With its vivid colours and medley of aromatic herbs, nasi kerabu is Kelantan’s most visually captivating and exciting dish. In recent decades, it has gone from simple kampung fare for folk along the east coast and northern states to a resplendent dish enjoyed by urbanites around the country.
It is a dish born of the land and sea – you can taste fish and field in every mouthful. The dish is among the traditional foods of the Kelantanese Peranakans – Chinese immigrants who arrived in the 15th century who married local women and spawned a unique, localised way of life and cuisine.
The ethnic Hokkien men would have married women of Thai origin living in Kelantan at the time – which explains why Kelantanese Peranakan food has a strong Thai influence.
Nasi kerabu can be traced to a similar rice dish popular in southern Thailand known as khao jam or khao yum. Khao jam differs from nasi kerabu in the condiments, flavouring and colour of the rice – blue rice is a Kelantanese preference.
The word “kerabu” is a common Malay reference for Thai-style salads usually eaten raw. The word is also used by the nyonyas of Penang and Kedah who prepare all sorts of kerabus in their kitchens. While people of Thai origin living in the border states of Malaysia and Thai restaurants in Malaysia are fond of using the word too, it is not found in the culinary lexicon of Thailand; what Malaysians call mango kerabu is som tam mak muang or mango som tam in Thailand.
Utilising a lot of herbs and chillies, the pungent tastes of both khao jam and kerabu resonate with the ulam-loving Malays and nonyas who readily adopt them into their daily culinary repertoire.
A complete nasi kerabu is a complex dish involving various components: the rice, herb salad, a coconut and fish relish, a spicy sambal sauce or two and various condiments, each an elaborate recipe on their own if you were to make them from scratch: salted duck egg, keropok ikan (fish cracker), solok lada (stuffed green chilli) and fried fish or chicken.
All the elements are made separately and assembled on a plate for serving. The finely shredded ingredients and dressings are tossed together with the rice and enjoyed with the various accompaniments.
The blue rice
Traditionally, the blue colour is a result of cooking rice with the petals of the butterfly pea flower, Clitoria ternatea (bunga telang in Malay) but many cooks nowadays find it more convenient to just add a few drops of artificial colouring. Nasi kerabu is also prepared in other colours like white (plain), yellow (turmeric) and green (mixture of pandan and other herbs). Curiously, older Kelantanese folk may refer to the blue rice as “nasi kerabu hitam” – that is, they sometimes call the blue rice, black.
The herb salad (kerabu)
The kerabu is a mélange of finely-shredded local herbs and vegetables in the raw. Each cook has her own preference; in the kampung, the cook is likely to use what’s in the garden or what is foraged from the surrounding vegetation.
Going through the recipes, you'll come to this conclusion: when Kelantanese of Thai origin make nasi kerabu it tends to have a stronger hint of the herbs the Thais love, more on the citrusy side with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and zest, lime zest, Thai basil and wild pepper leaf (daun kaduk); when made by Malays, it leans towards the gingery, with torch ginger flower, turmeric leaf, and daun kesum – flavours the Malays love.
While aromatic herbs provide the top notes, vegetables form the base of the green symphony; these include long beans, bean sprouts, cabbage, four angle beans and cucumber. The finesse of the cook is measured by the way the herbs and vegetables are cut – the more finely they are shredded, the classier the cook.
The fishy taste comes from fish and budu, the region’s iconic fermented fish sauce used in the gravy (kuah sambal tumis). Some cooks use belacan as well, or use it as a budu substitute. A relish is made from toasted, grated coconut tossed with flakes of freshly-grilled fish, grated ginger, sugar, salt and pepper. More fishy flavour comes in the solok lada, green chilli stuffed with grated coconut and fish flakes. To add further to the fishy flavour, a small, whole fish, battered and fried, can be served alongside. To avoid fish overload, have your nasi kerabu with fried chicken or ayam golek instead.
Laksam is a kind of rice noodle – a thick, steamed rice sheet rolled up like carpet and cut into nuggets. The term has also come to mean a laksa dish typically found in the East Coast and Kedah, but especially Kelantan. It is a dish of laksam noodles served with kuah putih – a rich and creamy, fishy coconut gravy – topped with a chiffonade of local herbs and shredded vegetables, and a dollop of sambal for a spicy kick.
Chicken is quartered, seasoned, and clapped on a large stick of split bamboo before being flame grilled. As it grills, the meat is slathered with more of the rich coconut cream mari-nade flavoured with ginger, turmeric, tamarind, lemon-grass, dried chilli, shallot, garlic, palm sugar, and salt. The result is an oozy, sticky, rich and creamy, slightly sweet, charcoal-roasted meat with a smoky taste.
This dish of whole squid stuffed with sticky rice drenched in coconut milk is popular throughout the East Coast. The Kelantan version is peculiar as it is sweet and makes you wonder whether it is a strange squid dessert. The sweetness comes from nisan or palm sugar which gives it a brown colour and smoky taste. The Tereng-ganu version is cooked in kuah putih so it is snowy white in colour.