Since it took me 10 minutes to make a bowl of this flash-pickled condiment, I thought the writing of this post was going to take 30 minutes at the most. I would snap a few pictures of the cucumber relish, post them on here, write a couple of paragraphs, and move on with my life. Boy, was I wrong.
Little did I know that the whole “30 minutes at the most” thing would turn into hours of research on the etymology of the Sanskrit name अचार (achār, whence the Thai “ajat,” “achat,” or “ajad” (อาจาด) comes (most likely via Malay and/or Indonesian). Knowing that the name of this condiment and the condiment itself have been adopted into the Thai language and cuisine respectively (either by way of our southerly neighbors or foreigners living amongst us) wasn’t enough. I had to find out what the Sanskrit means literally, whether the origin can be traced back to languages outside the Indo-European family, how it might be related to the Persian and Urdu آچار (âčâr), etc.
Six hours later, I was lying face down on the floor, spread-eagle, surrounded by 5-6 dictionaries (all proven useless), mentally spent, and still as unenlightened as I was when the research began. Other than the fact that the word has been used within the Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian sub-groups of the Indo-European family as a generic name for pickle, I didn’t get anything else out of all that reading.
But life must go on even though I’m still in the fog. So with nothing earth-shatteringly enlightening to offer you, here’s the scoop:
- While achar/âčâr (Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Pashto, Indonesian, Persian, etc.), atchara/atsara (Tagalog), and acar (Malay) usually refer to various kinds of pickle, once the concept has entered the Thai cuisine, a new name variant “achat/ajat/ajad (อาจาด)” emerged, and the form of the condiment as a quick-pickled cucumber relish became fixed. As you can see, it bears almost no resemblance to acharaccording to the South Asian tradition.
- Though it has been suggested that achat sometimes consists of different vegetables, certainly the most prevalent version — the only one I’ve ever seen, in fact — consists of fresh cucumber slices, thinly-sliced shallots, sliced green or red peppers, and cilantro leaves shortly macerated in a simple sweet and vinegary syrup. It is served with satay and a few dishes in the Thai-Muslim cuisine including Kaeng Kari (แกงกะหรี่), the so-called Thai “Yellow” Curry (the informal moniker, heavily used in the West, which I am not fond of.)
- Granulated sugar
- White vinegar (don't use anything but white vinegar)
- Shallots or red onions
- Fresh jalapeno or serrano peppers
- Cilantro leaves (optional)
- To make ajat syrup, boil together one part sugar, one part white vinegar, ¼ part water just until the sugar dissolves. Add salt to taste. The syrup can be made ahead of time and stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator.
- To make ajat, simply slice up some cucumbers, shallots (or red onions), and fresh jalapeno peppers. Place everything in a bowl and pour the prepared syrup over the vegetables just until they’re barely covered. You want to do this just before serving as the acidity of the syrup will soften and discolor the vegetables. Ajad, ajat, achat is usually served at room temperature. Garnish with cilantro leaves, if desired.