The year was 1987.
The national daily I worked at, The Star, had just had its publishing licence revoked by the government. Overnight, the entire newsroom was out of work. So, I’m sitting with my housemates – also reporters – in our shared house in Section 17, Petaling Jaya, mulling over matters of press freedom (lack of), and career prospects (apparently doomed), when Mrs Kuppusamy – Aunty Kuppu to us – suddenly shows up.
Aunty Kuppu had been a headmistress of Durian Daun Girls’ School in Malacca in the ’50s, an admired colleague of my mother’s, and later much-loved family friend. Despite the name – a legacy from her second husband – she was a Malacca nyonya: light-skinned, and (unusually) big-boned and tall. No matter the occasion, or lack of one, Aunty Kuppu’s formidable presence always brought an atmosphere of burlesque, with her sharp eye, quick wit and terrible jokes, delivered at a volume suitable for school assembly before PA systems came in. These were always interspersed with a braying “hah?…hah?” and perhaps an elbow-dig, in case you were slow to respond.
She didn’t say anything about the political situation on that occasion, which really was beyond words, but she did give us a jar of her special homemade vegetable pickle – I guess, to cheer us up. It was so mind-blowingly good, I had to ask for the recipe.
(If you want to know what happened at The Star, read this blog post by Ong Hock Chuan, a senior writer on the paper at the time: http://theunspunblog.com/2007/10/27/when-a-star-died/).
Be warned: this approach to pickle-making presumes the presence of a houseful of people who won’t mind spending hours helping you in the kitchen. I’ve only ever made this for festivals, maybe twice so far. This Christmas, I’ll do it again.
Ingredients to grind:
- 24 dried chillies – grind at home to produce 4 tbsp chilli powder
- 5 oz small red onions (Asian shallots)
- 6 pips garlic
- 1 1/2 inch stub of turmeric or 1 tsp powder
- Galangal (lengkuas) – 5 slices
- Candlenut (buah keras) – 5 nuts (You could substitute with macadamia nuts)
- Blachan – 1 x 2 x 1/4 in block (Malaysian shrimp paste – there is no substitute)
- Lemongrass (serai) – 3 sprigs, sliced
- Sesame seed – 2 tbsp, dry-roasted
- Raw peanuts – 5 oz, dry-roasted in a pan very slowly for 15 minutes, then pounded in a mortar till grainy (If you use a food processor, be sure to stop when they are the consistency of coarse sand.)
Vegetables to prepare:
- a) 3 good-sized cucumbers – salted, rinsed and squeezed dry as per the instructions below
- b) 3 Chinese purple brinjals
- c) 6 oz French beans
- d) 3 green chillies
- e) 3 red chillies
- f) cauliflower – 6 oz weight after cutting into florets
- g) 2 medium-sized carrots, weighing 6 oz
- Sugar – 7 1/2 oz
- Heinz white vinegar – 6 fl oz
- Oil – 6 fl oz
- Salt – 2 to 2 1/2 tsp
1. Cut cucumber, brinjal and carrot into inch-long blocks. Remove the pulpy centres of the cucumber and brinjal. Then, cut each round block into triangular wedges, as if slicing up a tiny pie. Aim for 12 to 16 wedges per block.
2. Cut up the cauliflower into small florets.
3. Cut the beans into 1-inch lengths, angling the cuts so the lengths are nice and pointy.
4. Marinate the cucumber wedges for at least half and hour, with 2 level tsp salt. Then rinse off the salt and squeeze the cucumber wedges dry, just one handful at a time, rolled in paper towels. It’s a press-squeeze-twist action, or else the towel tears. The result is a crunchy cucumber. Set aside for use later.
5. Scald vegetable items (b) to (g) in 1 1/2 pints boiling water to which you have added 1 1/2 level tbsp salt. Scale one item at a time for just 1/4 to 1/2 minute, or until its colour changes, i.e. the beans to a brighter green, cauliflower stems slightly green, chillies brighter, etc. Avoid cooking them. Dish out each item when done into a colander to dry and cool.
6. Heat oil and tumis (that’s shallow-frying, for readers who don’t come from Malaysia) the ground ingredients till fragrant. Add vinegar, sugar, salt, and bring to boil. When the sugar melts, mix in the peanuts and sesame seeds – these can’t take over-cooking, so watch the mixture carefully, simmering just for a little while. Check for a definite sour, sweet and salty taste before turning off the stove.
7. Lastly, stir in the vegetables in this order: 1st beans, 2nd cucumber, 3rd carrot, 4th cauliflower, 5th brinjal, and 6th chillies. The whole mix looks rather dry and grainy; after some time the amount of gravy will increase as the water comes out of the vegetables. Turn over two or three times with dry chopsticks at intervals (or a fork or whatever you will comfortable with) and leave to cool completely before storing in sterilized jars.
The gravy must taste definitely good before adding in the vegetables. Except for the brinjal, all other vegetable items must by crunchy.
Aunty Kuppu’s notes: Follow the recipe as closely as possible. Don’t over-add vegetables – more gravy is better than less. Don’t over-roast the peanuts as they can go rock-hard – don’t under-roast either.
You could prepare this over two days. On the first day, prepare the peanut and sesame, and tumis (fry) the rempah (spices). On the second day, cut up the vegetables, scald and mix into the rempah that has been heated up and boiled with the vinegar, peanuts and sesame.
This recipe is excellent – taken years of research and perfected through many trials.
She’s right. You’ll never buy something like this in a shop, and most recipes for similar kinds of pickle, which we call “Penang achar”, are not as amazing.