How to make easy Acar Timun Nonya, a spicy and sour Peranakan and Malay pickled cucumber and vegetables dish.
Acar Timun Nonya (achar nyonya/acar nonya awak) is a pickled vegetable dish that is rich, sour, spicy and mildly sweet. This can also be known as Acar Timun, or Pickled Cucumbers, because the key vegetable ingredient here are the cucumbers.
Acar = pickled vegetable dish
Timun = Cucumber
Nonya = sometimes spelled nyonya or nyonyah, this refers to Peranakan cuisine. Nonya refers to the ladies of Peranakan descent, which is why Peranakan food tends to also be called Nonya cuisine.
This Peranakan and Malay side dish is commonly served alongside our stronger dishes such as Ayam Masak Merah, Rendang and curries. Although we love this appetising dish, it’s not a common everyday food, simply because it’s laborious to make! In this recipe, I shortcut it as best as I can, to get you this delicious Acar Nonya that is bound to impress anyone!
What is Acar Timun Nonya?
Acar Nonya is a pickled vegetable dish that is a mainstay in Malay and Peranakan culture. This tangy, sweet, savoury and spicy vegetable dish is the perfect accompaniment to our strong, spicy dishes! Its tanginess makes it super appetising as well.
Acar is adapted from Indian pickles of the same namesake (sometimes better known spelled as achar). The Malays and Peranakans took the achar, added a bunch of our own locally available spices, and that’s how we ended up with the localised version of the pickled vegetables. You can find very similar reiterations of this Achar in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
There are actually a couple of ways to make Acar. I have a (super) old recipe here, and I toggle between the two – depending on what vegetables I use. They’re both easy, and can produce good Acar. I find this recipe to be a slightly more simple than the other, so I tend to stick to this one.
In that recipe, I used an assortment of vegetables that may not be typical in an Acar. I also blanched the vegetables in vinegar water to make sure the vegetables are cooked through and therefore safe for consumption. In this recipe, I simply pickled the vegetables with salt.
How to make Acar Timun Nonya
Traditional Acar Nonya is a lot of work. First you have to prep the vegetables, dehydrate them, then blanch it, then make the rempah spice paste, then cook down the spice paste, then combine it all together, let it pickle for a couple of days AND THEN it is ready to serve. For most, this much work for vegetables is not worth the effort.
But OH! Acar is addictively good!
Make it instead with my easier method:
1. Prep the vegetables
Cut the vegetables into strips.
2. Salt the vegetables
Work salt in with the vegetables to draw out as much liquid from the vegetables. This should take some 30 minutes or so. The cabbages will start to wilt and soften.
3. Make the rempah spice paste
While the vegetables are salting, make the rempah spice paste. Simply blend all of the ingredients to a paste.
4. Cook the rempah spice paste
In a pan, cook the rempah spice paste, until oil starts to surface, or “pecah minyak“. See my post on “how to properly cook dried chilli paste” here.
Once cooked, take it off the heat let the sauce cool down.
5. Drain the vegetables
While the sauce is cooling down, check on the vegetables. Liquid should have collected at the bottom of the bowl. Drain the vegetables. Taste the vegetables here, they should be slight salty, but not overly so. If they are too salty – my professional advice is if your face puckers up :p – simply give it a rinse under water to remove the excess salt.
6. Combine rempah + vegetables
Add the cooled sauce to the vegetables and toss through.
7. Ready to eat!
Serve immediately or leave overnight to let the flavours fully develop. Store in glass or ceramic jars in the fridge.
The Salting Pickling Process is Optional!
If you want to make it even easier, skip the pickling! The vegetable salting process is essential if you’re planning to pickle your Acar to keep it for a long time. Here’s the plot twist: my Mom NEVER salts the vegetables. And I later found out that most Malay households making Acar from scratch skip this process! This is simply because most do not plan to keep the Acar for long.
If this is you, and you don’t intend to make a big batch of it, simply skip the salting!
Prep the vegetables as per recipe, and after you stir fry and season the paste, add all of the vegetables to the pan. Toss to combine, and Acar is ready!
Remember to add salt in the rempah as you’re seasoning it with the vinegar and sugar though. For this particular recipe and measurements, I would add about 2 teaspoons of salt. Always taste as you go along though.
What Vegetables to Use for Acar Nonya
The standard vegetables used in Acar Nonya would be cucumbers and carrots. Sometimes you will find cabbages too. In this recipe, I used all three.
That said, you can use other vegetables to make Acar as well.
I added a red chilli here for a contrast of colour. Whole peeled raw garlic and shallots are often added to acar as well, and you can most certainly include it in this too.
What goes into the ‘Rempah’ Spice Paste
The rempah or spice paste is the most important part of good Acar. These are the ingredients that you will need:
- Dried Chillies (cili kering): To use dried chillies, you will need to rehydrate the chillies first. Pour boiling hot water and let it hang out for about 5 minutes, or until the chillies soften. I have more information on this on my blog post: ‘how to make basic dried chilli paste’. Alternatively you can use fresh red chillies as well, but try to use dried chillies which are a lot deeper in flavour.
- Onions or Shallots
- Candlenuts (buah keras): These nuts add a creamy texture and a very slight nutty flavour to the paste. You can replace this with macadamia or cashew nuts.
- Turmeric Powder (kunyit): This adds a nice golden hue to the acar. Turmeric powder is convenient for me, but you can also use fresh turmeric. I added my turmeric powder in the pan itself, but you can also blend it together with the rempah. I did not do this since I don’t want to stain my blender. Oh yes, turmeric stains!
Other ingredients that you can include would be galangal or lemongrass. I used these ingredients in my other recipe!
How to Store Acar Nonya
While you can eat Acar immediately, it’s best left for minimum an hour to let the flavours develop. Overnight would be best, to let the flavour fully develop. You can serve it warm, but I love it best when served cold.
To store, use a glass or ceramic container since we are working with acids here. Store this is the fridge. Depending on how well you’ve pickled this, this can keep in the fridge for a long time – about 1-2 months! Although it’s gone in my house long before that. As always, if it smells off or there is mould, discard immediately.
Acar Timun NonyaCourse: Recipes
- Pickled Vegetables
300g or 1 Cucumber
150g or 1 Carrot
300g or a small head of Cabbage
1-2 tbsps Salt, for pickling
- Blended Rempah Spice Base:
10g or 10 stalks Dried Chillies or 2 tbsps dried chilli paste
40g or 3-5 Shallots
20g or 2-3 cloves of Garlic
20g or 1-inch Ginger
2-3 tbsps Water for easier blending
- Everything Else
1 tbsp Mustard Seeds (optional)
1 tsp Turmeric Powder
1/2 cup Vinegar
1 tbsp Sugar
1 tsp Salt, to taste
1-2 Red Chillies
1 tsp Sesame Seeds
1/2 cup oil
- Vegetable Prep
- Cucumber: Prep the cucumbers by quarting it, and remove the soft middle, watery portion. Cut into strips.
Carrot: Peel the carrots and cut into strips, about the same size as the cucumber.
Cabbage: Chop the cabbage into sections.
- Place vegetables in a bowl and add salt. Work salt through the vegetables. It’s ok to crush the cabbages. Leave the vegetables for about 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes or so, there should be liquid pooling at the bottom of the bowl. Drain the vegetables. Set over a colander to drain off any excess liquid.
- Making the Acar Rempah Sauce
- While vegetables are salting, make the rempah paste. Blend all the ingredients together in a blender until you get a paste.
- Add plenty of oil to wok, heat over low to medium heat.
- Once hot, add mustard seeds and stir fry until fragrant, or mustard seeds start to sizzle.
- Add the rempah and stir fry in the oil until it dries down slightly, turns a deeper shade, and the oil starts to surface. See my post on ‘how to properly cook dried chilli paste’.
- Stir in vinegar and sugar. Turn off the heat and let the sauce cool down.
- Combining the Vegetables and the Sauce
- Add the cooled sauce to the vegetables, along with the red chillies and sesame seeds. Toss to combine.
- Serve immediately! Or store in glass or ceramic containers overnight to let flavours fully develop.