One of the most wonderful things about the cuisines of the Malay Archipelago — or the Greater Nusantara as I like to call it — is the sheer diversity of rice dishes. Take for instance how the simple white grain is stained blue by way of butterfly pea flowers in the nasi kerabu of northern Malaysia to the turmeric-coloured rice of Java shaped into a cone known as nasi tumpeng.
Where rice is a plain staple in the Far East, it meets an explosion of colour in the South East. And out of this rainbow, one dish stands out for being as flavoursome as it is nutritious: nasi ulam.
It’s essentially cooked rice that’s been tossed with slivers of local herbs, shoots and leaves — a family of salads eaten raw known as ulam.
These raw salads — an entire genre of its own — is essential to the Malay dining table for its medicinal and nutritional properties. No meal is quite the same without a plate of these though it’s worth noting that many of its varieties (it is said that there are over 200 types of ulam) are somewhat bitter.
This culture of eating ulam as part of a meal is alive and well in Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. Unfortunately, it’s facing a slow death in Singapore. Much of this is thanks to urbanisation and the lack of access (and demand) as ulam demands freshness. After all, young shoots of plants like belinjau and pucuk paku (fiddlehead fern shoots) are traditionally foraged and go limp after just a few hours. And where are we to get stashes of daun pegaga (asiatic pennywort) and pucuk gajus (cashew shoots)?
That said, one of the central tenets of Greater Nusantara cuisine is to use what’s growing around you and nasi ulam is extremely forgiving in that respect since the big flavour elements can be easily found in Singapore. Certain essentials like lemongrass, mint and lime leaves are available at any supermarket while torch ginger flower might require a trip to the wet market. If you can’t find shoots and leaves that make up the nutritious component, you can substitute with greens like kale and bok choy.
In this recipe, I’ve replicated the flavours and ingredients of the nasi ulam I’ve encountered while living in Kuala Lumpur. In homage to my temporary home, I’ve decided to use beras item by Malaysian artisanal products brand Langit Collective — a variety of black rice that grows on the highlands of Sarawak. I love it not just for its incredible colour when tossed with slivers of green but also for its nutty flavour and fragrance. This is all plated on a dish handmade by ceramicist Thirty3eleven who uses clay from Johor for her pieces.
Aside from the rice, the dish itself has several components: flavour, textural interest and nutrition. A protein source is essential here and any type of fish or even seafood would do well with the strong flavour of the herbs. It’s also a perfect dish if you’re on a plant-based diet as grilled tempe and tofu are also delicious additions. To compensate for the umami flavour of toasted dried shrimp, add a dash more salt or strips of dried seaweed if you wish to veer off the Southeast Asian path. Here’s the recipe, note that the balance of flavours is entirely up to your liking, and certain herbs like kaffir lime and turmeric leaves are stronger than the others.
Recipe: Nasi Ulam
Recipe for 3 persons
Flavour (discard all herb stalks)
6 lime leaves
1 turmeric leaf
3 tbsp of mint leaves
Torch ginger flower (bunga kantan)
3 tbsp of lemon basil (daun kemangi)
3 tbsp of vietnamese mint (daun kesom)
1 stalk of lemongrass
Salt to taste
Nutrition (this can be substituted for other greens)
Indonesian bayleaf (daun salam)
Belinjau shoots (pucuk belinjau)
4 tbsps dried shrimp
4 tbsps kerisik (you can get this at the wet market in a packet or make it yourself)
1 cup rice + water
Protein: Your choice of shredded fish, tempe or tofu, enough for 3 persons
Measure out rice and cook it in a rice cooker.
While the rice cooks, cook the proteins of your choice. You could steam the fish, or grill the tempe to your liking.
Next, prepare the textural elements.
Make the kerisik. Toast the coconut shavings on a dry hot pan until it turns brown and crunchy. Pound in a mortar and pestle until it turns grainy, like sand.
Dry roast the dried shrimp until it turns crunchy. Pound in a mortar pestle to the same texture as the kerisik.
Set textural element aside and begin preparing the flavour and nutritional component.
Peel of hard exterior of lemongrass until what’s left is the soft edible inner parts. Slice finely.
Slice all herbs, vegetables, shallots and torch ginger flower thinly.
Once rice is cooked, toss a pinch of salt and fluff it up. Allow to cool.
There are two ways of serving nasi ulam: as a one dish meal, or as the staple in a spread of dishes.
One dish meal: Shape the rice in a small bowl and overturn it into the centre of the plate. Place herbs, vegetables and proteins around the rice in a ring. To eat, mix it on the plate.
As part of a spread: Place rice and all the ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well, being careful not to break too many grains. Serve this at the dining table accompanied with other dishes.