There is a selected group of herbs that are eaten raw in many countries, especially in South East Asia where are they generally known as ‘ulam‘ and served as salad in traditional meals. These herbs are consumed raw or blanched in hot water to remove any latex they contain, and usually eaten dipped in specially prepared sauces (sambal) to enhance the taste. Not only are they a healthy alternative to processed food, ulam are packed with nutrients, improves our digestive system and much cheaper too. Some ulam even have medicinal uses!
Here are 10 of the most commonly recognisable ulam that one can find in a typical South East Asian local market or backyard garden :
The name Ulam Raja literally means ‘king of ulam’. Ironically, the Ulam Raja plant actually originated from tropical Latin America. Used by the Spaniards as a vegetable during their long voyages to the Philippines, where it was introduced, it subsequently spread throughout South East Asia. It is found as a weed on open sunny ground, growing well in fertile lowland soil with sufficient moisture and good drainage. It can also grow up to an elevation of 1600m.
The shoots and young leaves of the Ulam Raja plant are typically eaten as ulam, dipped in sambal belacan, sambal kelapa or sambal udang for that extra ‘zing’. Ulam Raja are also used in the preparation of kerabu. In traditional medicine, Ulam Raja is used for cleansing the blood and strengthening the bones. The plant itself is a good source of calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamins B1, B2 and C. It is recommended for bone-building because of its high calcium content.
The Mengkudu is native to many countries in the Indo-Pacific region where it is found in South East Asia, tropical Australia, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean, growing wild along the coasts and planted in the villages.
An evergreen tree with a short trunk growing to a height of about 7m with large shiny dark green leaves, the Mengkudu has a crown with a distinct conical outline. There are tiny white and fragrant flowers on its large fleshy inflorescence head. The fruits are fused together and the young fruit heads are green, fleshy, ellipsoid, turning to cream-white when ripe. The seeds are black, and the nesh has a rather unpleasant smell and taste.
In Malaysia and Singapore, the young shoots and ripe fruits of the Mengkudu plant are eaten as ulam, dipped in sambal belacan. In traditional medicine, an infusion of its roots is taken to increase menstrual flow and to treat female infertility, while the ripe fruit is eaten by women to cleanse the blood, especially after childbirth.
In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to bring down fever and as a tonic. In Java, the leaves are taken for diarrhoea, and applied to wounds whereas in the Philippines, the juice of the leaves is taken to treat arthritis.
Daun Pegaga is one of the more popular ulam consumed in South East Asia, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. It is believed to stimulate the appetite and aid in digestion. The fresh leaves and stem of Daun Pegaga are eaten as ulam, and dipped in sambal belacan for that perfect taste. Daun Pegaga is also used in recipes for kerabu and nasi ulam. It may also be prepared as a vegetable dish, cooked with coconut milk and chillies.
In traditional Malay medicine, Daun Pegaga, recognised as being ‘heaty’ to the body, is therefore recommended to mothers who have just given birth, to warm their body, help to contract the uterus and improve blood circulation.
Daun Pegaga is particularly useful for treating skin diseases where juice from the leaves is extracted by boiling in water or pounding the leaves into a fine paste. The Daun Pegaga paste is then applied onto sores, ulcers and wounds to assist in healing.
Besides this, Daun Pegaga is believed to possess cosmetic value in preserving a youthful complexion in women i.e. “awet muda”.
Originating in eastern India and Southern China, the Peria or bitter gourd is now found throughout the tropics, and is widely cultivated in India, China, and South East Asia where it is a popular food plant in Malaysia and Singapore.
The Peria fruit is sliced, soaked in salt water or blanched in hot water (to reduce the bitterness) and eaten as ulam. Do also note that there are two types of Peria (bitter gourd) and the one frequently consumed as ulam is the smaller and darker-coloured type (which is also more bitter in taste, hence the hot water treatment previousy mentioned). The bigger and lighter coloured Peria is often cooked as vegetable in a variety of ways in Chinese, Indian or Malay cuisine.
In local traditional medicine, eating Peria is said to purify the blood. For skin diseases, the peria plant leaves are pounded and applied to the affected parts, or the leaves can be boiled and the water used as a lotion. It may be similarly applied for burns, scalds, headache and stomachache.
The Selom plant, which is highly favoured by ulam lovers for its subtle lemony taste, originated from South East Asia. Historically, it has also been widely cultivated in China, Indochina, Java and Sumatra and currently considered as a ‘minor’ vegetable in most parts of the world.
The shoots and young leaves of the Selom plant are eaten raw as ulam, dipped in sambal. It is widely used in the flavouring of food. In the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia, it is used as an important ingredient in the preparation of laksa (a very pouplar spicy noodle dish).
Interesingly, the Department of Food Science and Technology in South Korea has reported that the plant has anti-hypertensive property and is suitably used as an additive in nutraceutical drink products.
The pungent Petai is, without doubt, one of the most recognisable ulam in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The young pods and seeds of the Petai plant are eaten raw, dipped in, yes you would have guessed by now, sambal. Another popular way to enjoy Petai is by cooking the petai seeds in sambal, together with anchovies, prawns and cuttlefish.
The petai tree, which in itself is quite huge (growing to some 20 to 30 metres high) is native to the region of Malaysia , Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Thailand.
Other than serving as a delectable component in an ulam dish, Malaysian and Singaporean traditional medicine practitioners incorporate Petai seeds and pods in the treatment of diabetes, and in the treatment of kidney ailments (leveraging on the Petai’s diuretic effect). Petai are also used to treat liver diseases, while the leaves are used to treat jaundice.
Kunyit is a perennial herb, which has its origins in Southeast Asia. It was mentioned in early Assyrian herbal records about 2,500 years ago and has been used traditionally since 600 BC, as a dye, in medicine, and for flavouring food. It was even regarded as one of the most valuable herbs to mankind! Nowadays, kunyit (or more commonly known as turmeric) is commercially cultivated in China, India, Indochina and Indonesia.
The Kunyit plant has a short stem and light green tufted leaves growing to a height of about 1m. The young rhizomes of the kunyit plant are eaten as ulam, dipped in, yes, sambal belacan. Sometimes the young shoots and flowers of the Kunyit plant are also used as ulam where these are sliced and beautifully arranged together with the rhizome and served during meals. The Malays and Indians use the Kunyit plant’s rhizome as a condiment in cooking to add fragrance, flavour and a yellow colour to their curry dishes.
Kunyit is also used as a cosmetic by women, where a paste with an oil base is applied to smoothen the skin and preserve a youthful complexion. Recent research has indicated that the Kunyit’s rhizome is pharmaceutically active against a number of illnesses including cance dermatitis, AIDS, inflammation, high cholesterol levels, and dyspeptic conditions.
Kunyit’s application extends to the food industry as well where the kunyit’s rhizome is used as a colouring agent for processed food, sauces and confectionery.
Further use cases for Kunyit include as an active ingredient in insecticide, fungicide and nematicide products.
The Kaduk or wild pepper plant is native to Malaysia and Indonesia. It is widely planted in China and South East Asia due to its versatility as it does well in wide range of soil types.
The shoots and young leaves of the Kaduk plant are eaten raw as ulam, dipped in sambal. Like Selom, it has a rather ‘lemony’ taste with slight bitter aftertaste. Besides ulam, it also a vital ingredient in another South East Asian local delicacy – otak-otak (a type of grilled fish cake popular in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia).
In traditional medicine in Malaysia and Singapore, the leaves are boiled in water and taken to relieve malaria, and also to treat coughs, flu and rheumatism.
The Kacang Botor is a hardy tropical legume plant from Asia. This unassuming plant is internationally recognised as an important food source in the sense that each and every part of it is edible, from the fruits, leaves to seeds and contains high concentration of protein (fun fact : kacang botor’s tuber has more than 4 times the protein of potatoes!).
Kacang Botor fruit is a uniquely soft, four-angled bean about 15 to 20cm long, with serated edges/wings and may contain up to 20 seeds. The young Kacang Botor’s fruit, shoots and flowers are usually eaten raw as ulam, dipped in sambal belacan. Besides this, another popular method of consumption is stir frying slices of the fruit with anchovies, dried prawns and sambal belacan.
The Kesum plant is native to Asia which is widely distributed in Europe and Australia. A creeping plant that grows upright to a height of about 1m to 1.5m, the shoots and young leaves of the Kesum plant are eaten raw as ulam together with a dash of sambal.
Besides this, having a rich aroma, Daun Kedum is also commonly used as a ‘special’ ingredient to spice up favourite local South East Asian dishes such as assam laksa, asam pedas and tom yum soup. This aroma is due to the essential oil content of the Kesum plant, which can be extracted as ‘kesum oil’ and used in aromatherapy as well.