“Many Grandmas'” Asian Pickles

Left to right: Popo, my mum on her 16th birthday, and my mum’s cousin

One of the most common questions I get asked about my cookbook is: “Which one’s your grandma?”

My sad reply: “She’s not in there.”

I didn’t really know either of my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother, whom I called Oma, (I wrote about her in this post) lived in Indonesia while we were growing up in Singapore.

When I was little, Oma would stay with us for extended visits once in awhile and we would make the one-hour flight over to Jakarta once or twice a year. But the language barrier and her ailing health prevented us from developing a deeper relationship.

When I was 24, Oma passed away after being bedridden for many years. I only learned her name then: Sicilianti.

Popo was the maternal grandmother I never knew. As a matter of fact, I just found out that her name was Helli. Popo died of breast cancer when I was very young, before I could make any memories of her.

What I do know is that Popo was a fabulous cook and thankfully her culinary legacy lives on in my mother. However, when I asked my mother for a specific recipe for this post, she told me Popo cooked traditional Indonesian dishes but everything was kira kira, estimated, without ukuran, or measurements.

Over the years, I’ve envied my friends who had grandmothers who cooked for them, regaled them with stories, and gave them presents (ding ding!).

By the powers that be, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” project serendipitously fell into my lap. What became a labor of love also somehow completed me, filling this childhood void.

Today, I am thankful for all the surrogate grandmothers I met during this amazing journey. These women shared their incredible stories with me, many gave me sage advice in and out of the kitchen, and a few still check up on me once in a while.

Above all, they have given me the most meaningful gifts—their treasured recipes that I will continue to cook for my family and pass on to my children.


“Many Grandmas'” Asian Pickles

This month, my kind #LetsLunch buddies are posting about grandma recipes in honor of my paperback book launch last month. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of my grandmother’s recipes to share but I decided to come up with a “many grandmas'” quick pickle recipe.

I learned some great pickle tips while working on the book. Grandma Nellie taught me to randomly strip the cucumber of peel for a pretty finish, and to salt the vegetables to draw out moisture and make them crunchier (although I never found much difference). She also showed me how to feather the edges of the cucumber so the pieces can absorb the brine chop-chop. (Slicing the cucumber paper-thin as I’ve done below has the same effect). And Grandma Ling used maple syrup (instead of the prepared ginger syrup she was used to back home) to sweeten her brine. Yet another grandma massaged her carrot and daikon sticks before pouring the brine over.

So here is my quick pickle recipe lassoing tips, tricks and ideas learned from all the grandmas (including my mum who is grandma to my son) in my life together with my own adaptations.

Time: 15 minutes plus standing and brining
Makes: 1 pint

2 large seedless cucumbers (European or Persian cucumbers would be lovely too)
1 medium carrot
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons maple-flavored agave syrup (I used *Wholesome Sweeteners brand. You can also use maple syrup, regular agave syrup or honey, but start with less and adjust the amounts to taste)
1 clove garlic, smashed
Pinch crushed chipotle chilies

Halve each cucumber lengthwise. Place one half flat-side down on your cutting board, and using a vegetable peeler (a ‘Y’-peeler works great), slice the cucumber lengthwise into paper-thin strips. Repeat with the rest of the cucumbers.

Peel the carrot. Using a lemon zester, make nicks at equal intervals down the length of the carrot. Slice the carrot crosswise into thin slices. The slices will look like flowers.

Place the vegetables in a colander and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let them sit over the sink while you prepare the brine. (Skip this step if you’re in a hurry. I don’t find much different if you don’t salt the veggies first).

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, water, maple syrup, sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, garlic, and chilies. Microwave on medium-high for 30 seconds. Stir the brine, making sure all the sugar has dissolved. Taste and adjust the seasonings if desired. Go read a chapter in a book while you let the brine cool.

Rinse the vegetables and shake dry. Toss them into the bowl with the brine, mix well and chill for at least one hour. Serve with fried rice, noodles, or munch on it throughout the day. This is a great snack if you’re pregnant too!

*I didn’t purchase the Wholesome Sweeteners maple-flavored agave syrup but I use it because I like it, not because it was free.


This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month it’s a tribute to grandmas and their recipes.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Charissa‘s Apple, Pecan & Raisin Gluten-Free Depression Cake at Zest Bakery

Cheryl’s My Tanglin Ah-Ma’s Gambling Rice at A Tiger in the Kitchen

Emma‘s Irish, Polish & Korean Grandmothers’ Recipes at Dreaming of Pots & Pans

Jill‘s Stuffed Cabbage at Eating My Words

Karen‘s Semifreddo at GeoFooding

Linda‘s Taiwanese Oyster Omelet at Spicebox Travels

Lisa‘s Polish Potato Cake at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Lucy‘s Grandma Kitty’s Biscuits at A Cook and Her Books

Renee‘s Chinese Grandmother’s Tofu at My Kitchen And I


All Pickled Out

Last Labor Day weekend, 60,000 people converged on beautiful San Francisco to attend Slow Food Nation. I was one of them, except I was working behind the scenes at the Taste Pavilions, at of all places, the pickles and chutney booth!

The 50,000 square foot pier at Fort Mason was transformed into 15 distinct pavilions where tasters could sample regional food products from across the U.S. hand-picked by ‘curators’ who are nationally recognized experts on various types of food. The Taste Pavilions represented Beer, Bread, Charcuterie, Cheese, Chocolate, Coffee, Fish, Honey & Preserves, Ice Cream, Native Foods, Olive Oil, Pickles & Chutney, Spirits, Tea and Wine. I have to say they did a fabulous job, not just with the food but with the décor as well. Some of the Bay Area’s most celebrated architects and artists worked pro-bono to design each booth. (I have pictures but need to figure out how to upload them from my phone! For now, please visit http://slowfoodnation.org/blog/2008/09/02/taste-pavilion-photo-gallery).

While I got to walk the cavernous exhibition space housing the Taste Pavilions and breathe in the foodie-charged atmosphere for about 15 minutes, I spent most of my five-hour shift pinching pickles into little sampler cups. Sandwiched between Gudrun (she writes the blog www.kitchengadgetgirl.com) and DeeAnne (she owns Pig and I Farm), we chatted as we worked, making the time pass by quickly. I did also get to sample some yummy pork rillettes slathered over tasty Acme bread, woodfired pizza with an herby white-sauce base (sorry, I inhaled it so quickly I don’t recall what else was on it), paprika-marinated octopus with spiced chickpeas, pickled sardines, and pickled trout. Oh, and more pickles than I can ever hope to sample in my lifetime: kimchi, curtido (a Salvadorean cabbage and carrot relish steeped with cilantro and jalapenos), lacto-fermented sauerkraut, Sichuan cabbage pickles, beet and red cabbage pickles, and cabbage and fennel pickles (made by Barbara of Picklopolis). Can you tell it was a cabbage-based session?

Just in case you’re curious, it’s a funny story how I got involved, and a perfect example of just how amazing the Internet is at connecting people.

Pickle and chutney curator extraordinaire Michelle Fuerst was surfing the web looking for a small kimchi producer when, lo and behold, she came across my blogpost on kimchi. She emailed me asking if I knew anyone. I didn’t but we became friends and I volunteered to help Michelle out at the event.

On Saturday, I finally got to meet my internet friend in person. She’s just as lovely in real life as in cyberspace. Check her out in this podcast interview. Anyways, I brought along some Indonesian pickles with me which was to be served on Sunday evening with rice, eggplant pickle, lemon sun pickle, and a carrot pickle.

For those who’d like to try it at home, here’s the recipe.

Indonesian Turmeric Spiced Pickles (Acar Kuning)

DSCN1436 by you.

I made about a gallon of this yellow-tinged, flavor-packed, sweet and sour pickle for Sunday’s event but unless you’re feeding a crowd or really, really love acar, who wants to make such a humungous amount? Using a conversion factor (new/old quantity=conversion factor; I learned it during my first culinary arts class at the Monterey Bay Peninsula College!), I calculated this recipe for a smaller, saner batch.

Time: 1 hour plus waiting and steeping time
Makes: about 4 cups

5 pickling (Kirby) cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into julienne pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into julienne pieces
1 teaspoon salt
8 Asian shallots, or 3 small red onions, coarsely chopped
3 candlenuts, crushed
2 cloves garlic
1 plump stalk lemongrass, trimmed and coarsely chopped (or 3 tablespoons thawed frozen ground lemongrass)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar or to taste
2 tablespoons sugar or to taste
Salt to taste
1 cup cauliflower florets
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup chopped red pepper
4 Thai red chilies, chopped, or to taste
2 salam (Indian bay) leaves
Two 1/4-inch slices fresh galangal, smashed

Place the cucumber in a colander and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let it sit over the sink for 30 minutes to remove excess water. Rinse, drain thoroughly, and set aside. Repeat with the carrots.

Place the shallots, candlenuts, garlic, and lemongrass in the work bowl of a food processor and whirl until finely chopped to confetti-sized bits. You don’t want the shallots to be too watery.

Preheat a large wok over medium heat and swirl in the oil until it thins out and starts to shimmer. Scoop the lemongrass paste into the wok and sprinkle with the turmeric. Using a spatula, scrape the bottom of the wok and toss and turn the paste until the shallots turn pale and translucent, there is no trace of raw garlic, and the paste is a few shades darker, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Pour in the water and bring to a boil. Stir in the vinegar, sugar and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired and take off the heat.

When the pickling mixture has completely cooled, add the cucumbers, carrots, and remaining ingredients. Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup more water if there isn’t enough of the pickling mixture to coat the vegetables. Toss to coat and transfer the pickles to an airtight container. Cover and let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.

Fish out the bay leaves and galangal and serve the pickles cold, or warm over fried fish.