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  • Justine

Local Herbs & Nasi Ulam

When Scott and I first started this hobby (when we were just burying seeds and crossing our fingers) turned venture (when we realized we could trick people into paying us to bury seeds and cross our fingers) now turned hobby (pregnant and a little bit tired and sloppy about burying seeds and crossing fingers), our core mission was to become cheerleaders for the produce native to our region – specifically herbs – because we felt that they weren’t getting enough love.

I’d grown up in a home that maintained a little garden with these herbs and enjoyed eating them regularly in my mother’s cooking over the years. I didn’t think much about this at the time but began to suspect that this was not a very common experience among my peers, and that it was in fact, a luxury. My suspicions were confirmed when I started to do grocery shopping and cooking of my own, and realized that such produce was actually quite hard to come by in the shops.

As more of us move towards non-native dishes and imported ingredients, these herbs – part of our heritage and full of medicinal benefits – are at risk of being forgotten. Don’t get me wrong, being married to a white guy who is deeply comforted by cottage pie and grilled Reuben sandwiches, I am grateful that a variety of food from all over the world has been made so accessible and available to us. What concerns me is when this happens at the expense of local produce – the food of our forefathers.

How will we make ayam buah keluak or nasi ulam with rosemary, pumpkins, and tomatoes? No doubt us inventive Peranakans will find a way – that’s how the cuisine came about anyway; traditional Chinese food altered due to the limited availability of ingredients and to suit the local palates. Thankfully, we can easily address this issue by growing some of these herbs in our own homes. They thrive in our climate and aren’t prone to pests or diseases. They don’t require a lot of space and do well in pots. We’ve found them really handy to have around the kitchen because they are usually only needed in small quantities and are best picked fresh as they have short shelf lives once harvested.

Daun kaduk (Wild pepper)

Young leaves are commonly eaten raw in salads. In traditional medicine, leaves are boiled in water and taken to treat coughs, flus, and rheumatism. The decoction can also be applied as a body rub for general weakness and pain in the bones. Leaves can be pounded and used as a poultice for headaches.

Male and female flowers are borne on separate spikes. In the male, the white flower clusters are about 6mm long along the spike, while in the female it is denser and about 12mm long.

This looks pretty unappetising but you can also pickle the flowers in some white rice vinegar, mirin, and soya sauce. Threw in a couple of bird's eye chillies for good measure. When eaten fresh, the flowers have a menthol-ly taste – almost like toothpaste. Once pickled, they're more mellowed and very refreshing.

Daun kaduk is a creeping herb with upright stems. It is used as a popular groundcover all around Singapore, and grows easily in both partially or exposed sites, on a wide range of soils. We prefer to grow ours in partial-shade as the leaves seem to be more tender when grown out of direct sunlight.

Kunyit (Turmeric)

Regarded as one of the most valuable herbs to mankind, it can be used as a dye, in medicine, and for flavouring. Its rhizomes, young shoots, and flowers are all edible. Rhizomes are a popular condiment in Malay and Indian cooking to add fragrance, flavour, and colour to dishes, while leaves and flowers can be sliced thinly and added to salads. At home, we like to use the leaves as a wrap when steaming fish.

A poultice of the rhizome can be applied to the boobies of lactating mothers to stimulate milk flow. It can also be made into a paste with an oil base and applied to skin to smoothen and preserve a youthful complexion.

Since turmeric rhizomes can be easily bought from the shops, we cultivate them in our garden for their foliage and flowers. I usually prefer to sprout rhizomes before planting them, by wrapping them in a damp towel and then a plastic bag. Check on them every few days to make sure they are still damp and nothing has rotted. After a couple of weeks, they should have sprouted and are ready to be planted in a sunny spot. Bury the entire rhizome such that the sprouts are just below the surface of the soil. Keep soil moist, but not soggy. I don’t usually add any fertilizer but if you intend to harvest rhizomes, it is recommended you amend with something rich in potassium fortnightly.

Harvest young leaves as and when needed, when they are between 15-30cm long. Rhizomes are ready for harvest when leaves and stem start to brown and dry, about seven to 10 months after planting.

Kaffir lime

Their aromatic leaves and rind are essential ingredients in Thai cuisine. Its heavily dimpled fruit are not very juicy and can be slightly bitter, hence the plant is better known and used for its ‘double’ leaves. We like to add young leaves to our sambals and salads, and throw older leaves into soups and curries.

Leaves are commonly used to improve oral health by rubbing them onto gums, as essential oils released help eliminate harmful bacteria. They are also anti-inflammatory in nature and help stimulate digestion.

Trees can reach 3-4m high, but you can keep them as small shrubs in pots too. Place them in a sunny spot that receives at least six hours of sunshine a day. They prefer to have their roots on the dry side, so ensure that they are in pots with proper drainage.

Ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus)

Ulam raja, which literally translates to “king’s salad,” is a medicinal herb that has been used for centuries for numerous metabolic disorders. The plant also has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Native to tropical America, it was brought by the Spanish to Southern Philippines and eventually made its way to Malaysia where it is commonly served as salad. Their leaves taste like unripe mangoes with a slightly bitter aftertaste and make a good local alternative for rocket leaves. At the moment, I’m finding its flavour a little bit too intense so have only been using it as a garnish. The flowers are also edible.

The plants require plenty of sun and will thrive even under uninterrupted full sun in the hottest conditions. They are easiest grown from seeds and should germinate between three to eight days. They grow rapidly and can reach up to 3m. We start harvesting when our plants are half a meter tall by snipping off about 10cm from the top. This promotes bushing and prevents flowering.

As night falls, the leaves fold up around the terminal buds as if cuddled up in bed. Nyctinasty is the circadian rhythmic nastic movement of plants in response to the onset of darkness.

Daun kari (Curry leaves)

This is a versatile culinary herb that is native to India. The leaves are loaded with anti-oxidants, and when consumed regularly, they help keep blood sugar levels in check. The enzymes present in curry leaves also help maintain digestive health and their laxative properties help regulate bowels.

At home, apart from adding it to curries, we like to fry whole sprigs of fresh curry leaves in ghee with spices such as mustard seeds and cumin. Or skip the spices and simply season with a sprinkle of salt and sugar. You can serve the leaves on their own or toss them with roasted peanuts and fried anchovies – it is one of our favourite side dishes that we have with our meals almost daily.

The curry leaf plant is a small tree that can be grown in the ground or in pots. It also produces small, black, berry-like fruits, which are edible, however the seed is poisonous and must be removed prior to use. They can be started from cuttings or seeds.

Daun kesum (Laksa leaves)

A very aromatic herb – young leaves are often added to curries, asam laksa, asam pedas, and sup tom yam. In traditional medicine, a decoction of the leaves is taken to provide relief from indigestion. It is also taken after childbirth as post-natal tonic, for the general well-being of the mother.

It is a creeping plant that prefers cooler temperatures; growing well in partial-shade and waterlogged conditions. Since the plant is easily propagated by stem cuttings, it does not take a lot of effort to maintain a steady supply of them growing in the garden. Harvest stems about 8-10cm long, pick off young leaves to use in the kitchen, and then place stems in a jar of water. Once roots grow, which should happen within two to three days, stems are ready to be planted once more.

Ironically, these herbs are just the thing that I have been avoiding ever since our soon-to-be intern started renting out my womb. I’ve spent the last few months sneaking off to McDonald’s because it was the only food – and I use the term loosely – I could stomach. This from someone who spent her teenage years and early adulthood living a processed-food-free life of steamed sweet potatoes, baked chicken breasts, and arrogant earnestness. The shame.

Eating Happy Meal and yet still apparently not very happy. The spell broke around week 18 when my mum cooked nasi ulam for dinner one evening. It felt incredible to be eating food from, y’know, the ground, again.

DID YOU KNOW!! There is a reason salad, eggs, and meat repulse you when you have morning sickness! Our primal brains instinctively understand that bacteria resides on plants and in protein, (eg: salmonella in chicken, toxins or bugs on veg), so the body rejects them in order to keep the baby safe from poison or sickness. Choose safe ol' cheese toastie and McDonald’s our body is saying. “Can do!” we respond, with very little say in the matter. Anyway. I eat normally now. Oh, except for my ALL-ENCOMPASSING DESIRE FOR CRISPS AND GUMMY BEARS. Jesus. It’s been intense.

Anyway, here is the recipe for our super delicious (self-described) nasi ulam. Just between you and me, there isn’t actually a recipe because traditionally my grandma and mum would make this dish using whatever vegetable odds and ends they had in the kitchen at the time. Ie: it always tasted different. Also, it really depends on what herbs you have growing in your garden. But for the sake of consistency in the catering we (used to) do, I shadowed my mum in the kitchen and managed to scribble some semblance of a rough guide.

Ingredients (feeds 6)

3 cups cooked rice, cooled to room temperature (I usually use a mix of unpolished, red, and white rice. Some people swear by basmati rice because it is fluffier and less sticky.)

200g fish, fried and flaked (I like using mackerel, also known as batang, because I find their bones easier to pick out compared to other fish. You can also use dried shrimp or skip this entirely to make the dish vegetarian.)

Turmeric root, finely sliced and fried

150g beans, chopped and lightly sautéd (Any kind of beans – long beans, French beans, winged beans. Some of these can even be eaten raw if sliced very thinly. Alternatively, you can just substitute with cubed cucumbers. All we want is something with a lil crunch.)

2 pieces tau kwa, cubed and fried

10 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup herbs, finely sliced (I use a mix of wild pepper leaves, kaffir lime leaves, and turmeric leaves. But you can use literally any kind of herb with soft leaves – basil, ulam raja, mint, laksa leaves, coriander, dill, etc etc.)

1 torch ginger bud, finely sliced (Optional, but this is my absolute favourite. It is super aromatic!)

5 tablespoon fish sauce (Skip if vegetarian and just season with more salt instead.)

2 teaspoon salt

5 dashes pepper


1. In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice with all the ingredients. Add the seasoning (fish sauce, salt, pepper) as you toss, until everything is well mixed.

2. Makan!

As you can see, making nasi ulam is not rocket science, but it does take some time – or a lot of time; depending on how Nyonya you are/your perfectionist tendencies.

Note: I am a bit anal when it comes to the order in which I add the ingredients – I can't help it, it’s in my blood! I’ll add the fish and turmeric first; because I really want the fish to be well flaked and rice to be stained yellow. Then I’ll add the beans; because they can withstand being tossed around without falling apart. Then I’ll add the tau kwa; once this is mixed in, I try to be a bit gentler when tossing because I don’t want the tau kwa to get smashed to mush. Then all the raw stuff, with the torch ginger bud being the last. I usually slice it just before mixing it into the rice because it oxidizes and goes brown quite quickly.

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