When Mandy Leong’s colourful platter of nasi ulam is placed in front of you, it’s hard not feel a little brighter.
The popular Malay dish features steamed rice mixed with herbs and surrounded by an array of side dishes.
But Leong’s platter, appropriately called “Rainbow Healing Nasi Ulam”, takes nasi ulam to another level, featuring more than 10 herbs and aromatic flowers that create a kaleidoscope of colours. On top of that, customers are served a range of delicious side dishes.
Leong is a firm believer that nasi ulam – not just the way she makes it – is a natural mood-booster. “On those days when you’re feeling down and on those days when you don’t have much on an appetite, you eat a few mouthfuls [of nasi ulam and] you will also be a little happier,” she explains.
The feelgood factor could come from the natural enzymes in the raw food, which she says help with digestion, fighting infections and boosting the immune system.
Adversity drives an enterprise
Leong’s belief in the healing power of nasi ulam is based on her own experience: at a particularly low point in her life, she discovered the joys of making the dish.
For most of her life, the 42-year-old former IT consultant had not been too concerned about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but that changed in 2012 when her husband passed away suddenly at the age of 35 from a stroke. She was having trouble managing her full-time job and faced financial difficulties in the wake of her husband’s death.
“I only had RM400 (SGD130) or less in my bank account and I hadn’t even paid utilities for the month, condo maintenance, transport and food,” she recalls. “Of course, the easy way is to go back to parents and ask for help. But they are in their 70s – I will not ask them for help.”
Leong had an idea to start afresh running nasi ulam cooking classes and called her business Natural Remedies by Artisanal Bunny. Initially a five-year project, Artisanal Bunny is still going strong seven years later. Leong says she’s constantly amazed at the success of the classes, something she credits to social media marketing and a supportive community of people interested in artisanal cooking.
Leong has embraced artisanal cooking with full gusto, and her determination to master techniques and tastes is clear when she enthusiastically explains how she makes her nasi ulam (more on that below).
Although she never trained as a chef, Leong credits her mother as a great teacher. The techniques she imparted – such as the way to finely slice herbs – helped Leong make her dishes visually attractive.
“My mother let me in on a tip: big leaf, roll small leaf,” she says. “What that means is that inside a big [herb] leaf, roll [a small herb leaf] in it – like your grandmother’s cigarette – and slice [both of them together].”
Her mother also had another important piece of advice: “Don’t be greedy when you go to the market.” By this, she meant to go easy when buying herbs from the markets, as a little can go along way.
Leong learned this the hard way. The first time she made nasi ulam it took more than 10 hours because she had bought so many ingredients. That meant more time picking and cleaning the leaves, and slicing them into fine pieces.
Leong has come a long way since then. Most recently, she has begun working with fellow artisan chef C Y Phang at Garden to Table to put on cooking classes and demonstrations in the coming months.
“I told myself that if [Artisanal Bunny] didn’t work, I would go back to [full-time] work. So I’m trying, whatever it may be. At least I have something to fall back on.”
She says she is still considering a return to paid employment later this year – but only so she can get the money to improve her skills and upgrade her kitchen.
The secrets to great nasi ulam
But what are the essential ingredients for nasi ulam? Leong says it all begins with beans, which are the main protein source in the dish.
“You need to have a raw bean: it can be a long bean, four-angled bean, french beans,” she says.
Bunga kantan, or torch ginger flower, is also important, Leong says, as it gives an additional dimension of fragrance.
Then there’s lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and Leong’s distinctive bi-colour rice. The rice is mix of organic rice and basmati rice, which is coloured yellow and blue using turmeric and bunga telang (butterfly pea flower) as natural dyes.
Her list doesn’t end there, though. This bubbly cook also has a secret blend of seven local herbs for the dish – ingredients that she’s reluctant to divulge.
She can share though that this particular nasi ulam recipe is inspired by the Peranakan, or Nyonya, version made by her mother.
Leong makes it special with a few elements from her other favourite food: nasi kerabu and ulam.
Nasi kerabu is a Malay dish of blue rice with fish or chicken, accompanied by pickles, salads and crackers.
“I love nasi kerabu and the ulam [herbs] dish that Malay stalls serve. The ulam is eaten with a spicy sauce – you know, the one that you have to cecah [dip] with sambal,” she says.
Leong’s signature nasi ulam then has side dishes of salted egg, tempe, and petai (broad bean) with lychee. She found that lychee helps to give the dish a lift.
The spread also includes a golden ginger sauce – another secret recipe, this one inspired by her vegetarian and vegan clients.
For meat eaters, nasi ulam is served with grilled or fried mackerel, or chicken.
For non-Muslim clients and those on a keto diet, she also offers a pork rendang or pork belly curry to go with the nasi ulam.
“The fat in the pork belly literally melts into the curry… yum!”
Photos courtesy Natural Remedies by Artisanal Bunny