Nasi Ulam and NS on National Day

by Chingwei Chen

The farm shed is a hive of activity. 

Water sloshes from a tap as watercress washing gets under way. In the next basin, pennywort leaves float like two-dimensional balloons. Patient hands are carefully stripping leaves from delicate purslane sprigs. At a wooden table on a chopping board, stiff kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass stalks are being magic’d into fine fragrant strands, while the ulam rajah, a herb hailed king of salads for its complex herbaceous flavour, waits its turn.

For colour, a pristine millennium-pink torch ginger flower is about to be chopped into confetti. Plump oranges of rose cactus flowers sit pretty on a red plate, next to the velvety blue ombre shades on the blue pea petals. Waxy crowns of roselles are broken into little pieces of ox-blood red jewels, while pickled fresh bananas glow like nuggets of new gold.

I weave in and out of the group of busy preppers, camera at the ready, hovering, ducking, panning, shooting. Trying not to be in the way, but wanting to get right in there to capture every herb that is being fussed and prepped for a dish called nasi ulam.

I had not known of its existence until a fortnight ago, when someone mentioned the name in passing. Nasi ulam literally means rice salad. Its very simplicity was immediately intriguing — such a dish demanded the freshest of ingredients at the height of their flavour. Right there and then, I was determined to cook it and eat it. 

A few days after first hearing about it, in happy synchronicity, Vivian asked if I would be interested in marking National Day by doing a Foodscape Collective version of “NS” at an organic farm in Kranji, and celebrate with a lunch of nasi ulam. Would I? Yes, please! 

For those unfamiliar with the term NS,  it stands for National Service — a military conscription that is a rite of passage for young men in Singapore. On National Day, it felt right to evoke the spirit of service for this island we call home. So NS it is, but with a twist — we shall serve our country by taking care of its nature and farm. 

The morning of 9 August saw 15 individuals meet in groups of five (this is the time of Covid-19) to perform our “National/Nature Service”. Almost everyone was experienced in regenerative farming practices; it was good to be amongst kindred spirits. 

As fighter jets roared over Singapore, secateurs and pruning saws wereare being deployed on the ground. We painstakingly cut back a copse of overgrown mulberry trees to encourage leaf growth, and used the prunings to make a woody mulch under the trees. Crouching on the sloping banks of a pond thick with water hyacinth, we repeatedly tossed a makeshift implement (which can only be best described as a handleless-fork-on-rope) into its midst, and then pulling on the rope to drag in swathes of the dark green aquatic jungle. Water hyacinth is rich in biomass — perfect for making composts. 

Then it was time. Swapping tools for baskets, we headed off to forage for the herbs and greens that will go into the nasi ulam. Then it’s back in the farm shed to put it all together. The kitchen is abuzz with the cheerful well-being that comes from a morning of manual work, and the happy anticipation of a delicious lunch in good company. 

I eye the humongous rice cooker sitting on the shelf, and resist the temptation to peek. Earlier, someone had sprinkled freshly grated coconut over the cooked rice, and it smelt heavenly. It’s not the fried coconut (kerisik in Malay) that usually accompanies nasi ulam; that would have been too time-consuming to prepare, but improvisation is the name of the game with nasi ulam. Fresh coconut works just as well, I can’t wait to dig in. 

Finally, the prepping comes to an end. Every bit of herb, flower and greens is laid out on the table, and a stack of red melamine plates appears next to the rice cooker. Then the lid is lifted, and a waft of sweet fragrance fills the air. The nasi rises from the depths of the rice cooker on a paddle, tender and fluffy, looking deceptively plain and delectably promising. As everyone helps with the dishing and relaying of plates to waiting hands, I hover over the rice cooker and survey the landscape inside. 

The rice is a spread of hills and valleys, snow-blanketed in coconut, streaked with hints of cobalt blue from the blue pea flowers, and dotted with khaki green from the lemongrass. There is a restrained zen-like beauty in this white-on-white scenery. As the paddle digs and scoops, the landscape changes rapidly. I want to gaze on for longer, but like a Zen fable, the diminishing rice is teaching the impermanence of things, and a reminder to enjoy the moment. 

And so we eat! 

Nasi ulam is a traditional dish of Malay origin that also appears in Peranakan and Indonesian cuisines. It is famous, even notorious, for being tedious and labour-intensive to prepare; requiring fine knife skills and patience for delicate slicing, dicing and cooking. And then, just before serving, there is the crucial coming together of the rice with the plethora of herbs and other ingredients — an alchemical process in which a melange of flavours and textures are balanced and finessed according to the tastebuds and experience of the cook. 

Perhaps an example of our food future is right here in my picturesque plate of nasi ulam — every single component in the dish is either native to the Southeast Asian region, or adapts well to the Southeast Asian climate. And it tastes fabulous to boot. For me, it is truly our dish.

The Foodscape Collective nasi ulam is more relaxed. It gives room for individual exploration within a communal setting — everyone helps themselves to the same accompaniments and condiments according to their personal tastes, so one plate is slightly different from the other. I break into my dome of rice, and savour each spoonful with a different mix of herbs, particularly relishing how the good-tasting greenness of the ulam rajah, and the creaminess of the pickled bananas, play up the natural sweet-savouriness of the rice and coconut. 

I glance around the shed at everyone tucking in, and wonder if nasi ulam could be thought of as a new national dish. I have been mulling over a few food-related questions about farming and eating local, our food culture, food security, food equity, and community. It occurred to me this light and delicious plate of nasi ulam might possibly embody the answers to these hefty and complex questions that are personal to Singapore as a nation; or in the very least, point to new ways of living and eating in a world in flux.

When Singapore joined the ranks of “developed nations”, so did our palates and eating habits. Over the years, a cornucopia of fresh produce and food from all over the world has flowed into our shores with such ease and efficiency, it seemed normal that cherries should appear not once, but twice a year; salmon is commonplace, rosemary easier to find than ulam rajah in Cold Storage. 

It took a global pandemic to show us that these streams of abundance from overseas may dry up one day due to climatic circumstances beyond our control. Then what? Well, perhaps 2020 is the pivotal year in which to start looking closer to home, and rediscover what has been growing, or can be grown with relative ease, here on our soil, right under our noses. 

It won’t be blueberries or broccoli for sure, but perhaps Asystasia, Brazilian spinach, Indian borage, and wild watercress. These names and tastes are as exotic as strawberries, burrata and rocket once were to this part of the world, and like strawberries, burrata and rocket, they can become a part of our food culture if given a chance or three. In other words, it’s time to go climate-appropriate, if not downright native. It’s time to become a conscious foodie, and open up to unfamiliar ingredients that don’t cost the earth to grow locally, and to new thinking about cooking and eating.  

Perhaps an example of our food future is right here in my picturesque plate of nasi ulam — every single component in the dish is either native to the Southeast Asian region, or adapts well to the Southeast Asian climate. And it tastes fabulous to boot. For me, it is truly our dish. At this point, my mind boggled with more possibilities of “new” local produce to be unearthed, which led to further questions about natural farming, food miles and entrenched food cultures in a time of seismic climate shifts.

But the rice cooker is beckoning. So I park the thought for another time, scrape the plate clean, and go back for a second helping. 

Chingwei Chen is a Singapore-born Australia-based permaculturist, soil and compost nerd, and conscious bon vivant whose preoccupation with beauty in the natural world and good-tasting produce has led to explorations and experiments in food growing and cooking, off-grid living, landcare, house and product design. More recently, she is back in Singapore to co-lead Project Black Gold, a Foodscape Collective community food scrap composting project. IG: @thursdaylang