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Tuesday, 29 January 2008

My Ulam Garden

Why is it when people describe ulam in English we usually call them as jungle herbs. Some of the ulam I like are definitely not herbs like ulam raja, petai and four angled beans although daun kesom may qualify although I would consider this more of a fern than a herb. To me these are all Malay salad vegetables since we do not use them to herb our dishes in the western sense, although the ulams do impart some qualities to the dishes they are cooked in, that is if they are not eaten raw with sambal like a salad which is the more common way they are prepared. Well I do not actually want to talk about the classification of ulams but was inspired to mention about some ulam growing in my garden after reading some articles on them.

The first ulam that I have grown in my garden is the king of ulam itself, which is Ulam Raja aka king ulam in English, although the formal name is wild cosmos. Initially growing wild from seeds transferred by the wind from my neighbour's garden, it is now growing well enough in my backyard although the ulam does much better in my wife's village house. I first came across the flower plant when I visited one nursery specialising in such jungle produce, but the impression I got at the time was that it was a finicky plant to grow and propagate. So it was to my surprise that seeds from the flowers was the propagating agent, and if planted in a damp soil area grows easily enough without much care though it is a short lived species. You can see the black seeds in the picture of the ulam raja flowers. But since the plants are easily renewed with new naturally growing seedlings, it is not such a big problem to maintain a healthy community of ulam raja in your garden. With beautiful pink flowers that can qualify itself as an ornamental plants, the shoots are the parts that are usually eaten as the ulam. Nonetheless you need a healthy quantity available to satisfy a meal table requirements, at least a fistful. The taste is quite unique unlike something that is easily describeable, mildly peppery with a little tartness. Deserving its kingly pretensions. Nonetheless this ulam is sometimes substituted by a pretender called daun selom, that has a similar taste although differing in texture and appearance.

The other type of ulam that is growing well in my garden is the creeping four angled beans that has basically colonised my back fence. At one time when I had a maid that came daily to my house, I was wondering why there was only infrequent harvest from the bean bush. After she left was only it was discovered that she had been picking up the beans to eat at her own kitchen. No wonder as this previously lowly ulam has now reached the status of restaurant menu item, with price to boot even at the wet market. In my home the bean is usually eaten raw with sambal or fried with sambal, although some day old beans that has lost their crunchiness can be cut up and rejuvenated in stews or in fried rice. Again something that is quite difficult to describe in taste, it is something that just becomes easily palatable when eaten.

Another ulam that grows in the garden is cekur, a member of the galangal family. Yet this is an ulam that has to my knowledge not been used in my kitchen although it can be used in kerabus, nasi ulam and some other dishes. It was grown by mother in law most probably as a seed bank, as it can die off if not taken care off. The reason for this is probably because of its use in malay culture as more as a home remedy for various ailments, so to ensure easy access it was grown in the garden, some in the pot and some on the ground itself. Nonetheless once it has grown, it does not require much care to thrive, just some watering and fertilisers once in a while as it seems quite pest resistant on its own.

Finally I just want to touch on an ulam that I wish I had a garden big enough to grow. This is the petai or Parkia Speciosa. Stinky beans that are very good health, and for me a good reliever for constipation, they only grow on tall trees. Rarely found in a garden due to their size, I was amazed to find several fruiting specimens growing in the Lukut Fort grounds when I visited previously. Too bad the fruits were hanging from branches that was so high up as they must be century old trees, otherwise I would have got a free feast of this highly priced beans that are now widely accepted by all cultures in Malaysia, even transplanted Mat Sallehs(caucasians). Just be prepared to suffer the embarassment of smelliness when you do your toilet business.

To finish off although my wife dreams of having a western style herb garden, I always tell her that we actually already have a better version, that is a malay salad garden. Anyway to know more on the ulams mentioned above, this webpage should be useful. Cheers!

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