Nasi ulam (Malaysian herb rice)

Nasi ulam (Malaysian herb rice)

Holiday photos and memories have a surreal edge to them right now. ‘Was that really last year?’ … ‘Was that real at all?’ Looking back on life before COVID19, you can’t help but feel it was a little hedonistic. We did whatever we wanted! Maybe we set some boundaries or tried to care for others or the planet, but our freedom was extraordinary, wasn’t it? Particularly if you had money for a plane ticket.

This period of isolation has definitely not been rosy for everyone, but I do know a lot of families having the time of their lives minus their normal outside influences. Most of the time, I’ve been one of them. If you have children, I think it has something to do with how many you have, and what age they are – not so young that they’re hard to contain, and not so old that they can’t go without their friends. Our kids are 10 and 7, and I think this may be a patch of life that will shine in their memories, of when home was as rich as it possibly could be as we shared every meal together, learned new games, exercised in a pack, watched movies and TV together, created our own fun. In so many ways these months have been a gift, or some kind of knock on the head.

It would be great to think that when life eventually normalises, a gleaming shaft of appreciation will cut through all our new experiences, whether it be travelling or carefree time spent with family and friends. I think we humans have many convenient memory lapses, but I’m definitely going to try to remember and compare.

This recipe comes with lovely lashings of memories from our trip to Malaysia almost two years ago. We started in Singapore and travelled overland to Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang, finishing in Langkawi. My favourite thing ever is discovering new dishes, then experimenting with them at home until they feel right. We ate this superb rice dish in a Nonya restaurant in Georgetown. Weirdly enough, it ties in beautifully with our Melbourne garden, as we have kaffir lime in a pot, a dwarf lime tree, and a lemongrass plant that calls out to be harvested in autumn and early winter before it dies back with the cold weather.

But first, here are a few favourite snaps from Malaysia!

Travel sandals!Night market near Setiawangsa in KL, Malaysia
Old meets new in Kampung Baru, KL, MalaysiaPetai - 'stink beans' – for sale in KL, Malaysia
Eating pandan cake by the quarter in Singapore's Gardens by the BayQuintessential Malaysian breakfast – roti canai and iced coffee near Setiawangsa, KL
Breakfast in a coffee house in Ipoh, MalaysiaHand painted tea advertizment inside a shop in Ipoh, Malaysia
Dining on the streets of Ipoh, MalaysiaDinner in Ipoh, Malaysia, featuring petai – 'stink beans' – at Sun Yoon Wah
Shopfront in Ipoh, MalaysiaStreet food found outside one of the coffee houses in Ipoh, Malaysia, called ma chi

Shop selling flowers in Little India, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaView from one of the clan jetties in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Holding rambutans at a durian and tropical fruit farm in Balik Pulau, Penang, MalaysiaUla Melaka night market on Langkawi, Malaysia

Street side eggs for breakfast in Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaEggs, iced coffee and iced milo for breakfast at a coffee house in SingaporeNasi ulam (Malaysian herb rice)

Nasi ulam (Malaysian herb rice)

I don’t think this dish looks nearly as good as it tastes, and the description ‘rice salad’ doesn’t match up to it either. It is fragrant, savoury, comforting, and so good. Interesting, too, as the herbs including kaffir lime and lemongrass are not cooked, but finely shredded and mixed through cooled rice, together with toasted coconut, little morsels of fried dried shrimp, sliced shallots and lime juice. Yum!

Many wondrous herbs find their way into a proper Malaysian nasi ulam – betel leaves, turmeric leaves, different basils and torch ginger to name a few. I consider the lemongrass and kaffir lime essential, then make sure I have at least two other herbs to include. The more the merrier. The rice is meant to be served at room temperature, but I find warm nasi ulam is lovely too (hot rice is not a good idea as it blackens the herbs).

Grilled chicken or grilled whole fish are ideal accompaniments, and in Malaysia it is often served with fried chicken and sambal. This rice would be perfect on a picnic.

1½ cups jasmine rice
handful of dried shrimp (optional)
2/3 cup grated fresh coconut (while it is cheating, I think desiccated coconut works fine when you live a long way from the tropics)
splash of oil
1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, finely sliced then minced with a knife
8 kaffir lime leaves, central ribs cut out, stacked, rolled together and sliced very finely
coriander (cilantro), Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, regular mint – a generous handful of at least 2 varieties, finely sliced
1 red shallot (or more to taste), cut into fine slivers
juice of ½ lime, or more to taste
1½ teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt

Cook the rice as you normally would, and leave it to cool down to warm or to room temperature. Meanwhile, soak the dried shrimp in hot water for 30 minutes.

Drain the shrimp and rinse them, then chop up roughly. Heat a dry frying pan over low–medium heat and add the coconut, moving it around constantly until nicely golden. Tip into a large bowl. Return the pan to the heat and add a small splash of oil. Add the shrimp pieces and stir-fry for a minute or so until golden. Tip into the bowl with the coconut.

Add the rice and all the remaining ingredients. Toss well and taste, adding more salt or lime juice as desired.

Serves 4–6

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