First published Jan 2014. Updated Aug 2017.
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Nasi Ulam is a rice salad from North Malaysia, served with a variety of side dishes like fried chicken, sambal belacan* (local shrimp paste chilli sauce) and fried fish, just to name a few. And like many well loved recipes, this has travelled and changed slightly and it is now commonly found all over Malaysia as well as in Southern Thailand and Indonesia.
The images here show you how one would serve it, and by changing the side dishes, and leaving out the dried shrimp, it is easily made vegan. See below for side dishes.
Traditionally, and perhaps in days gone by, Nasi Ulam was made with 100 different types of freshly picked wild herbs, that would include wild betel leaves, Indian pennywort and cashew nut leaves, resulting in a rice dish that was practically green in colour! These days, and for many of us not living in the country or villages, getting 100 fresh herbs is no easy feat, so one makes do with what one can get.
When I make Nasi Ulam in the summer, I am rather spoilt for choice with the types of herbs I have access to, not quite a hundred, but most certainly, a varied lot. This is mainly because I grow lots of tropical herbs during the milder/warm months, and some examples of what I grow are:
- Kaffir Lime
- Curry Leaf
- Turmeric Leaves
- Japanese Shiso
- Thai Sweet Basil
- Thai Holy Basil
- Vietnamese Coriander
- Lesser Galangal
- Betel Leaves (paan)
So you can see, with what I have above, I’m rather off to a good start! Then I’ll add coriander leaves (cilantro), mint, regular basil, parsley, chives, spring onions, rosemary and whatever else I might be able to get my hands on! Can you imagine the fragrance and the flavour of the finished rice? It is a highly perfumed dish!
I have eaten many versions of nasi ulam, quite often, the rice used is just plain, cooked white rice, with nothing added. On a couple of trips I made up north (Malaysia), I had the pleasure of eating nasi ulam that had been made with nasi lemak (coconut rice) which I thought was simply amazing. It was also flavoured with spices. And that’s exactly how I make my Nasi Ulam, I flavour the rice with some ground ingredients and use a little coconut milk to cook it, but I go easy on the coconut milk, and so the resulting rice isn’t as creamy as Nasi Lemak.
Quite frequently, a little bit of fried salted fish (ikan masin*) is also added to the mix. I do without this as my husband and kids aren’t keen. Here in the UK, a small piece of unsoaked bacalao is a cheaper option than trying to find a salted Asian fish.
This is a cool rice salad in every sense of the word! The rice is cooled down before being mixed, so the herbs remain fresh and a vibrant green. Having said that, if, like my husband, you can’t abide cool savoury food, warm it up at the last minute before mixing the herbs in.
A look at Nasi Ulam Ingredients
Nasi Ulam Rice
Basmati or Jasmine will do perfectly for this, although my preference will always be Jasmine rice, with its sweet perfume.
Nasi Ulam Herbs
Get what you can, and try and get one or two tropical herbs as well, like coriander leaves (cilantro), at the very least. Remember to keep a balance. You don’t want too much of one, especially if it’s a strong herb like rosemary.
Pandan or Screwpine Leaves (daun pandan)
The pandan leaf has a wonderfully, sweet aroma with dashes of freshly cut grass, and is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Click here to read more.
Kerisik, is dry toasted desiccated coconut that has been pounded. It adds a wonderful toasty, caramel like aroma to dishes it’s used in, like Beef Rendang curry. Click here for the recipe, and the link to my YouTube tutorial on making kerisik. Leave this out if you can’t get desiccated coconut.
What if you can’t get those Pesky Ingredients to make Nasi Ulam?
Leave them out. Pure and simple.
- Make your nasi ulam with whatever herbs you can find.
- Leave out the pandan leaves and kaffir lime leaves and drop a bay leaf in the rice.
- Ground ingredients – make it with whatever ingredients you can get: onion, garlic, ginger and chilli would be a great start!
How to Serve Nasi Ulam
The images here show you an elaborate plate of Nasi Ulam, to give you an idea of how to serve it. The most basic will have a spicy condiment and some raw vegetables. It’s up to you how much or how little to serve it with. Sometimes, I’d be happy with just some chillies and cucumbers to accompany it. But in these pictures, you have examples of dishes you can make to go along with our Nasi Ulam (click on the individual links below for the recipes):
Vegan Nasi Ulam
Leave out the dried shrimp in the paste ingredients, and serve the rice salad with vegetarian sides like:
* And a quick Malay language lesson, or translation service, whatever you want to call it!
Nasi = rice
Ulam = herbs
Daun = leaves
Bunga = flowers
Ikan = fish
Masin = salted/salty
Sambal = spicy condiment
Belacan = shrimp paste
Nasi Ulam recipe, a rice salad from North Malaysia, served with a variety of side dishes like fried chicken, sambal belacan* (local shrimp paste chilli sauce) and fried fish, just to name a few.
- 400g (2 cups) basmati or jasmine rice
- 250ml (1 cup) coconut milk
- 500ml (2 cups) water
- half tsp salt
- 2 pandan leaves or kaffir lime leaves
- 2 Tbsp kerisik (pounded, toasted coconut, see above)
- 2 Tbsp crispy fried shallots
- half tsp freshly ground black pepper
- juice of 1 lime
- 1Tbsp vegetable oil
Ingredients to be ground
- 1 medium onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1” ginger
- 1 lemongrass stalk, lower half
- 1 mild green chilli
- 1 tbsp dried shrimp, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, optional
- 1” galangal – optional
Fresh Herbs (whatever you can get)
- 1 handful fresh coriander
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- 2 sprigs Vietnamese coriander (daun kesum)
- 2 sprigs Thai basil
- 2 sprigs Holy basil
- 4 basil leaves
- 1 medium sized turmeric leaf (daun kunyit)
- 1 ginger leaf (daun halia)
- 1 torch ginger bud (bunga kantan)
- 1 galangal leaf and/or flower
- 1 lesser galangal leaf (daun cekur)
- 1 sprig fresh curry leaves (daun curry)
- wild betel nut leaves (daun kaduk)
- 1 handful chives
- 1 sprig mint leaves (daun pudina)
- 1 small sprig rosemary
- 2 sprigs parsley, flat or curled
- Rinse the rice a couple of times.
- Add the coconut milk, water, salt and leaves if using and place on a high heat.
- Cook on high heat until the liquid has evaporated and little steam vents (holes) appear on the surface of the rice.
- Stir, then put a close fitting lid on, lower the heat right down and cook for 15 minutes.
- Take the saucepan off the heat and leave the rice to rest for 5 minutes.
- Fluff it up and tip out onto a large plate and leave to cool to room temperature.
The Ground Ingredients
- Place everything into a chopper and grind to a fine paste.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté the paste for about 5 minutes.
- Tip out onto a plate and set aside to cool completely.
- Pile the herbs onto each other and create a chiffonade with them, with the biggest leaf on the bottom, covering everything up. In other words, roll up all the herbs together, placing the small ones in the bigger leaves. Then slice it all up thinly. Do this in 2 attempts, if you have lots of herbs.
- Now, mix everything together, check seasoning, add some salt if needed and serve as described above.
- Cuisine: Malaysian