Ulam or its plural form ulam-ulaman is a collective name for Malaysian-style salad. We invite you to get to know the country’s favourite types of ulam.
(This article previously appeared in Destination Malaysia Issue 8.)
(Pics: TM Info-Media Sdn Bhd)
Studies have shown that many types of ulam are packed with vitamins and antioxidants.
In our lifetime, there are thousands of things that remain a mystery and are waiting to be uncovered. What if one of the ‘mysteries’ is growing in the clutches of vegetation at the back of a kampung house? We are referring to the ulam or its plural form ulam-ulaman, a collective name for Malaysian-style salad.
Ulam is an important part of Malaysia’s gastronomic heritage, especially in traditional Malay cuisine. Some of the ulam plants are cultivated while some others can be found growing in the wild. Parts of the plants that can be used for the ulam are the leaves, shoots, fruits, seeds and roots. It adds crunch and a wonderful accent to a meal.
Studies have shown that many types of ulam are packed with vitamins and antioxidants. Village folks also swear by their medicinal properties.
In its simplest form, varieties such as selom and ulam raja sprigs are served raw on the sides with a smatter of sambal (read our guide to this hot relish at the end of the article). Various other communities in Malaysia also consume the ulam by adding it to drinks and stir-fry dishes.
At some point in the evolution of the local food scene, ulam is also used to describe any sliced or chopped raw vegetables served with sambal. Popular ones are cucumber, tomatoes, long beans, and white cabbage. Even certain cultivar of fruits can be used where it is boiled and sliced prior to consumption.
Ulam is an important part of Malaysia’s gastronomic heritage, especially in traditional Malay cuisine.
Less common ulam which enjoy a cult following due to their unique taste and smell include the jering and hempedu bumi. The former has an extremely pungent odour and the latter is literally translated as ‘bile of the earth’ due to its extremely bitter taste. Only die-hard fans would appreciate the taste.
At warungs (makeshift eateries) and nasi campur restaurants, a tray of ulam is a ubiquitous sight. Patrons will choose what they like before spooning a good dollop of sambal on it.
Each type of ulam listed here will feature its local name, followed by its known English name (if any) and scientific name.
- 1. Jantung pisang (Banana blossom) — An edible flower from the banana plant, its common name literally translates as ‘banana heart’. The tender inner core is usually served lightly blanched or used in kerabu, a fragrant, tangy and spicy local salad.
- 2. Temulawak (Java ginger/Curcuma zanthorrhiza) — Traditionally consumed as herbal remedies. It can be eaten fresh and has a sourish, bitter taste.
- 3. Selom (Java waterdropwort/Oenanthe javanica) — It’s prized by ulam lovers for its delicate lemony taste. In some places such as Japan, it’s used as an ornamental plant.
- 4. Kerdas (Pithecellobium bubalinum) — A thin layer of skin covers the light green seed inside. The fruit emanates a strong smell and is known as an appetizer.
- 5. Terung pipit (Pea eggplant/Solanum torvum) — These little gems contain tiny seeds which pop when you bite into them. Enjoy them fresh or cook them in curries and other dishes.
- 6. Pegaga (Asiatic pennywort/ Centella asiatica) — Besides serving it raw with sambal, it can also be made into a refreshing juice. It apparently helps ease symptoms of hypertension and migraine.
- 7. Peria (Bitter gourd/Momordica charantia) — There are two types of bitter gourd and the one frequently consumed as ulam is the smaller and darker-coloured type. It is also more bitter in taste but those who love the fruit swear that the taste, coupled with the sambal, makes the best and most appetizing combination.
- 8. Labu air (Pear squash/Sechium edule) — The fruit is sliced, lightly boiled and served as ulam. It has a delicate taste and the texture is a cross between a potato and an apple.
- 9. Ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus) — Its name means ‘king of ulam’. Its grassy taste is accentuated by a subtle peppery tinge. Consumed to enhance blood circulation, studies have shown that it has bone-protective qualities.
- 10. Jering (Dog fruit/Archidendron pauciflorum) — The fruit is sliced and eaten raw with sambal. Its smell doesn’t endear it to many people especially the younger generation, but the older folks swear by its blood-purifying feature which has been proven by scientific studies.
- 11. Petai (Bitter bean/Parkia speciose) — The plant has strip-like pods and the beans must be peeled from the pods prior to consumption. It can be eaten raw or cooked in sambal with anchovies, as well as shellfish such as prawns and cuttlefish.
- 12. Hempedu bumi (Green chirayta/Andrographis paniculata nees) — The leaves are either eaten raw or boiled. The taste is extremely bitter. However, it is said to have medicinal properties such as reducing blood sugar level.
- 13. Kacang botor (Winged or four-angled beans/Psophocarpus tetragonolubus) — The winged bean has a distinctive frill angling out from the bean pod, hence its name. It is a hardy plant and all parts of the plant including the leaves are edible.
A Guide to Sambal, Sauces and Condiments
No meal of hot rice and side dishes with ulam will be complete without the sambal.
A base ingredient is the long fresh red chilli, known to the West as cayenne pepper. Shallots, garlic, bird’s-eye chillies and an acidic component such as lime juice or tamarind juice are added to taste.
When eating a meal in Malaysia, a sambal is a must-have.
And of course, a little bit of belacan (shrimp paste) that has been toasted is added for that pungent aroma and distinctive flavour.
Other condiments such as cencaluk, budu and sambal kicap are also seen alongside ulam trays at eateries, and go well with fish and meat dishes.
1. Sambal belacan
This condiment is undoubtedly deserving of the title ‘the soul of Malay food’. Malaysians residing overseas often miss this. It takes the right ratio of chillies, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, lime juice and sugar to make a sambal with a kick.
This condiment is made from anchovies and salt, which have been fermented in vats. The resulting sauce is then bottled and sold. It is associated with the state of Kelantan, where it is frequently consumed. The brown, pungent liquid looks unappetizing at a glance, but you may change your mind once you give it a taste.
3. Air asam
It is like a watery version of the sambal belacan, where sliced shallots and tamarind water or lime juice is liberally added. It is used as a dip for grilled fishes and meats.
4. Sambal kicap
This is always served at establishments serving grilled fish. It’s especially good with grilled ikan kembung (mackerel). It can also be added in soup dishes such as soto.
5. Sambal tempoyak
Tempoyak is the fermented flesh of the durian fruit. Pounded chillies are added, mixed together and served.
Another bottled condiment, this one is made of fermented krill, salt and rice. It has a pinkish colour and gravelly texture.
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