Nasi Ulam - it is really simpler than you think

Thursday, February 18, 2016

I have always noticed the mysterious Nasi Ulam recipe in my late Mum's recipe collection, with the long list of Malay names of "dauns."

And if you check your Nonya cookbooks, including the magisterial "Cooking for the President," (a great cookbook!) you may drop all considerations of making it because at first glance, it sure looks complicated and redoubtable.  

"Nasi" means rice and "ulam" means salad. The key is to dial it down to something you will consider making for your daily dinners. Bear in mind that for the humble Malay Kampung home, their Nasi Ulam basically uses herbs and dried seafood that are available off their larder or garden. Sometimes, it is just using leftover herbs. Eat it with some sambal belachan and it will be sedap all the way.

My motivations for making it is because my wife simply loves it. And having tasted it, and yes, found out how easy it is to make it, it will be a regular dish on my dining table. I can imagine what a hit it will be in parties.

There isn't a whole lot of culinary skills you need but you do need a sharp knife to dice the herbs. You need to cook your rice perfectly. And you need to know where to get the herbs.

Or at least some.

I am blogging this for those living in Singapore, of course. If you are in Malaysia, I am sure it will be even easier for you to get to all the herbs.

Firstly, you will want to visit wet markets that are frequented by Malays. My mother loved Tekka Market and I can understand why. Some may prefer Geylang Serai Market. Even some HDB heartland markets will have some stalls dedicated to serving Malays.

Some of the "dauns"

Just be thick skinned and ASK. Put on a "tolong saya" face and many makciks will be happy to advise you. I should add that I find many Malay stallholders are friendly, warm, easy to talk to and always eager to help.

Ada Daun Keduk?
Tak ada. 
Saya mahu buat Nasi Ulam.
Oh, Nasi Ulam. Boleh guna daun ini.
Apa daun ini?
Daun Kemangi.

Daun Kemangi? I tasted it and raised my eyebrows when the flavours hit my palette. I bought it immediately.

My recipe stated Daun Keduk but hey, listen carefully: it is OKAY if there is no daun keduk. 


I am not shouting. Just raising my voice in case you are hard of hearing. I raise it a little bit:


Some folks follow the recipe list religiously. If they don't have one ingredient, they stop all they are doing and drive out to get it. This can be the cause of  a lot of stress in cooking.

In Nasi Ulam, the herbs you are using are so flavourful that - trust me - the missing one will not be missed. Only the nasi is indispensable.

In fact, just experiment. You will find even with just mint and basil leafs, you can make a pretty good Nasi Ulam. Depending on what side dishes you are eating it with, Nasi Ulam can be as simple or complex as you desire.

I sum up the principles behind a good Nasi Ulam:
  1. Your rice needs to be separated and firm, not soft, wet, sticky and mushy. I prefer using basmati rice but Jasmine will be fine as well. 
  2. Use fresh herbs. 
  3. Add some umami in the form of belachan, salted fish or dried shrimps. 
Nasi Ulam is where herby and umami flavours collide.
Here is the "recipe."

Nasi Ulam 

4 cups of rice (to serve 6-8 pax)

Fresh Herbs:
a handful of mint leafs
a handful of dawn kesom (laksa leaf)
one piece of daun kunyit (turmeric leaf)
a handful of thai basil leaf
a handful of daun kemangi (lemon basil)
a stalk of bunga Kantan (torch bud ginger)
a stalk of lemon grass
sliced shallot

Dried Seafood:
a piece of belachan
some salted fish
some dried shrimps

salt and sugar to taste

  1. Cook your rice. Use 1:1 water:rice ratio. Remove it and fluff it and let it cool down.
  2. Toast the blend seafood on a dry pan. Then blend or pound. Set aside.  
  3. Dice your herbs. Slice the shallots. Set aside. 
  4. Mix in the herbs and dried seafood paste or granules. Add sugar and salt...adjust taste as you please. Garnish with the sliced shallots. 
That's it. Serve it with some sambal belachan and and side dishes like Ayam Goreng, pickled cucumber, Sambal Udang or Ayam Sioh.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this delish Asian dish! Will try this soon! BTW, just read also your "About TFC" and super love!

  2. Hi Terry, just thought I'd share a bit about daun kaduk in Singapore. It is notoriously difficult to source - I have never been able to find it at the wet markets - but ironically it is actually grown everywhere. I noticed it's frequently used in landscaping, lining road kerbs as undergrowth for the bigger bushes. Luckily for me I found some growing behind my home, so a little foraging will do whenever I need some. Goes awesome in Penang otak-otak too! Makes all the difference in a dish (if one can find it)!

  3. I love adding toasted coconut (kerisik) to my nasi ulam. Oh and daun cekur is lovely too!

  4. I live in Dallas, Texas and I can't find all these leaves but your advice was appreciated on just using whatever fresh herbs I can find. I just used some arugula, mint, green onion, sawtooth coriander, lemongrass as fresh herbs and it was wonderful. Also added some canned torch ginger flower but can be omitted and just stick to anything fragrant and aromatic herbs.