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
Plenty of vinegar
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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!