Nasi ulam – steamed rice (nasi) served with various herbs and vegetables (ulam) – has its roots in native Jakartan (Betawi) cuisine. Now found all over South East Asia, its recipe differs from region to region, and even between households.
In Jakarta, it is served either dry or soupy and with a multitude of toppings, such as dendeng (beef jerky) and kerupuk (deep fried crackers). In Malaysia and Singapore, nasi ulam is commonly served as a room temperature or chilled rice salad, tossed with a variety of herbs and vegetables.
For many Peranakan families, this dish is only prepared for special occasions. The long list of ingredients and laborious prep work required in finely slicing all the ingredients also means that it is rarely served by hawkers or in restaurants. However, there are still some dedicated to sharing nasi ulam’s goodness, ensuring the dish lives on.
For instance, the dish is served in limited quantities at Chendol Melaka, a stall tucked away in a corner coffeeshop in Siglap. The dish is prepared days in advance and consists of around 20 ingredients, with herbs like daun kesom (laksa leaves), daun kunyit (turmeric leaves) and bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) mixed in sequence with steamed rice that has cooled down. This technique prevents the herbs from singeing and turning bitter.
There is also Staunch Food, a home-based business started by two teenage siblings, who created their spin on nasi ulam. Their version includes ingredients usually not found in the dish, like the superfood quinoa.
Whether you go old school with Chendol Melaka or try Staunch Food’s modern take on nasi ulam, the dish always delivers by being complex yet well-balanced. The finely-chopped ingredients ensure every mouthful of nasi ulam is packed with a multitude of tastes and sensations. And if this wasn’t enough, the dish is frequently garnished with umami-bombs such as sambal belacan (shrimp chilli paste), grago (baby krill) or kerisik (toasted coconut).
Tastiness aside, nasi ulam delights us with the effort and craftsmanship that go into our heritage dishes. Additionally, bringing home-cooked delights like nasi ulam to the masses allow us to revive the warmth of home gatherings that have been dearly missed during the pandemic. #FoodForThought