The Peranakans are largely local born-Chinese who adopted many facets of Malay culture through many generations of living in South-east Asia. My own deep Peranakan roots date back over nine generations from Melaka where my parents were neighbours, as well as cousins, in the Peranakan enclave at Heeren Street (now Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock). Our forefathers were likely to have taken local Malay women as wives or life partners.
A very important aspect of our culture is food, in which we share a love of spicy flavours and raw herbs in our cooking. Peranakans have developed our own version of nasi ulam which is essentially a beloved Malay dish. Every family would tell you that theirs is the best!
The marvellous thing about nasi ulam tossed with leafy herbs and vegetables is that it combines so many flavours and textures. It is all at once crunchy to the bite, soft, aromatic - a truly multi-sensory experience.
Even better, the traditional herbs have health benefits and are renowned as folk medicine for treating anything from diabetes, arthritis, inflammation, pain, nausea, indigestion, depression, fatigue, high cholesterol, cramps and worms to dandruff. Most are high in anti-oxidants, are anti-bacterial and some have anti-cancer properties.
Here, I share my family recipe for nasi ulam using ingredients available at wet markets and supermarkets. Nasi ulam can be simple or very elaborate for more complex flavours. You can add on herbs as you please. Busy cooks or vegetarians can omit the seafood or even the pungent belachan.
You can also adjust the amounts to your taste. The traditional way of Peranakan cooking that was passed down to me, and as many in our culture would attest to, is to agak agak or cook by estimation. Experiment and taste to discover a mix that suits your preference.
INGREDIENTS (serves 4-5 persons)
2 cups white jasmine rice
3 stalks pandan leaves, knotted
1 ikan chencharu (torpedo scad fish) or ikan selar (yellowtail)
300g fresh small prawns
50g salted ikan kurau (threadfin)
1/3 cup dried shrimp (heybee)
½ cup fresh grated white coconut
1½ tsp salt
½ tsp white pepper
Cooking oil for frying
Sambal tumis (stir-fried paste):
½ thumb-length belachan (fermented shrimp paste)
Herbs and vegetables:
2 stalks lemongrass (serai), use only the white stem
2 young turmeric leaves (daon kunyit)
4 young kaffir lime leaves (daon lemo perot)
½ cup Vietnamese mint or laksa leaves (daon kesom)
6 pods winged beans (kachang botol or four-angled beans)
1 torch ginger flower (bunga kantan)
3 long beans (kachang panjang)
More herbs can be added, as you like, including daon kemangi (lemon basil), daon kadok (wild betel), mint, young galangal...the list goes on.
Blend or pound all the ingredients for the sambal tumis. Heat about 3 to 4 tablespoons of oil in a wok over medium heat. Fry the mix, stirring continuously for about 5-10 minutes until fragrant. Set aside. The sambal tumis can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator.
Cook the rice with the fragrant pandan leaves. Discard the leaves after cooking. Cool the rice and set aside.
Finely slice the shallots and add a pinch of salt. Fry until golden brown and drain well on kitchen paper. Cool completely. Set aside. You can also prepare this in advance and store in the refrigerator.
Soak the dried shrimp with enough water to cover, for about half an hour. Drain and blend coarsely. Fry over medium heat in about 4 tablespoons oil, stirring continuously until golden brown. Drain off the oil. Alternatively, toast the shrimp, cool then blend or pound finely. Set aside.
You can either deep fry or grill the fish. Remove the skin, debone and flake the fish carefully. Set aside.
Fry the salted fish, cool completely then pound finely. Set aside.
Shell the prawns. Bring to boil enough water to cover the prawns and cook for about 2 minutes until the prawns turn pink. Cool and cut into small segments. Set aside.
In a dry wok, toast the grated coconut over low heat until slightly brown. Stir continuously to prevent burning. Set aside.
Julienne or slice all the herbs and vegetables very finely.
Remove the centre vein from the leaves before cutting. Set aside.
Put the rice in a large mixing bowl. Stir the sambal tumis into the rice and mix evenly. The most effective way of mixing is by hand. Add the salted fish, flaked fish, herbs and vegetables. Add the salt and pepper, adjusting to taste. Finally, mix in the toasted coconut. Serve with sambal belachan on the side.
2 - 6 fresh red chillies
½ thumb-length belachan, toasted
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp lime juice
The best flavours are derived from pounding the chillies and belachan by hand in a mortar and pestle until finely blended. The sambal keeps well in the freezer where it can last for a couple of months. Squeeze lime juice and mix well to introduce a tangy flavour to the sambal. A true nyonya or baba will tell you they cannot survive without having sambal belachan at any meal!