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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Gong xi achar

Passing down the achar tradition.
The Straits Times - February 12, 2013
By: Eunice Quek
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Gong xi achar

SINGAPORE - As a young girl helping her late grandmother make traditional Nonya achar, Madam Teresa Corinne Chan not only had to chop all the vegetables, she was also in charge of guarding them against pests as they dried in the sun.

The 50-year-old mother of four daughters aged 10 to 26 recalls: "Besides preparing the achar - about 100 bottles - I had to be on duty in the garden for six hours to chase away cats, birds and ants."

Every Chinese New Year, Madam Chan, a procurement expeditor in an engineering company, still wakes at the crack of dawn to prepare achar for family and friends.

There is no hurrying the process, she says. The vegetables need a "good massage" in the rempah.

Hardier vegetables such as whole garlic cloves, onions, cauliflower and chilli pieces need more time to soak in the flavours, so they should be placed at the bottom of the jars.

The rempah recipe can also be used as a base for fish head curry dishes. Madam Chan suggests using stainless steel bowls and cutlery to prevent the achar from staining plastic ones.

If left unopened, the achar can be kept unrefrigerated for two weeks, and for at least a few months in the fridge.

For Chinese New Year, her bottles of achar make for good "barter trade".

She says: "If someone gives me homemade goodies such as kueh bangkit or pineapple tarts, I give them achar in return. The ingredients are not expensive. It's the amount of work that goes into it."

The eldest of seven siblings also makes labour-intensive dishes such as yusheng and popiah - complete with homemade popiah skin and ingredients - for meals with her family and friends.

Other dishes she makes include lontong, rendang and chap chye. Her Teochew husband, Patrick Phua, 59, has his own special recipes, such as Teochew braised duck and braised pork.

While Madam Chan says her grandmother "would never reveal the secret achar recipe", she is keen to pass down recipes, especially to her daughters.

In her kitchen cabinet, she keeps a treasured notebook of handwritten recipes from her grandmother, as well as recipes cut out from newspapers and magazines.

Her third daughter, Caroline, 20, who helps her mother with bottling the achar, says: "You must be happy when you are cooking. If not, the food won't taste nice."

Madam Chan adds: "For Peranakan food, there is no such thing as a quickie. If that's what you want, go to the supermarket. Even my parents, who are in their 70s, still cook.

"As soon as I could hold a knife, I was cooking. So as long as you can stand, you can cook."

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