July 13, 2018
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A Salad, a Condiment, a Sandwich Filling
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Like sauerkraut and Indian pickle, Filipino atchara started out as a way of preserving vegetables, like green papaya, without refrigeration. Today it’s a favorite crunchy topping for pulled pork, or it can be eaten as a salad on its own.

I held the delicate flower-shaped carrot slice between my grubby fingers. Like most children, I didn’t consider it with a careful look or sniff. I quickly shoved the pretty thing in my mouth and was surprised by its sour twang. Crinkling my nose, I scooted the rest of the atchara toward the far end of my plate, separating it from the rest of my lunch. Pickles can be a polarizing flavor for young palates. This translucent, noodle-esque haystack of julienned papaya with carrot flowers would appear whenever I was served Filipino food. As an adult, I make it often and have a hard time keeping it stocked in the house. To me, atchara matured into the perfect condiment for summer barbecue.

Atchara, sometimes called atsara or achara, is a green papaya pickle. At first, it looks a little like sauerkraut with a tropical twist—or a relish. But in reality, it falls somewhere between these condiments and a crunchy side dish. You’ll find it accompanying grilled, roasted, and fried meats with rice—some of my favorites are crispy pata, deep-fried pork knuckle, and milkfish that is marinated in vinegar and then deep fried (it’s called bangus). Atchara’s tangy, syrupy brine cuts through rich flavors and offsets spiciness. In addition to cleansing oil off the palate, it aids digestion.

In some areas of the Philippines, atchara is known as ensalada (salad). The most traditional recipes use young papaya, carrots, onion, chile pepper, and occasional regional additions, like bitter melon, jicama, or moringa leaves. Some home cooks add raisins for extra sweetness. They can be a point of contention: My dad and I hate them and will fight you if you put them into our jars. For other types of pickles, the word “atchara” becomes an adjective in Tagalog: atcharang dampalit for pickled purslane, and atcharang lambong for bamboo.

Preservation of the harvest is a practice that spans the world, elongating offerings into later seasons when produce may not be available, from winter to spring. Atchara comes from the Indian pickling tradition of achaar, which are generally finely chopped and brined with oil and spices like asafoetida, turmeric, and fenugreek. It’s also a cousin of Indonesian acar and Dutch atjar.

Dating back to the Iron Age, trade occurred between India and the Philippines. Hindu rajahs ruled the archipelago and ports for 2,000 years before Spanish colonization in the 1500s. To get to the Philippines, Indian traders would need to navigate over 2,800 miles by boat. Luckily, pickles travel well. They don’t require refrigeration and are ideal for long days on the South China Sea.

Papayas, though, are not native to India, but to Latin America. The Spanish not only brought their religion and culture with them; they also carried plants and seeds from their previous trades. Filipino atchara as we know it today came about in the 16th century, combining Indian technique with an ideal climate for growing tropical fruit. The domestic refrigerator would not be invented until 1913 in the United States—and not make it to the Philippines until American occupation during World War II. The tradition of atchara lives on because refrigeration still remains quite a privilege and is not viable in some rural areas today.

This recipe for atchara is not a quick pickle of boiled brine and vegetables. It starts by tossing shredded papaya with a tablespoon of salt. This step draws out the lactic acid that kick-starts fermentation, and along with it, lots of water. Lessening the fiber’s water activity level leaves no chance for microorganisms to flourish and allows the pickle to last without refrigeration. The papaya is then drained and squeezed, sometimes with an old T-shirt. Like a sponge that’s been wrung out, it’s now ready to soak up whatever liquid you submerge it in—in this case, sweetened cider vinegar that’s seasoned with shallots, ginger, and chiles.

Jenn de la Vega, TASTE’s Cook In Residence

For most of my life, I’ve only known atchara as a supporting actor. But earlier this year, I was selling adobo pulled-pork sliders in New York at MoMA P.S. 1 for Bubble T’s Lunar New Year party. I put out jars of atchara—for people to add as much as they liked to their sandwiches. Over the course of the night, I sold out of pork. All I had left were potato buns and a spare container of atchara. Over the bass-heavy dance music, a customer pointed to the jar, offering me money for a pickle slider. I narrowed my eyes, thinking, “That’s a garnish, not a sandwich filling!” But I shrugged and served it. They walked away, and I felt like I’d swindled them. I ended up selling a few more—people were seeking out a vegan party snack. After I cleaned up, I tried it. It was crunchy, sweet, and satisfying with beer.

Atchara

Atchara

1 quart

Ingredients

  • 1 green papaya (about 2 pounds), peeled and seeds removed
  • 1 small carrots, top removed and peeled
  • ¼ of a red bell pepper
  • 1 mild green chile pepper
  • 6 small shallots, peeled
  • 2 inch knob of ginger, peeled
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper

My auntie Minda’s mom and my great-grandmother, Bai Amparing, was rumored to have the best atchara recipe in the family. She would make jars as pasalubong, or gifts, for those traveling back to the United States. Atchara is perfect with fatty grilled foods. It’s extremely rewarding to throw tongfuls on hot dogs or burgers and between bites of smoky rib bones.

Auntie grew up using lasuna, a very tiny variety of shallot. Try to get the smallest shallots you can find and cut them into ½” chunks, keeping the rings intact. Many other recipes will tell you to let the papaya soak for hours, but Auntie says tossing the papaya over the course of 30 minutes will render enough water. Squeezing all of it out with a cheesecloth is akin to making latkes or hash browns. You can keep the salty, papain laden run-off for meat marinades or constituting beans. Minda says the carrot flowers should be strategically placed along the circumference of the jar to invite people to try it.

Don’t throw away the brine when you finish the jar. Use it as a starter for the next batch or dilute it with a bit of water to make a quick switchel or pickle back shot to accompany whiskey.

  1. Finely shred the papaya with a mandoline or box grater. Place it in a nonreactive bowl with the salt and toss to combine every 10 minutes for 30 minutes.
  2. Drain the papaya in a colander or strainer. Using a cheesecloth or old, clean T-shirt, squeeze out as much water as you can.
  3. To make decorative carrot flowers, cut out 4 thin wedges along the length of the carrot. Then slice thinly into coins. Shred any remaining carrot.
  4. Julienne the ginger, red bell pepper, and chile pepper.
  5. Cut the shallots into ½” chunks, keeping the rings intact.
  6. Bring the vinegar, sugar, and pepper to a boil in a small pot. Whisk to completely dissolve the sugar. Using a spider or a metal strainer, blanch the carrot, ginger, bell pepper, and chile for 30 seconds. Add to the papaya bowl.
  7. Blanch the shallot for 1 minute and add to the papaya. Using tongs or two large forks, toss the vegetables with the papaya to mix thoroughly. Add the cooled vinegar to the bowl.
  8. Sterilize two Mason jars and their lids by steaming them on all sides for at least 30 seconds to a minute.
  9. Add a 1”-tall layer of pickle to the jars. Use a fork to place the carrot flowers along the edges so they are displayed as you pack more atchara. Continue to decorate and fill the jars until they are full.
  10. Wipe the mouth of the jar with a clean towel and seal.
  11. Atchara keeps for up to 6 months in the fridge.

Jenn de la Vega

Jenn de la Vega is TASTE's Cook In Residence and the writer behind the blog Randwiches.

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