Turning over a new leaf

Posted on December 5, 2011. Filed under: Environment and Livelihoods |

The Star



How you use local herbs in cooking is limited only by your imagination and palate.

WHEN it comes to cooking, Malaysian herbs are often the “silent contributors”. Their so-called “Western” counterparts, such as basil, rosemary or thyme, are often the star attraction in a dish, thanks to the subtle flavours preferred in Western cooking. Local herbs, on the other hand, are most commonly used in Asian dishes with complex tastes, which can sometimes make it difficult for the amateur palate to appreciate each herb’s nuances.

Yet, Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of naturally-growing herbs, ranging from the commonly-used (coriander and mint) to the rather intimidating (ulam raja and pegaga). Most of them can be used just as appetisingly in a simple pasta dish or salad, as in an elaborate curry.

Well-known cooking personality Mohana Gill.

Culinary exponent and World Cookbook Gourmand Award winner Mohana Gill, who is a firm believer in eating and promoting local produce, points out that Malay food has had a longstanding association with local herbs.

“Traditionally, the Malays have always eaten their herbs in the form of ulam (various leafy vegetables and herbs that are eaten either raw or blanched, served with sambal). But with urbanisation, mindsets are changing. We’re getting to the stage where we think anything (imported) from outside is good, but we forget that we have a lot of fresh herbs in Malaysia itself,” she says.

Mohana uses whatever herbs are available in the markets or in her garden to enhance her dishes. Some of the ones she uses most frequently are pegaga, daun kunyit (turmeric leaf), daun kesum, bunga kantan (torch ginger) and ulam raja. She also uses more commonly-known herbs such as lemongrass, mint, coriander, kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves and pandan leaves, in a variety of ways.

Herbs not only bring flavour to dishes, but also offer a whole load of health benefits, adds the author of Fruitastic! and Vegemania!, which both promote the benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables.

“Herbs are not just a garnish. Most people throw away the parsley that garnishes a dish, but parsley is extremely good for you! Many of our local herbs have been proven to have great benefits. Ulam raja, for example, has anti-ageing properties, while pegaga is known as ‘brain food’. When cooking, we should bear in mind that herbs have flavour, and nutritional and aesthetic uses,” says Mohana.

Go green: A selection of ulam, including bunga kantan and daun kesum (left pic) to suit your taste.

Television chef Anis Nabilah, who hosts Asian Food Channel’s Icip-Icip, says using Malaysian herbs allows her to create unusual and unique versions of familiar dishes, such as pastas or desserts. Adding herbs like lemongrass, galangal, coriander or daun kesum to Western dishes creates an interesting fusion of flavours, she says, and makes her cooking more accessible.

“In my show, I try to cater not just to urbanites, but people in rural areas, too. So I like to incorporate plenty of local herbs even when I’m making Western dishes. That way, even the aunties in the kampung can try their hand at making a pasta dish, because they are familiar with the flavours I’m using,” she says.

The uniqueness of Malaysian herbs, she adds, lies in their intense flavour.

“We are used to flavourful cuisine, and this is because of the spices and herbs we use. Our herbs add strong flavours which give a very different touch when you incorporate them into Western dishes. That is what makes our herbs so special.”

Anis Nabilah says herbs add flavour and nutrition to a dish.

For those who find experimenting with herbs intimidating, Mohana has this to say: “Cooking is a matter of imagination; you should do it with no inhibitions. Just try adding this herb or that to a dish you normally make, and see how it tastes.”

A general rule of thumb, she says, is to add the herb towards the end of the cooking process, so that its nutrients are not lost, particularly for the green herbs which are often consumed raw.

She suggests focusing on one herb instead of many in one dish.

“This works better to give the dish one flavour instead of lots of different flavours. For instance, fresh dill goes very well with a nice brinjal curry,” she says (see page 5 for recipe).

Anis points out that when it comes to cooking with herbs, there are no hard and fast rules. She suggests tasting the herb on its own to get an idea of how its flavour would combine with other ingredients.

“It is all a process of trial and error. Add the herb in little by little, and see how the flavour of the dish changes,” she says.

So the next time you want to have an adventure in the kitchen, why not look right in our own backyard?

“We all want variety in our lives. Luckily, there is a whole world of wonderful flavours waiting to be used right here at home. Just go ahead and mix and match, chop and change, and try a combination you never have before. It makes life more interesting!” adds Mohana.


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