By Winnie Ong Hui Dhing
Lovers of Asian cuisine are inevitably exposed to the rich medley of culinary herbs native to the tropics. A typical wet market teems with enigmatic jungle herbs (ulam) next to ordinary “garden variety” produce, prompting one to pick up a sprig and absorb the aroma.
Upon purchase, a casual query towards the stall-owner about method of preparation and its local name is usually essential for the uninitiated. Here’s information about 7 Asian herbs that will enrich your botanical knowledge and your health too.
Fresh agathi leaves contain all 9 essential amino acids but also beta carotene, calcium and iron. Known as daun turi in Bahasa Malaysia, the slightly bitter, oval-shaped leaves can be incorporated into curries, soups and stir-fries. The bitter centre of the flower is removed prior to inclusion in salads such as the Indonesian pecel.
These leaves contain high nutritional content and are known for their medicinal value ranging from blood pressure and lipid lowering effects to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Drumstick leaf powder is used by health workers in Senegal to treat malnutrition in infants, pregnant and lactating women as a readily available source of beta-carotene, vitamin C and E, iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulphur and protein. Mildly sweet-tasting, drumstick leaves should only be cooked until tender to retain these nutrients in broths, coconut curries or dhals (lentil curry).
Bittersweet and often eaten raw in local kerabu dishes (herb rice salad), gotu kola is a common herbal remedy in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. The bioactive compounds of gotu kola are currently used for wound-healing and venous insufficiency, while potential therapeutic benefits are being scientifically investigated in conditions including anxiety and cognitive decline.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
Kaffir lime leaves and fruit peel are ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cuisine. If intended for flavouring, these double-lobed leaves can be torn and immersed in syrup for desserts, jams and cocktails or vinegar for salad dressing or sauces before being discarded. Kaffir lime fruit peel extract has been found to have antimicrobial action against certain food-related micro-organisms.
Tip: Keep leftover lime leaves freeze-dried in a re-sealable bag. Always remove the central vein before use for consumption.
The humble laksa leaf, or polygonum minus, is a potential source of antioxidant and anti-ulcer compounds. Laksa leaves are widely available in Malaysian wet markets and backyards, which allows liberal amounts to be incorporated into favourite local dishes, such as nasi ulam, nasi kerabu and the Penang assam laksa.
Tip: Pluck the leaves off the stem just before use.
Paku is basically a vegetable fern with the scientific name of diplazium esculentum. Young and tender fronds are edible, whether as part of stir-fries with sambal (chilly paste), salads, kerabu dishes or deep-fried in tempura batter. Nutritionally, paku is a source of vitamin A, calcium, iron, phosphorus and protein.
Ulam raja literally means ‘salad for kings’. However, you don’t need to be part of a royal clan in order to sample these shoots and leaves in local kerabu dishes and sambal condiments that pack a punch. Ulam raja extract has been shown to have antioxidant as well as antifungal traits and has recently been researched as a potential treatment for post-menopausal osteoporosis.
Jungle herbs or ulam is an integral and nutritious part of the Asian culinary experience, so start sourcing for them if you are an adventurous cook at heart!
Word of Caution
Many medicinal plants used in traditional medicine are only in preliminary stages of scientific research so evidence for safety and efficacy is yet to be established. Avoid consuming herbs for medicinal purposes because the natural form may contain both helpful and harmful compounds. Only purified extracts are used in research.