If you have lived or traveled in Southeast Asia, you probably came across nasi ulam, a type of tropical rice salad that is often served with grilled fish. It’s common in Indonesia and Malaysia, and there are different versions in both countries. Even Brunei has its own version of nasi ulam. It’s essentially a combination of rice and herbs with shredded coconut.
It can be made with white or brown rice, but the latter is healthier of course, and I love the balance of the mild nuttiness of plump brown rice with the intense kaleidoscope of herbal flavors in this dish. Different areas use different herbs which is why nasi ulam never quite tastes the same as you move around this part of the tropical world.
My favourite herbs to combine in this dish are wild pepper leaf (Piper sarmentosum) also called betel leaf; long leaf coriander (Eryngium foetidum); kaffir lime leaves; rice paddy herb (Limnophila aromatica); common mint; Thai basil; garlic chives; gotu kola (Centella asiatica) and maybe some Vietnamese mint.
It is the sort of dish that does not have strict guidelines – just roll up a balance of whatever Asian herbs you have in your garden or from the markets and chop them finely. The key thing is to use LOTS of herbs, as this is a herb salad, not a rice salad with a sprinkle of herbs!
I do also like to add a bit of something crunchy, diced really finely and often that will be the smaller stems of whatever is in the garden – Italian parsley, Gai Lan, mustard greens stems, snake beans, Chinese celery or jicama (also called yam bean). A dash of fresh lime juice and good quality fish sauce add the final touch.
This is a vegetarian (almost, if you omit the fish sauce) version of the Malay classic, which usually includes shredded dried fish and/or shrimps. You can make the dish without the coconut if you prefer, but I would recommend its inclusion – it just adds another nutty element to the salad. Another common garnish is crumbled peanuts.
For those of us growing herbs at home, turmeric, young cashew, kencur (Alpinia officinarum), cosmos (Cosmos caudatus), or young Tenggek Burung (Melicope denhamii or M. ptelefolia) leaves may also be added as well as finely diced lemongrass stalks and torch ginger flower. The rice can also be flavored while cooking with one or two knotted pandan leaves.
I cup raw brown rice, cooked and cooled
1/3 cup shredded coconut, toasted and roughly ground (optional)
1 cup very finely shredded herbs – a mix of any of the following:
Wild pepper leaf
Long leaf coriander
Rice paddy herb
Kaffir lime leaves
Chinese celery or Italian parsley
1/2 cup finely diced red onion or shallots (1/3-1/2 red onion or 2-3 red shallots)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 to 1 teaspoon coconut palm sugar (optional)
Cook the brown rice. I use a rice cooker with 2 cups water to one cup of brown rice. When cooked, remove and spread out to cool, forking lightly every few minutes to help cool and keep grains separate.
Gently toast the shredded coconut in a dry pan until golden, then place into a mortar and bash until roughly ground. Put aside to cool down.
Mix the cooled brown rice with the finely diced red onion or shallots and finely chopped herbs. Mix the fish sauce and lime juice and taste – adjust so that the balance of salty and tart is right. This will vary according to the saltiness of the fish sauce brand you’re using. Add a little grated coconut sugar if needed, 1/2 a teaspoon at a time, just enough to mellow the salty/sour flavors a little (but not too much!). Dress salad a tablespoon at a time until just moistened. Top with toasted coconut and serve.