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               UMAI GOODNESS      

               Simple delicious pleasures…our unique local salads

You know you are in the midst of a revolution when McDonald’s, the world’s largest peddler of meat products, sticks a salad on its menu, though apparently theirs has only slightly fewer calories than a quarter pounder which really defeats the purpose.

After all, salad is diet food, isn’t it? Nevertheless, the humble salad appears to have taken over the menus of Kuching food establishments today, cementing its arrival as the de rigueur food of choice for those trying to improve their eating habits. You can potentially find a salad in all the sections of any given menu – appetizer, main course; salads have even managed to creep into the dessert menu! The salad, indeed, is here to stay.
Going back to basics, a salad is actually a difficult-to-define, rather confusing creature. The end result is generally served cold (though warm salads are suddenly the latest craze) but the elements can be raw or cooked; fish or fowl; animal, vegetable or mineral.  Actually, take a moment to ponder the origins of today’s go-to healthy meal. In fact, the word salad comes to us from Latin, via Old French, from the word for ‘salty’ (salt being a mineral!) because the Romans apparently liked to eat their veggies doused in brine or vinaigrettes, made from oil, vinegar and salt (though the Caesar’s salad was actually conceived in Las Vegas, a long way from Rome!).  The word debuted in the English-speaking world as ‘salad’ or ‘sallet’ much later, in the 14th century.

Of course, most people you ask are likely to think lettuce when they think of salad. Further evidence of the salad’s new popularity in Kuching comes with Genting Garden, the West Malaysian grower, which is making a mint off the humble lettuce and the cheery cherry tomato. The shelves of Kuching’s supermarkets are full of their produce and locally grown varieties of lettuce are even creeping in. As a result, our restaurants are offering salads in increasing numbers and varieties, from a single dish to a whole bar.
The very kiasu nature of people hailing from the Far East has seen a vast increase salad options in our food establishments today. But lest we disregard them as a Western invasion, let us bear in mind that our cuisine is not without similar salad options. Yes, salads also have an element of “Asian persuasion” in them, too! Here’s a look into the diverse world of Malaysian salads:

Umai fish:
Umai is traditionally a native dish for the Melanaus, originally Sarawak’s coastal people, though now almost every Dayak group is making its own. Umai basically comprises thinly sliced fresh raw white fish, such as snapper (or even mackerel will do), with a mixture of onion, chillies, salt and the central ingredient calamansi (lime) juice. Not unlike the ceviche of South America or hinava of our neighbouring state of Sabah, the fish is not cooked with heat but rather cured or ‘cooked’ with the acidity that comes from the calamansi juice. Therefore, only the freshest fish will do or you may run the risk of food poisoning. There are also common variations including prawns, jellyfish or even chicken’s feet!

              The traditional rojak. Popular too is the fruit only version with the same sauce.

Rojak is, at its essence, a local salad of mixed vegetables and fruits, enveloped in rojak sauce, which is a thick, sweet yet savoury sauce comprising local prawn paste (belacan, for those of you in the know), palm sugar and lime. In Malaysia and Singapore, the term “rojak” is also used as a colloquial expression for an eclectic mix, especially in describing the multi-ethnic character of Malaysian society. Rojak differs from region to region within the Malayan archipelago – and you can get Singaporean and Indonesian versions of this popular dish as well!


                Rojak Sotong Kangkong also known as Joo Hoo Eng Chai in the local Hokkien dialect is eaten warm

Rojak sotong kangkung:
Rojak sotong kangkung is one of the many derivatives of the rojak that we spoke of above. Basically, the main ingredients are cuttlefish and a wild leafy green vegetable known as the water convolvulus (also known as water spinach or morning glory in some areas) that is smothered in rojak sauce, liberally sprinkled with crushed roasted peanuts (yum!) and served warm.

Rojak india
Rojak India, or rojak mamak (or even pasembur, as it is known in the island state of Penang) contains an assortment of goodies that include fried dough fritters, bean curd, boiled potatoes, prawn fritters, hard boiled eggs, bean sprouts, cuttlefish and cucumber. These ingredients are then tossed with a thick peanut-based sauce, which is tinged with spices and heat for that little extra kick.

Midin salad
Midin salad could only be from Sarawak as this jungle fern is only available in Sarawak. Foraged from the jungle and so completely organic, it is immensely popular and usually served stir-fried with belacan or simply with chopped garlic and oyster sauce. The beauty of these dishes lies in their simplicity, both in their preparation and their presentation. The midin salad is therefore a very uniquely Sarawakian dish which comprises lightly blanched midin and a well-balanced dressing made of calamansi juice, sugar, finely sliced chilli padi and shallots. Paku, another type of jungle fern, also organic, substitutes well.

Ulam is most often identified as a Malay dish.  It looks like a garden on a plate with shoots, leaves, stems, fruits, tubers and flowers of every possible shape and size. Some of these are commonplace such as long beans, brinjals, cabbage or four-angle beans (kacang botol), some are pretty obscure outside of ulam, eaten raw, blanched, steamed or boiled as appropriate. Consider the list of possibilities: the wonderfully spiky daun raja ulam, the perfectly circular daun pegaga, the feathery daun cantek manis, spades of daun gajus (cashew leaves), the stimulating daun kadok (betel leaves) and even the simply beautiful bunga kunyit (turmeric flowers). Of course, each has its own medicinal properties covering every condition from hypertension to diabetes to, rather unfortunately, diarrhoea.  To add a tantalizing boost of flavour, these ulam are usually accompanied with a dipping sauce, which typically means either a prawn chilli relish known locally as sambal belacan or a fermented fish paste called budu. Ulam is traditionally an integral part of the Malay community’s daily main meals in the kampung but recently this dish has garnered popularity amongst the increasingly health-conscious urban dwellers.


Bunga Kantan Salad:
This salad is a beauty, illuminated by the pink of the Bunga Kantan or Bunga Kechala (torch ginger flower). This glorious flower, so named because it resembles a flaming torch, looks like a waxy spear when it first appears but then opens out into a pink globe with tightly packed petals which are peeled into this salad giving it an aromatic fragrance and flavour. This is teamed with the equally aromatic petai (the unfortunately named stink bean), chives or spring onions, chillies and finely sliced shallots in a ‘Borneo vinaigrette’ of lime juice and sugar. With the ginger flower to ward off diabetes and hypertension and the petai for kidney problems, this is another bowl of good health. Apparently, postpartum women even eat the bitter leaves of the ginger flower to relieve flatulence!

So there you have it, a quick look into the world of Malaysian salads that you can get.  In my opinion, our local salads are as healthy, as beautiful and as tasty as their Western counterparts, but I suppose that is a matter of preference. The salad is here, and it is here to stay!

Grace Balan-Law is a features editor with a local English daily. Married with a three-year -old son who keeps her on her toes 24/7, she enjoys the occasional morning walk at the park, plays a little tennis and still dreams of writing a book one day.

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