Ulam is an interesting local culinary concept of Malay origin that is somewhere between a herbal garnish a salad and a vegetable side or green, except raw. It's not as thoughtful as a salad. There's no chopping or tossing in a vinaigrette or even contemplating mixing it with other greens or ingredients. It's a generous if spartan handful of uncooked leaves that you add to your plate, as pictured above, and you're done.
On the right side of the plate is a fairly common ulam, Ulam Raja a type of Cosmos (Cosmos Caudatus ) and the lacy leaves have an aromatic herbal bite. The flavor is not unlike a herb like Parsley or Chervil, or a strong flavored green like Arugula. The fish on my plate, rubbed with turmeric and fried could be interchangeable with a slice of fried tempeh or chicken similarly prepared. The curry gravy that flavors the rice is called assam pedas, a concoction fueled by chillies and tamarind that make for its literal meaning, sour hot. Some experience is required to make the combined choices on your plate find the right groove of pungent, spicy, savory and starchy.
Below it is Euodia redleyi from the citrus family which is not so common, in fact today is the first time I've tried it. It has a chalky slightly bitter flavor but also a light crunch. Besides herbacous greens, the tender young leaves of certain shrubs and trees like this one or the Cashew nut tree are also used for ulam.
Pucuk Pegaga or Centella Asiatica, is another popular ulam green with a bitter tang. I used to buy this at the supermarket and then discovered that the version in the supermarket was in fact an aquatic plant Hydrocotyle ranunculoides. Centella Asiatica's leaves are more fan shaped and not so leathery. When I tracked this indigenous version down at a market stall, I asked the lady about the difference. She said the aquatic plant had longer stalks and was easy to cut and sell in bundles. The Centella has short stalks, usually including its roots and was not as tidy. The roots of course make it easy to press a few into pots and I've discovered an excellent ground cover that does double duty.
I'm determined to have a good selection of ulam growing in the garden. Apart from the nutritional punch of a handful of leafy greens, they are also usually imbued with medicinal properties. To be able to step outside, snatch up a some leaves and instantly have on your plate something aesthetically pleasing, nutritious and therapeutic is quite something.