As a late beginner to introducing greens into my diet, I started out by eating salad, mainly because of the raw, crisp texture of vegetables like lettuce and cucumbers – unlike cooked leafy greens, which tended to seem slimy. I could choose how much dressing I wanted to use and pick vegetables to put in that wouldn’t trigger my gag reflexes. However, during my first introduction to a traditional ulam meal in my internship days, I recall looking at the different uncooked vegetables presented on the table for us to choose from and feeling absolutely muddled.
If you’re as clueless as I was, ulam is a traditional salad that is popularly had in a Malay kampung (village). Ulam is an umbrella term used to refer to various types of vegetables, ranging from cucumbers and banana blossoms to pegaga (pennywort leaves) and ladyfingers – any that you can consume raw. These are just a handful of over 50 types of vegetables that qualify for ulam, with most of them generally being leafy; according to Executive Chef Sabri Soid of The Royale Chulan’s Malay fine dining restaurant, Bunga Emas, every single leaf has a different character and flavour.
To give the vegetables some extra flavour, they’re generally had with a number of sambals (condiments) including sambal belacan, cincalok, budu, tempoyak, air asam, and sambal kicap. That’s all there is to it – choose a vegetable you like and dip it in any sambal you prefer having it with. It’s like the Malay version of a healthy snack, except instead of cucumber, carrot or celery sticks, instead you have peria (bitter gourd), daun selom (water dropwort) and kacang panjang (long beans).
One of the most famous is Ulam Raja (the King’s salad), a type of leaf that originates from Latin America. It’s known to be an excellent antioxidant, has anti-aging properties and can reduce blood pressure and bone loss.
Daun Kesum (Vietnamese mint), on the other hand, is from the mint family and – unsurprisingly – looks similar to a mint leaf. Apart from its ability to extend the life of meat products, this leaf is also good for the digestive system and said to be rich in vitamins and minerals, among them being Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and phosphorus.
Another variant of the ulam cuisine is nasi ulam, which is rice mixed with raw, traditional Malay herbs. There are usually eight types of raw vegetables that are mixed with nasi ulam and some of the them include ulam raja, kacang botol (winged bean), petai (young beans), pucuk gajus (cashew leaf shoots) and pegaga. Chef Sabri says that the condiment that best complements this dish is asam pedas daun keladi: sour-spicy yam leaf gravy. If vegetables alone can’t appease your appetite, then the nasi ulam just might be a good compromise for you.
The great thing about salads is that the bowl is a masterpiece of your own creation, and the choice of dressing goes a long way towards completing your ulam salad. Traditional sambals provide the most authentic experience, of course, but even if you choose to drizzle on Western-style tartar sauce or Thousand Island dressing instead – which is available beside the ulam at the Royale Chulan’s Warisan Cafe – it still counts as an ulam dish as long as the vegetables aren’t cooked.
If you’re like me and prefer eating at home, head to a farmer’s market – we suggest Chow Kit Market – to find some local vegetables to make your own ulam. This can be an overwhelming experience with the extensive variety of local vegetables available, especially since many of them will look very similar to each other; thankfully, you’ll have kind sellers to help you tell the difference and even give you recommendations if you ask them for help. Tip: Bring small change to the market as each vegetable is sold at an average of RM3.
Don’t forget to get the condiments for your sambal too! If you’ve been living in Malaysia for a while – or, like me, are just a spice fiend in general – you might be accustomed to having something spicy with almost every dish, so the sambal will be a must-have to enjoy your ulam if tartar sauces or Thousand Island aren’t your cup of tea. Many sambal recipes are available online and all it takes is a pestle and mortar for you to try your hand at whipping up some of these spicy condiments.
There’s no doubt that ulam takes some getting used to, but regardless of whether you’re a picky vegetable eater like myself or a bona fide greens enthusiast, this is a unique local delicacy that you should definitely give a try.
Types of Condiments
There are two variations of sambal kicap: one with blended ingredients and the other with sliced. Both variations have cili padi, onions and lime juice drowned in a generous amount of thick soy sauce. You may choose to use sweet or salty soy sauce according to your liking.
Budu is an ikan bilis (anchovy) sauce that is traditionally made by mixing the fish and salt together with a ratio of 2:1 or 6:1, depending on how salty you prefer it to be. This condiment is said to be a good ‘brain food’ as it contains a significant amount of fermented seafood, which supposedly boosts mental power.
Originating from Malacca, Cincalok is a condiment consisting of small, fermented shrimps. This condiment is sold in bottles and can be found in a farmer’s market for a few ringgit. Lime is served together with the sambal – a few sour drops will balance the extreme saltiness of the shrimp.
The essential make up of sambal belacan consists of red chillies, shrimp paste and lime juice. Because of its spicy aroma and taste being very popular among spice-loving Malaysians, sambal belacan can be had with just about any Malaysian dish. It is also usually served uncooked.
Popular in both Malaysia and Indonesia, sambal gesek is a combination of ikan bilis, cili padi and lime juice. The anchovies and chillies are pounded in the pestle and mortar before the mix is drenched in lime juice for a perfect marriage of flavours.
Test your taste buds with tempoyak, which is a condiment made by mixing durian with salt and leaving it to ferment for a few days. Also known as asam durian or pekasam, you can find it at local farmer markets. Simply add pounded cili padi into the mix and it’s ready to be served.