Ulam is the Malay word for the following parts of a plant: leaves, stems, shoots, seeds, tubers, fruits and flowers. The plants that fall under this category are used as fresh salad ingredients and in Malay cooking and as effective herbal remedies and health supplements.
The plants listed below have long been used as ingredients—either raw or steamed—in typical Malay dishes like Nasi Ulam and Nasi Kerabu.
Jantung Pisang (Banana blossom)
Directly translated to ‘banana heart’, this is actually the edible tender inner core of the banana flower, which is used as an ingredient in Southeast Asian and Indian cooking. In Malaysia, it’s an ingredient in kerabu (a local spicy salad). It is known to have antibacterial and antioxidant properties; and contains fibre, potassium and magnesium.
Temulawak (Java ginger/Curcuma zanthorrhiza)
This is considered a medicinal plant, part of the ginger (rhizome) family and contains curcumin, the bright yellow compound also found in turmeric. It can be eaten fresh and is used to ease the symptoms of indigestion (dyspepsia), and is used in Indonesian jamu remedies. It is best digested when taken with black pepper.
Selom (Java water dropwort/Oenanthe javanica)
Part of the typical ulam plate, the stems and leaf stalks can be eaten raw in a salad as a garnish for rice or boiled. Long used as a traditional remedy, it has a delicate lemony taste and contains beta-carotene, vitamin E, riboflavin, iron and ascorbic acid. It is also considered a powerful antioxidant and immunity booster.
Kerdas (Pithecellobium bubalinum)
The fruit from the Kerdas tree is edible with the crunchy brown skinned seeds and has a rather strong aroma sometimes compared to petai. It is thought to have cooling properties and is therefore used to manage fevers. This is an ulam ingredient which is less common than the rest on the list.
Terung pipit (Pea eggplant/Solanum torvum)
These tiny eggplants are often found in curries and can also be eaten raw. It’s a versatile ingredient and can also be used to make tasty sauces. As a traditional medicine, it is known for its antibacterial properties and is used in India as medicine for diabetes.
Pegaga (Asiatic pennywort/Centella asiatica)
This herb has a myriad properties including boosting brain function and memory, healing wounds, improving circulation and increasing collagen production. It can be eaten raw as part of the ulam dish, blended into a juice or taken in a powder form that can be added to smoothies. Read more about Pegaga here.
Peria (Bitter gourd/Momordica charantia)
There are two types of this popular vegetable and the smaller and darker coloured type is what’s eaten as ulam. It’s very bitter in taste, and goes well with sambals (a spicy prawn paste native to Malaysia); and can be made into a juice. Its health benefits include helping to maintain blood sugar levels, being anti-inflammatory and boosting the immune system. It also contains fibre, vitamin C and calcium.
Ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus)
The name of this herb already gives a hint to its popularity and properties. Raja meaning king, the ‘king of ulam’ has a grassy taste with hint of pepper and is widely consumed for its medicinal properties including boosting circulation, as an antioxidant, to treat diabetes and to strengthen bones.
Jering (Dog fruit/Archidendron pauciflorum)
One of the rarer ulam ingredients, this fruit is mostly eaten raw with sambal. Its smell is quite overpowering and is known for it blood-purifying abilities, which have been scientifically proven.
Petai (Bitter bean/Parkia speciose)
A popular ingredient in Malay cuisine, these beans are peeled out of strip-like pods and can be eaten raw or cooked with sambal and anchovies or prawns. Rich in protein, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron; its traditional medicinal properties include being anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant and anti-hypertensive.
Kacang botor (Winged or four-angled beans/Psophocarpus tetragonolobus)
This distinctive bean has a frill coming out from the bean pod and is a hardy plant whose parts are all edible including the leaves. It has a high level of protein (similar to soybeans) and also contains calcium, magnesium and phosphorous.
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