By Ajuntha Anwari
Blue Rice Memory
As a child I recall eating a delicious dish at a restaurant in Geylang Serai together with my family. It was a delicious rice dish that gripped my young imagination because the rice was coloured blue! I later learnt that the blue colour came from the blue pea vine flower. However, it was the spicy aroma and mouth watering taste of the greens and vegetables on the side that left a lingering impression on me. The mix of spices, chilies and the sweet flavour of fresh shredded coconut combined with the sourness of limes was very pleasing to the palate.
Ever since that first experience eating Nasi Ulam or herbal rice , I have enjoyed many varieties of the dish , each one named according to the type of fresh herb or vegetables used to create it. These plants are culinary herbs that the Malay culture used in their food. They are tropical varieties of medicinal herbs found along the fringes of villages and the jungle. Although these plants are weeds, they were also much sought after for their natural remedies.
Medicine offered by Nature
The word ‘ulam’ in the Malay language refers to medicinal plants that is served alongside dishes that is eaten together with a meal , much like a side dish of salad. There are exceptions of course, on which special occasions ‘Nasi Ulam’ will take centre stage at a meal. Each type of herb is prized for their taste and aroma. They are used as appetisers often dipped in sauces and concoctions of chillies and dried shrimp called ‘belachan’.
Once, I was speaking with some elders in a village in Trengganu, they told me that as children, their families would go into the jungle to forage for ‘ulam’. They would often spend hours picking wild watercress along the banks of the river, ‘faun pegaga’ (Indian pennywort) along the muddy fringes of jungle tracks, ‘daub sireh’ (betel leaf) and ‘pakis (wild fern) in sunny open spaces of the jungle.
A Bounty Almost Gone
However in today’s modern world, the jungle and their wild medicinal bounty is lost to the infringement of industry. Some of these herbs are now cultivated in nurseries to supply their demand in local communities.
Malay traditional medicine recommends eating ‘ulam’ like, betel leaf, papaya flowers, stinky beans, wild fern, basil, kang kong, noni fruit and leaves, amongst others to provide protection from disease and bodily ailments. Today, science has evidenced that herbs, vegetables and fruits have powerful biochemicals that provide key antioxidants and build the immune system as well as a cocktail of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
‘Ulam’ in Your Markets
Today, some of these herbs are still available in local markets in Singapore like Geylang Serai in Changi Road and Tekka Market in Little India. I remember these markets even as a child on shopping trips with my mother, I was always impressed by the abundance of green vegetables that I recognised like spinach, kang kong and tapioca leaves. The bundles of very green leaves, shoots and flowers made me giddy with their exotic fragrance.
I once asked my mother, “Mummy, what is that?” pointing to some ‘daun selasih’ or basil . My Mother replied, “That is medicine”, and that is how it has now become my medicine.
Ajuntha has shared her passion and wisdom on many platforms, notably in the annual Singapore Science Festival.
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