Nasi Ulam & Oh! Meet my spring-awakened garden :)

Ahhhh…September heralds in the season of Spring for us in the southern hemisphere, marking the end of an extremely shocking winter, or so we Melbournians are still expectantly waiting for. The wintry chill and grey skies tell us ol’ winter still has its stubborn grasp on us. And yet, as I was travelling by train to my class in the CBD last Wednesday, I couldn’t help but smile at the gorgeous cherry blossoms, both white and pink dotting the street sidewalks, footpaths and alongside the train lines; a welcoming sign that spring is indeed upon us.

Left: pink cherry blossom outside my uni| Right: white cherry blossom at some random street in North Melbourne 

Things that remained dormant for a quarter of the year flourish and come to life. Even I did a double take when I saw buds peeking out from my Strawberry Ruffles lavender bush; they seem to have just miraculously appeared! I just can’t wait for the buds to burst into that unique pink ruffled bloom! Before I continue with my Nasi Ulam entry which was inspired by the glorious crop of daun kesum (informally known as assam laksa leaf or vietnamese hot mint) thriving in my weed-friendly garden (we tried..oh how we tried to annihilate those pesky invaders), let me introduce you to some of my garden friends. I had more before winter settled in e.g. green beans, cherry tomatoes, chilli peppers, genoese and thai basil, oregano, mint and bountiful gourmet lettuce crop; all gone gone gone during winter. The dwarf lemon tree species is still just that: a dwarf and the pink guava plant that’s been graciously bestowed upon us by my sister (because she misread 4 metres for 4 feet and wouldn’t have a tree outgrow her apartment balcony and ceiling) barely survived through winter. But some of these neglected green shrubs have survived or are popping up from the ground, much to my glee and excitement:-

Daun Kesum/ Vietnamese hot mint: a spicy, pungent and aromatic herb which complements hot and sour dishes very well

One of my favourite and kitchen must-haves: coriander (grown on the ground, waiting for a wild bush before I start harvesting)

spring onions shooting out from one of the many bulbs we’ve simply chucked into the soil alongside garlic which gives us chives

extremely hardy rosemary, flowering now in spring; awesome with lamb and herb focaccias

Flat Leaf Parsley… a bit small this year but still extremely flavoursome when freshly picked

Strawberry Ruffle Lavender…

…which looks like this in full bloom (this was taken last spring)

J’s lily that disappears completely each summer; scorched by the sun but comes to life again each winter and spring

And there you have it! My garden survivors of winter and babies of spring..



Nasi Ulam is predominantly a malay  rice dish that incorporates loads of wonderfully scented herbs, raw vegetables, flaked pieces of fried fish and other tasty bits and condiments; hence it’s sometimes loosely translated to a herb rice salad. I’ve only had nasi ulam once or twice back in Malaysia, on both counts either my mom or aunty purchased the nasi ulam from the pasar tani (farmers market) held every Thursday in our neighbourhood. But it definitely left an impression on me considering that it contains loads of the greens that’s good for you and yet delicious at the same time. Here’s to name the typical ingredients used and you will see why this rice salad, substantial on its own will knock your socks off in the flavour department:-

Aromatics typically used in nasi ulam:
(corresponding medicinal & nutritional benefits sourced via Wikipedia and other web sources

  • Daun Kesum/Vietnamese Hot Mint – spicy with a pungent peppery scent – detoxifying & aids digestion
  • Daun Limau Purut/ Kaffir Lime Leaf – heavy citrusy perfume & astringent flavour  – cleansing and purifying & beneficial to healthy teeth and gums.
  • Daun Pudina/Mint Leaves – refreshing and cool – aids digestion & relieves stomach aches.
  • Daun Selasih/Thai Basil Leaves – basil with an aniseed/liquorice perfume –   high in Vitamin K & anti-oxidants
  • Daun Kaduk/ Betal Leaves – peppery bitter taste remedy against bad breath, headaches, arthritis, joint paints, treats indigestion.
  • Daun Cekur/Sand Ginger (one of the few Galangal species)aromatic, pungent & gingery -increases appetite, aids digestion, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Daun Kunyit/Turmeric Leaves anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, anti-bacterial properties – used to treat chest pains, respiratory problems, digestive disorders.
  • Serai/Lemongrassfresh citrus perfume (only use base of stalk i.e. the white parts for cooking) – stress relieving, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties, detoxifying, aids digestion and treats flatulence.
  • Bunga Kantan/ Torch Ginger Bud – pink with piquant, exotic scent – improves appetite

For a natural flavour boost, ingredients such as dried shrimp, salted fish, toasted belachan granules(dried shrimp paste/powder) and that enticing kerisik (toasted grated coconut) feature regularly in this dish.

For my take on the nasi ulam, I tweaked some of the ingredients and made use of what I had in my kitchen and garden. Out of all the aromatics listed above, I could not source daun cekur and turmeric leaves but made use of turmeric powder to coat my mackerel (fish). I also ran out of bunga kantan which can be purchased from the frozen section of selected asian grocery stores but as I’m familiar with its piquant flavour that is so awesome in assam laksa, I have included it in my recipe below. It’s quite an essential flavour for this dish so for those who want to try making nasi ulam for the first time, do try to get some, even if it’s frozen. In Melbourne, I’ve purchased them from Laguna Oriental Supermarket , Wing Cheong Chinatown (only stocked occasionally), Dong Thinh International Food Store and I believe I also sighted them fresh in Springvale market but this was years ago. For a nutritious option, I have chosen to use long grain brown rice which imparts a lovely chewiness to the overall textural dish; crunchiness attributed to finely sliced green beans, crispy fried shallots and my own addition of toasted flaked almonds. This is an incredibly appetising dish so don’t be surprised if you go back for seconds. It is typically served with various sambal condiments, fish crackers and you could even eat it with a seafood curry; we had the nasi ulam as it is. The following recipe, as indicated is my own interpretation of the nasi ulam so don’t take this as the real McCoy although it comes close enough.  Feel free to adjust the amount of herbs to your preference.

Nasi Ulam Recipe
(foodsze’s interpretation)
serves 8 -10


500 g long grain brown white rice (I used Riviana Mahatma Brown Natural Long Grain Rice)
1 litre water
100 g grated or dessicated coconut
1 teaspoon toasted belachan granules
60 g dried shrimp (very finely chopped)
60 g flaked almonds
2 tablespoons cooking oil
extra salt to taste
cracked black pepper to taste
3 small red birds eye chillies (really hot!)
a large handful of fried shallots

for the fried fish
500 g spanish mackerel cutlets (about 2 x medium to large-sized pieces)
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 teaspoon fish curry powder
salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp per side of the cutlet, this is to bring out the flavour of the fish)
3 tablespoons cooking oil

Raw Herbs & greens (wash throughly before use)

   8  stalks vietnamese hot mint (use leaves only)
   2  stalks lemongrass (white parts only)
10  kaffir lime leaves* (remove the hard stem in the middle before slicing)
  3   stalks Thai Basil (use leaves only)
  1   bunch mint leaves
  4   pieces betel leaves 
  1   bunga kantan*/ torch ginger bud (if frozen, finely slice the pink bud once it has thawed; note that it might be a bit soft when thawed)
200 g green beans

*available in frozen form at asian grocery stores


  1. In a pot, bring the rice and water to the boil, stirring occasionally; lower the heat, cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Remove from heat and stand, covered for 5-10 minutes. When rice is done, fluff the rice with a fork.
  2. While waiting for the rice to cook, finely slice all the raw herbs. Remove the tips of the green beans; slice finely and set aside.
  3. Rub the salt onto each surface of the mackerel cutlets; then pat the turmeric and fish curry powder mix onto each side of the fish.
  4. Heat up the oil in a frying pan large enough to fit both the cutlets; wait till the oil is very hot then gently place the cutlets in; pan-fry one side for 3 minutes before turning the cutlets; pan fry the next side for another 3 minutes; then reduce to medium or low flame and continue frying for an additional 3 – 4 minutes or until fish is done (a tip is to insert a wooden chopstick into the flesh and if it yields no resistance, the fish is cooked). Set the cutlets aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, flake the fish finely and watch out for any bones! 
  5. In a separate pan, toast the grated/dessicated coconut; stirring continuously until it goes a lovely nut brown shade; take care not to burn the coconut; place in a bowl and set aside.
  6. Wipe the frying pan with a paper towel; add the flaked almonds then toast until golden brown and fragrant; set aside to cool.
  7. Heat up cooking oil in the same pan(washed and dried) used for the fish; add in the finely chopped dried shrimp, stirring until the aroma’s released (about 1 – 1.5 minutes); add in the toasted belachan powder and cook it for a few more seconds. Set aside.
  8. This step is optional. I prefer my green beans very slightly cooked to remove the ‘rawness’ but still retaining its crunchiness. In the frying pan, heat up a tablespoon of cooking oil until very hot. Toss the green beans in and fry for about 30 seconds; Remove from pan.
  9. Combine the cooked rice, all the herbs, green beans, toasted coconut, flaked almonds, fried shallots, chillies, flaked fish, dried shrimp and belachan; then toss all the ingredients to evenly coat the rice. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and cracked black pepper. 
  10. Serve as it is or with some spicy squid or anchovy sambal or any seafood curry

flaked fish

fried shallots



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4 comments to Nasi Ulam & Oh! Meet my spring-awakened garden :)

  • Vyanne

    You gotta love Spring with all the signs of regeneration and colours! Nasi Ulam sounds like a perfect Spring dish too, with all the condiments and herbs. Yum!

  • Mei Sze

    Lovely fragrant dish.Looks like fried rice but it’s different…. 🙂

  • Darshk

    You’ve grown daun kesum! haha. Now Assam Laksa when i come, weeeee ;p Btw your garden sounds amazing…Good job woman. M envious 😀

  • Mei Sze

    Hi Darsh..hehe..Actually, I only took the good bits..the rest of my garden is still ‘botak’ and we’re still grappling with those darn weeds! ..I have no grass..just pure healthy looking soil. But I’ve got a jungle of daun kesum which I thought would be impossible to grow…