Add sensuality to your cooking using more herbs.
Vegetables fill our stomachs but herbs fill our senses.” That utterance by my chef friend sums up what herbs are all about most poetically, I thought.
The heady scent that wafts up from a plate of asam laksa or a pot of curry is what this beguiling sensuousness is about.
We were debating the definition of an herb. “They are aromatic green leafy plants that come from the ground,” he offered. That ruled out bay leaf and curry leaf, which are the leaves of trees which I consider herbs, so I disagreed.
But he was not wrong, as I found out. The term “herb” as defined in botany, refers to “usually small plants with soft stems”. But even the botanist admits to a wider usage for the word to cover all plants used for culinary, cosmetic, medicinal, and fragrance purposes.
Culinary herbs perhaps deserve their own definition. The one thing we agreed upon from the start is that herbs are aromatics.
They play the role of infusing food with fragrance and brightening and perking up a dish. But their use extends to that of using the herb – which straddles flowers – pigment for colouring.
Herbs are largely green, leafy parts, and you can argue that aromatic roots and seeds can be considered another category of herbs as well.
There is a very good reason why we in South-East Asia should take an avid interest in herbs – we are surrounded by it. Herbs grow just about everywhere there is a patch of soil; many of us call them “weed”.
You just have to flip a book on herbs to know that many of the “weeds” growing in the garden are aromatic herbs that can be used in the kitchen or as an alternative medicine. The pegaga, for instance, has been called a one-herb pharmacy for its many beneficial attributes.
Most of the domesticated herbs can easily be grown in the garden; in fact, they can be grown in little containers by the kitchen window where the sun streams in. After the leaves have been plucked off a sprig of mint or laksa leaf, stick them into an old jar filled with water and watch it grow roots and new leaves.
In Malaysia, partake of the ulam is perhaps the most ubiquitous example of our herb eating tradition.
In ulam, young shoots and leaves, and sometimes flowers and fruits, and vegetables are consumed raw, or lightly blanched, with sambal as condiment.
Plants used for the ulam were first foraged from the wild: from the jungle and their fringes, along streams and rice fields, and they can also be found creeping in the backyard.
It could have started as a way for the poor to supplement their diets and the tasty leaves help make the rice go down.
Ulam eating is still prevalent in the villages where the knowledge of identifying herbs in the wild – and in the pasars – has been passed down by word of mouth. They are eaten because they are tasty as well as professing nutritional and medicinal benefits.
In the urban environment, it’s hard to find such herb experts – and rainforest herbs. Knowledge of herbs is sadly lacking today. Send someone out to buy herbs, even common ones like chives or coriander, and he or she is likely to come back with the wrong herbs!
Walk into a supermarket and you will find temperate herbs alongside some local herbs. The western herbs are packed neatly in plastic bags in small bundles and labelled – setting them apart as premium products. The popularity of Italian and western cuisine among city folks has made herbs such as parsley, oregano and rosemary easily available. Today, they form a part of our common table herbs, along with coriander, spring onion and mint.
- To celebrate our traditional of using herbs, The Star will be running a culinary herb poster tomorrow in the Sunday edition.
PESTO is something I often make without a recipe – it works with more or less of any of the ingredients, adding enough oil to make the blender blades work. Basil pesto goes on many things – a tangle of pasta, spring vegetable soup, toasty bread, and even stirred into rice.
Lately, I’ve taken to making pesto with curry leaves. For this, use young curry leaves that are not so fibrous. You can substitute some of the olive oil with virgin coconut oil for a more tropical flavour.
You can use a mortar and pestle to make it, and drizzle the oil in slowly, but I just dump everything into a blender and push a button. It works.
Curry leaf pesto is lovely as a sauce drizzled on steamed or poached cod fish, drizzled over roti or naan, or baked potato. A laksa leaf pesto is also a lovely idea.
Keeps fresh for up to two weeks in the fridge. – Julie Wong
Curry leaf pesto
30g young curry leaves
3 cloves garlic
30g pine nuts or cashew nuts, roasted
30g parmesan cheese, grated
150ml extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp sea salt
Place all the ingredients in a blender and blitz for a few seconds to make an oily paste.
I HAVE always associated pegaga with Malay cooking, but my introduction to it was via a sumptuous Sinhalese lunch.
There were delicious chicken curry and fish cutlets on the table that day at my friend Niluksi’s house, but it was the pegaga mallung prepared by her aunt, Indrani, that got me smitten.
The pegaga features quite a lot in Sri Lankan cuisine and the salads, or mallung, are reminiscent of Malay kerabu, but lighter and more refreshing in taste.
Pegaga tastes like parsley, with the same zing and burst of freshness in the mouth. Never mind its medicinal values; I was most interested in it because it tasted good.
Indrani told me it’s the easiest dish to make, and recited the recipe to me: chop a bunch of pegaga, slice an onion and some chillies thinly, and squeeze calamansi lime juice over the mixture, and season.
She also added shredded dried Maldive fish in her salad, and this gave it more flavour and depth.
Back home, I made the pegaga mallung without the Maldive fish, and it was still good.
I had the pegaga salad with plain rice, sambal belacan and fried ikan kembung, and loved how fresh the salad was – the zing from the pegaga, onion and lime was addictive! – Ivy Soon
1 cup packed pagaga leaves
1 onion, sliced thinly
2-3 cili padi, sliced
6-7 calamansi limes, juiced
salt to taste
Slice the leaves thinly and mix with the onion and chilli. Season the lime juice to taste with salt and toss with the pegaga mixture.
WHAT I could have every day is kerabu – one of my favourites is made with cekur. It is aromatic and has a bitter tinge. I find that it’s always sold out at the pasar tani, and I usually have to go early to buy it.
My sister Pamela solved the problem for me by planting a pot of cekur for me. So now I can just snip off some leaves whenever I want this kerabu.
This is my grandmother’s recipe, and calls for freshly fried salted fish that is then pounded. I don’t use kerisik (fried grated coconut) but you can add some if you want.
If you add more herbs and mix it with rice, you’ll have a nasi kerabu. But I like this kerabu with only daun cekur.
This kerabu is really moreish because it has sambal belacan in it. It’s sour, sweet, and salty, and has an aromatic bitter edge.
It’s best with rice – not good for the thickening waistline, but great for the soul. – Ivy Soon
Kerabu Cekur with Salted Fish
3-4 shallots, thinly sliced
Juice from 2 calamansi limes, or to taste
1 tbsp sugar, or to taste
10-15 cekur leaves, rolled tightly and sliced thinly
2 tbsp pounded fried salted fish
2 tbsp sambal belacan
6-8 cili padi, sliced
Marinate the shallots in the calamansi lime juice and sugar for 5-10 minutes. Then add the rest
of the ingredients, and mix evenly.
This recipe is based on the Thai grilled chicken dish called gai yang, commonly made by street food vendors. It is strongly flavoured with coriander and lemongrass, and has the hot-sweet-sour quality that marks all good Thai food.
Together with a tamarind-based chilli dipping sauce and a side of som tam (green papaya salad), this chicken makes one heck of a roadside snack.
But while the authentic Thai recipe uses whole chickens, which takes about an hour and a half to cook after a full day of marinating, and requires firing up a charcoal grill, this dish is a stir-fry with minimum prep.
Coriander roots are an important addition to the marinade – they have so much flavour that it would be a waste not to use them. Just cut off the really stringy bits at the bottom and use everything else. Keep the leaves for the end. Throw them into the pan once the heat is off so they just wilt. – Jane F. Ragavan
Coriander and lime chicken stir fry
400g chicken thigh fillet (or breast)
1 small bunch (about 30g) fresh coriander
1 stalk lemongrass, white part only
1cm knob ginger
Zest and juice of 1 large lime
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 bird’s eye chillies, chopped
½ tbsp light soy sauce
½ tsp palm sugar
Cut the chicken fillet into thick slices.
Put the root and stems of the coriander together with the lemongrass and ginger. Pound or process into a paste.
Add the paste and the lime zest to the chicken and mix together. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Heat a little oil in a pan and add the garlic and chillies. Cook for 1 minute and add the chicken. Continue cooking, stirring constantly until the chicken is lightly browned and cooked. Add the soya sauce, sugar and enough lime juice to taste.
Tear up the coriander leaves and add to the pan. Turn off the heat and toss before dishing out.