When considering some of the ingredients used in preparing the Malaysian herb salad known as ulam, it's easy to understand why anyone, including myself, would be intimidated. We're talking about herbs like daun kaduk (betel leaves), bunga kantan (torch ginger bud), and daun kesum (Vietnamese coriander), just to name a few exotic ones on the list, and all of which I have never seen since moving to the US.
After cooking Malaysian food in my American kitchen for a little more than a year now, I'm glad to know that it doesn't always have to be mystifying and I'm thrilled to share a simplified ulam recipe with accessible ingredients that's easy to make at home, complete with a step-by-step video! And did I mention how scrumptious it is?
I'm a big believer in fusion cooking for a very practical reason: I'm homesick for food from Southeast Asia, and a few rare or hard-to-find ingredients should not stop me from satisfying my cravings. It is through the right balance of flavors and textures that I hope to capture the essence of the food I grew up eating, using the local seasonal ingredients available to me from the land I now call home.
Ulam is a great summer salad because the season brings abundant fresh herbs. Mint, cilantro, Thai basil, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves form a nice flavor base in this recipe. With the exception of kaffir lime leaves, the other herbs should be easy enough to get your hands on. If Thai basil is not available to you, feel free to use other kinds of basil like sweet basil and lemon basil.
Kaffir lime leaves impart a wonderful citrus aroma that gives this salad an edge. These fragrant leaves of the wild lime tree are used widely in Southeast Asian cooking much like the way bay leaves are used in the West. You can find them at the Asian grocery store, recognisable by their two-part joined leaf structure, one with a pointy tip and the other that is broader in shape. From my experience, they come in a rather big bag so I usually sun-dry them or freeze them to prolong their use.
It is important to finely slice the herbs so that the flavor nuances of every herb are nicely distributed. Another important preparatory step is to dry-toast the desiccated coconut to make what is known in Malay as kerisik. All that is left to do then is to toss all the ingredients together and mix them well. The richness of the coconut and toasted ground peanuts are paired with the brightness of lime juice to complement the zesty aromas of the raw herbs.
In Malaysia, ulam is commonly mixed with rice and enjoyed with meat and vegetables. Here's a video showing the easy steps for making Malaysian Herb Rice Salad or Nasi Ulam.
Malaysian Herb Rice Salad (Nasi Ulam) Video
Apart from rice, I've tried making the salad with wheat berries (as shown in the photos here) harvested from the farm I volunteer at, and have enjoyed it with cauliflower "rice" when I need a low-carb alternative. You can also use quinoa, millet, barley, and farro. Sedap!
Sedap = delicious in Malay. Look out for more Asian recipes made simple in the Easy Summer series. And subscribe to my YouTube channel for more step-by-step videos.
Malaysian Herb Salad (Ulam)
A tantalising Malay salad made with raw herbs, desiccated coconut, peanuts, lime juice, and your favorite grains such as wheat berries or rice that can be enjoyed as a complete meal on its own or as a side. Serves 3 to 4.
2 cups cooked wheat berries or rice, at room temperature*
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 lemongrass (white part only), thinly sliced
1/4 cup green onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup mint leaves, thinly sliced
1/4 cup Thai basil, thinly sliced
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
5 to 6 medium kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced (optional)
1 teaspoon coconut sugar
1 tablespoon lime juice, or more to taste
1/2 cup desiccated coconut, dry toasted
1/2 cup toasted ground peanuts
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and toss well. Adjust the seasonings according to preference. Serve immediately.
· This recipe also works with other grains like farro, barley, quinoa, and millet, or grain alternatives like cauliflower rice.
· Whatever you use, make sure they are at room temperature or cooled down after cooking to avoid the herbs from wilting when tossed together.
· If using rice, best to use overnight rice so it is not too wet. I like jasmine rice and basmati rice.