Fried Acar (Malaysian Pickles)
Last year, if you were to ask me what my favourite dish was from my time in the US, I’d have gushed lyrical about one of the many stunning, life-altering dishes I had at Blue Hill. From coppa and ‘nduja cured from waste-fed pigs, to squashes three times as sweet as the average butternut squash, to even eating raw kale and cover crops straight off the pastures. They were all mind-blowingly good.
But ask me today what I miss eating the most in the US, and I’ll probably say… fried pickles.
Man, after back-to-back 15-hour shifts five days in a row, deep-fried pickles at the Tarrytown bar (it was called The Huddle, I think) was like finding an oasis in the desert. Yes, I lost my fried pickle virginity at a sweaty, greasy downtown sports bar. It’s far from the most sophisticated locale, but when it comes to such a perfectly trashy, weirdly-delicious bar snack, it's a place as good as any.
If you're not American, I can understand how the concept of deep-frying pickles might sound vile. But somehow, the juicy tang of the half sour pickles and the salty grease-batter just works wonderfully together. Have it alongside an ice cold beer, with an aioli or blue cheese dip maybe, and before you know it, poof, there goes all your inhibitions. And yet again, you've failed in this month's resolution to eat healthy. It’s been more than a year since those nights at The Huddle, and I still have cravings about fried pickles. That’s how good these are.
So to satisfy my cravings, I made my own version at home. I thought since I’m in Malaysia, what better way to introduce it to my family than by giving it a bit of a local twist, via acar (a.k.a. Malaysian pickles)! While there are several kinds of acar, one of the most prevalent ones is Nyonya acar, which is an Indo-Chinese take on it. It's typically made of cucumbers, cabbage leaves, and carrots pickled in a tamarind-laced spice paste. It's typically kept for several days or weeks to marinate and develop its flavour, and like half sour pickles, these Nyonya acar get funkier over time!
For the recipe, I made a cucumber-only Nyonya acar, in keeping with the American fried pickles concept. So not only will these fried pickles taste sour and salty, it’ll have two extra taste dimensions of sweetness and spiciness too!
When it comes to the dip, these fried acar will do well dipped in aioli or some sort of glammed up mayo, but to really double down on the Malaysian-ness of the dish, try having it with peanut satay sauce! (Nyonya acar do sometimes contain peanuts, which was what inspired the combination.) But again, to not stray too far away from the American side of things, I made a half-satay-sauce half-greek-yogurt dip. The recipe for the peanut satay sauce isn’t listed below, but it’s gonna be out real soon on Food52! (I’ll link to it when it’s published.)
As for the fried acar itself, it was actually pretty darn great. Sweet, sour, spicy, salty, it had it all. Perhaps it isn't quite as cathartic as fried pickles, beer, and darts right after a 2:30am Blue Hill shift, but it's probably one of the best cross-cultural things I've made since starting this blog.
Next up... fried kimchi? 🤣
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2 tablespoons salt
3 large red chillies
5 dried chillies
4 cloves of garlic
1 thumb-sized piece of galangal
3 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon tamarind paste, dissolved in 3 tablespoons of water
3 tablespoons gula melaka, or brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
100g all-purpose flour
150g panko (breadcrumbs)
750ml oil, or more
Slice the cucumbers in half lengthwise, remove the seeds, and slice the cucumbers into 2-inch long batons. In a bowl, toss the cucumber batons in the 2 tablespoons of salt, and leave it for 30 minutes to disgorge (draw out some moisture). After 30 minutes, wash the excess salt off the cucumbers, and dry it in an oven or dehydrator at 80°C for 2 hours. Alternatively, you could also dry it in a dehydrator.
To make the spice paste, roughly chop up the fresh chillies, dried chillies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and galangal, and place it all in a food processor or blender with the oil. Blend until it turns into a smooth paste. Meanwhile, soak the tamarind paste in water for 5 minutes or so, and strain it to remove the seeds undissolved flesh.
Then, transfer the spice paste into a saucepan or wok, and fry it for 5-10 minutes, until it turns super fragrant and starts to split. (In Malaysia, we call this splitting step pecah minyak, and it’s a crucial step for any curries and rendangs we cook.) Then, add in the tamarind liquid, gula melaka and fish sauce. Bring to a boil and let it cool down to room temperature.
When the sauce is cooled, toss the cucumbers in the sauce, and store it all in a jar, leaving it to pickle for at least 3 days, or for up to 2 weeks. (You can taste it every few days to check its acidity and funkiness.)
When the acar is pickled to your desired level, they’re ready to be fried! Prepare the flour, eggs, and panko in three separate bowls. Dredge the acar cucumbers in the flour, tap it a little to get rid of the excess flour, then dip it in the eggs to coat. Finally, toss it in the panko until it’s coated all around.
Prepare a pot of oil and heat the oil to 180°C. Then deep-fry the coated acar for about 1 minute, until golden brown. The frying is best done in batches so the pot isn’t overcrowded. (I fried about a dozen at a time, but you might want to be more or less depending the size of your pot.)
They’re best had fresh out of the fryer. Dip it in some ketchup, aioli, or you can go all fancy with a peanut and greek yogurt dip.