garlic and the hint of belacan, crunchy from the peanuts and sesame seeds. It’s supposed to be a piquant appetiser on the side of your plate of rice with Nyonya delicacies and sambals, but it’s good enough to have on its own.

It was Kim’s mother’s Achar Awak, but it became ours too.

aainpan1
And when the gravy is cool, add the vegetables and mix well.
AAinpan
Every Straits Chinese chef will have her own secret recipe for Achar Awak, better than everyone else’s. Mine is from Berat Lee, my friend Kim Low’s mother. It’s a treasure, and the best.

I’ve kept Kim’s handwritten recipe all these years, and I can’t believe how more than half a century has gone by. And we have remained friends all this time, even though he lives in Melbourne, Australia, and I live in Singapore. The last time I went on a trip, before the Covid-19 pandemic wrecked all our travel plans for god knows how long, was to Melbourne with my wife Hedwig, in February 2020. At his place one day, Kim served up a Nyonya meal of his mum’s specials, including the Achar Awak.

Along the way, I updated the recipe as best I could, because $1.10 will not get you much vegetables these days. I’ve added cauliflower, which I like. I made a big bowl of Achar Awak this week. It was a little more garlicky than usual but when is there ever too much garlic.

Making Achar Awak is a production. You must make sure to have all the ingredients in the house, then set aside a whole morning or afternoon because this has to be done properly.  There are no short cuts and you cannot rush. Afterwards, I promise you, you feel a sense of accomplishment you never know when you simply buy a bottle of someone else’s readymade achar. This is one to do yourself, eat yourself.

AAachar
This is supposed to be an appetiser, a side dish, a little something on your plate to perk up the tastebuds and enhance the flavours of the wonderful Nyonya braises, delicate curries and sambals. But if you like Achar Awak as much as I do, you will enjoy plenty of it on its own. 

 

Acar Awak                                                                                                                                      Penang Acar recipe by Madam Lee Soon Moy, also known as Berat, Kim Low’s mother.

Gravy Dressing (Do this early, even a day ahead)

300g peanuts, dry-fried, skinned and pounded, but leave some chunky bits.

1 small bowl garlic, sliced thinly, fried till golden brown, cool and pound till smooth.

½ bowl toasted sesame seeds

Rempah (Spice mix)

½ small bowl dried chilli (About 10-12)

1 small bowl small onions

Small piece of belacan

2 sticks fresh turmeric root (Or ½ teaspoon turmeric powder)

1 tablespoon tamarind pulp mixed with a small bowl of water

2 dessertspoons sugar

Salt to taste

Method

Heat 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil.

Fry rempah till fragrant, about 4-5 minutes

Add tamarind liquid, continue frying about 4-5 minutes

Add sugar and salt.

Turn off fire, leave the gravy to cool, about 30 minutes.

Add peanuts, sesame seeds and garlic and stir well.

The vegetables (Sayur-sayuran)

You have a big bowl of about 1-1.5kg of mixed vegetables of your choice. All the vegetables should be cut the same size, about 2-cm strips. I used:

½ a big cauliflower broken into small florets

1 ½ cucumbers, seeds removed

2 big carrots

10 long beans

½ a cabbage cut in big pieces

3 red and 3 green fresh chillis

Cook the vegetables

Bring to the boil: 1 cup vinegar, 2 cups water

Cook the vegetables one by one, for just a minute or two, then drain and leave to cool.

Squeeze out excess water by wringing the vegetables using a cloth towel or cheesecloth.

Mix the vegetables together, stir in the gravy, and mix thoroughly.

Save a little pounded peanuts and sesame seeds for garnishing.

Then, like Kim said in 1968: Makan lah!

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