An innovative garden-to-table ulam project in the city


In the past, Wong had a series of runners and villagers across Malaysia who helped him source for the wild jungle produce and ulam required to assemble the dishes at OpenHouse. — OPENHOUSE

In the heart of Kuala Lumpur, amidst the dense conurbation and skyscrapers that tower above the city lights, is a glorious reminder of the past perched on the edge of the busy Jalan Stonor. Here, on a sprawling patch of land (a rarity in central KL) lies what was once the home of a mid-ranking British official during the colonial era.

On one end of this expansive lawn is an unused tennis court. Dotted around it is an expansive garden, now home to weeds, shrubs and a makeshift gazebo.

It is here on the site of something old – that Andrew Wong – the restaurateur behind eateries like Bloom Restaurant + Bar and OpenHouse KL – and Dr Eric Olmedo, a well-known researcher at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia – will be planting the seeds of something new: a novel garden-to-table ulam project, the first of its kind in downtown KL.

For the uninitiated, ulam is an umbrella term used to define the cornucopia of edible plants used mostly among the Malay and indigenous communities in Malaysia. These ulam can range from everyday staples like mint leaves, ulam raja and Thai basil leaves to harder-to-source ulam like wild galanga, daun meranti (black nightshade) and edible plants, shoots and roots that are native to the Orang Asli like sendap and snego.

How it came about

In many ways, Wong and Olmedo are the archetypal “odd couple”, having seemingly nothing in common. Yet both these seemingly disparate individuals share a vision of celebrating native ingredients.

Olmedo (left) and Wong (right) have come together to create a sustainability-minded ulam garden in the city, which will give Malaysians and tourists the opportunity to discover more about the richness of local edible plants. — ABIRAMI DURAI/The StarOlmedo (left) and Wong (right) have come together to create a sustainability-minded ulam garden in the city, which will give Malaysians and tourists the opportunity to discover more about the richness of local edible plants. — ABIRAMI DURAI/The Star

Wong has done this through OpenHouse, his restaurant that pays tribute to heritage Malay food. OpenHouse has been instrumental in giving KL diners the opportunity to try recipes that have been phased out of the Malaysian culinary system or are in danger of being eradicated entirely, because the core ingredients are so difficult to find.

Meals like ais kepal ulam raja, kerabu pucuk mengkudu, lemak pucuk daun gelugor and umbun kantan – which many Malaysians have likely never heard of – were regularly featured on OpenHouse’s heritage menu.

Olmedo on the other hand, is the founder of the Ulam School (www.ulamschool.com), a landmark open access online project that is a veritable treasure trove of information on local ulamcham. The school champions local shoots, herbs and plants that are part of Malaysia’s diverse edible landscape and also offers courses on ulam for anyone interested in learning more.

In 2021, Wong first approached Olmedo with the idea of starting a first-of-its-kind ulam garden because of the challenges he was facing with sourcing ingredients for OpenHouse.

“When I first opened OpenHouse a few years ago, even I was surprised because I didn’t even know that some of this Malay food existed. And a lot of the produce that we got at the time – they were all from the jungles. We had runners who would forage it for us or source it for us.

“But as time went by, more and more restaurants also started using such produce, like buah kulim and local edible flowers and ulam like air mata pengantin (Mexican creeper). This is actually great because people are getting to know about our natural resources and the potential of what we have.

Wong says he was inspired to start his own sustainable ulam garden as it was becoming increasingly more difficult for him to source the wild edible plants that he needed to put together the food at OpenHouse. — OPENHOUSEWong says he was inspired to start his own sustainable ulam garden as it was becoming increasingly more difficult for him to source the wild edible plants that he needed to put together the food at OpenHouse. — OPENHOUSE

“But it also became a problem because it got harder and harder to source these ingredients. And finally, we realised ‘This is not sustainable’. We needed a more consistent supply and that’s when I thought of speaking to someone about doing something about it,” says Wong.

Olmedo understood Wong’s unique vision and was immediately on board. Since then, the two have worked hard to plan out the project.

Getting the idea off the ground

First Wong had to find a location – because the idea was to move OpenHouse to a new location and have the ulam garden adjacent to the eatery. This would then give people the opportunity to both see the ulam garden (there will be public access to parts of the garden) and tangential to that – experience the ulam in the food at OpenHouse, offering a more inclusive, involved element to the entire experience.

“So basically what we are trying to do is to create an ulam garden in the city. I think part of the reason for this collaboration is for city folks to learn more about local ulam. Of course many know about the basic ones, but there are far more exotic ulam too.

“And also for people who are not Malaysian, they have the opportunity to learn more about local produce. Where the translation actually happens is – okay, these are the things that you see in the garden, how do you translate it into food and taste it on the plate? So that’s where OpenHouse comes in, so there is that relationship between the garden and the food,” explains Wong.

Ulam is an umbrella term used to describe various kinds of edible plants in Malaysia, like kerdas (pictured here). The pods and shoots of kerdas are typically eaten raw with condiments. — ERIC OLMEDOUlam is an umbrella term used to describe various kinds of edible plants in Malaysia, like kerdas (pictured here). The pods and shoots of kerdas are typically eaten raw with condiments. — ERIC OLMEDO

Although Wong could technically just keep the ulam garden to himself and utilise all the produce for his own restaurant’s needs, he understands that there is a larger picture here in terms of educating people, which is why a segment of the garden will be open to the public.

“There’s a dual function. I mean, in terms of the design, we’ll separate the part of the ulam garden which will directly supply the kitchen – that one is not accessible to the public, and the other part will be an educational garden where anyone who wants to know more about herbs and greens, can go into the ulam garden and learn more. Or customers who have eaten the food at OpenHouse can go to the garden to learn about the ingredients.

“So it’s experiential and educational at the same time. And through that, we hope to promote not just the cuisine but the culture,” says Olmedo.

After years of back-and-forth, Wong and Olmedo have finally secured the necessary approval to build the restaurant and the herb garden and the first part of the project – which is the unveiling of the restaurant and Phase 1 of the ulam garden – is set to be launched in March this year.

Ulam is used quite widely among the Malay and Orang Asli communities, but many ulam are also being phased out, which means there are a whole generation of Malaysians who don’t know about them. — FILEPICUlam is used quite widely among the Malay and Orang Asli communities, but many ulam are also being phased out, which means there are a whole generation of Malaysians who don’t know about them. — FILEPIC

“There are so many parts to this project and we thought we should just launch the first part first, which is the restaurant and a smaller section of the garden. And then as that’s done, we can start to focus on building up the whole place,” explains Wong.

How to put together an ulam garden

Wong and Olmedo are working with both a botanist as well as award-winning landscape architect Lim In Chong (better known as Inch Lim) to put together the ulam garden. But ultimately, it is Olmedo who is the key figure in pushing the garden forward.

He says there are many ways to assemble an ulam garden but if you are going to do it properly, you have to harness and harvest everything that is available locally and do this in a sustainable way. That is exactly what he intends to do, with an ambitious plan to plant and grow at least 40 different kinds of ulam on-site.

“I think there are different levels because if you do a rough categorisation of ulam, there is the common ulam that you can find in supermarkets like ulam raja and daun selom, then you have the less common ones that you have to go to specific wet markets for, like paku rawan. Then there are the ones that are on the verge of being forgotten or are not known and which only the rural Malays and Orang Asli know about.

There are various kinds of ulam in Malaysia, like daun mengkudu, which is typically blanched or eaten with condiments. — ERIC OLMEDOThere are various kinds of ulam in Malaysia, like daun mengkudu, which is typically blanched or eaten with condiments. — ERIC OLMEDO

“So the idea is that there will be an ulam garden designed by the Ulam School on the compound. And we will have a fair amount of common and not-so-common ulam-ulaman there. But there are also some ulam that cannot be planted because they cannot grow here; it can only grow in the wild.

“So for this part, we will supplement through our connection with the Orang Asli communities where they will sustainably forage it for us,” says Olmedo.

In terms of what is going to be grown, Olmedo says this will mostly depend on the heritage Malay recipes that OpenHouse uses.

“We will do it in phases and reverse engineer from the recipes,” he says.

Olmedo says he is thrilled that ulam will be getting a more central location to display its richness and diversity and showcase how it is the true superfood of Asia.

“It’s better than kale, avocado, quinoa and all those other superfoods and yet it is a part of the Malaysian culinary system that is not really visible.

There will be at least 40 different kinds of ulam grown in the ulam garden that Wong and Olmedo are working on putting together with the help of a botanist and a landscape architect. — FILEPICThere will be at least 40 different kinds of ulam grown in the ulam garden that Wong and Olmedo are working on putting together with the help of a botanist and a landscape architect. — FILEPIC

“So if we cultivate it right using agroforestry techniques, it’s good for the environment. Then in terms of cultural heritage preservation, there is a recognition of what rural Malays are doing as well as the Orang Asli indigenous corpus of knowledge. So there are really a lot of systemic benefits,” says Olmedo.

The future

Because this is a pilot project, Olmedo and Wong admit that it’s all just one big real-world test and they are going to have to figure it out as they go along. But because of the space limitations, there are already some plans afoot in terms of broadening their mileage.

“In terms of the garden, we will have about 40 plants but beyond that, we are constrained by space. So after that, there will be an extension of the project which will be plant nurseries set up in the jungle and tended to by the Orang Asli using agroforestry methods. So we will have nurseries in Gombak, Pahang and so on,” says Olmedo.

Although they have barely broken ground on their new project, both partners agree that there is a high barrier of entry for a project like this, which is why they don’t foresee other restaurants adopting a copycat model, as it is tough to execute.

The Orang Asli community will be helping Wong and Olmedo by sustainably foraging for ulam that can only be found in the wild. In the future, the community will also set up plant nurseries designed to supply a sustainable source of ulam to the restaurant. — ERIC OLMEDOThe Orang Asli community will be helping Wong and Olmedo by sustainably foraging for ulam that can only be found in the wild. In the future, the community will also set up plant nurseries designed to supply a sustainable source of ulam to the restaurant. — ERIC OLMEDO

“Andrew is one of the few restaurateurs that has pushed this concept to its core in terms of sustainability. Many claim to be farm-to-table and so on, but when you dig a little bit, it’s not that sustainable. And I think this project has served him well because he really wants to deliver a fully ethical and sustainable supply chain that also pays tribute to Malay and indigenous culinary heritage.

“And it is not easy. It can be challenging when you work with indigenous communities because there are so many different villages and settlements and each has their own politics, so this aspect of collaboration is difficult.

“So in terms of replication, I think it’s going to be a real challenge for most restaurateurs who will be more pragmatic and say ‘I don’t want this kind of risk management’. So that’s why in terms of competitive emulation, I don’t think there will be many that are close to this level,” says Olmedo.

Wong says that in order for the project to truly take flight, the entire model hinges on the restaurant’s success.

“I’m not entirely altruistic because I’m not a millionaire – I can’t just do this for fun. It is a passion project in a way because I feel at the end of the day, I know what it’s all for. But of course I need to make it successful to keep it going.

“Because there is a lot of cost involved to keep the ulam garden alive and clean and well-maintained. And the restaurant has to be successful to sustain all of these things,” says Wong.

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