There are many wonderful fresh herbs used in Southeast Asian cuisines, and now is the time to start thinking about how to eat them all up! Dave Weinstein, one my recipe testers, tweeted about all the rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) that he had growing in his Washington State garden. “Any ideas for using it up?” he asked me. Ironically, I am having the same problem, and my thoughts went to this refreshing rice salad.
The Malaysian salad actually allowed me to harvest not only the rau ram, but also kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and mint. I was quite proud of myself for having cultivated those ingredients myself! Adding to that was the remaining sprigs of lemon basil purchased from the farmer’s market last Saturday. Here's what I got from the garden for this salad:
This nasi ulam recipe comes from my friend James Oseland’s cookbook, Cradle of Flavor. There’s lots of slicing and chopping involved but the result is impressively delicious and special. Plus, you can eat it as a main course! As a room temperature dish that can be prepared in advance, this herb rice salad is perfect for pot lucks and barbecues.
Rory and I had it with some pan-fried slices of tempe that I glazed with Indonesian sweet soy sauce (kecap manis). This rice salad would be excellent with my childhood favorite, ga roti (roasted chicken seasoned with lots of garlic and Maggi Seasoning Sauce); the recipe is in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. The grilled lemon basil chicken from last weekend would be an awesome pairing too. In any event, nothing too saucy or the rice will be overwhelmed.
The herbs can be substituted with many others, as indicated. Fresh dill would be terrific in lieu of the mint. If kaffir lime leaf is unavailable, use a rasper to finely grate the peel of 2 limes. Use the freshest and most fragrant aromatics to make this rice salad sing. See the Vietnamese Herb Primer for ideas.
Fresh Herb Rice Salad Recipe
This may also be called nasi kerabu. James says it’s an old Malay dish but I found it to be a wonderful new way to enjoy rice and the warm weather’s bounty of fresh herbs. The original recipe called for toasting freshly grated coconut, which I lacked. The dried coconut was okay but in a pinch, you can skip it. With regard to the dried shrimp, keep it for savory, umami depth.
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side dish
1/4 cup heaping unsweetened finely shredded dried coconut, optional
1 1/2 cups raw jasmine rice, or 6 cups cooked long-grain rice
Leaves from 1 small bunch lemon basil, Thai basil, purple perilla (tia to), Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi), or Italian basil
Leaves from 1 small bunch Vietnamese coriander (rau ram) or cilantro
Leaves from 1/2 small bunch fresh mint
4 or 5 kaffir lime leaves
2 medium or 1 hefty stalks lemongrass
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced lengthwise, rinsed, and drained well
1/4 cup small dried shrimp, coarsely chopped
About 1/2 teaspoon salt
About 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground preferred
About 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1. Over medium heat, toast the coconut until fragrant and caramel colored, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure even cooking. Remove from the heat and cool. Cover if you will let it sit for several hours, or its perfume diminishes.
2. If you are using raw rice, rinse and cook the rice in a rice cooker or stove top. Use the info in “How to Cook Perfect Rice” for guidance. When done, fluff and set the rice aside to cool to room temperature. If you’ve got cooked rice, reheat and refresh it in the microwave oven and then set it aside to cool to room temperature.
3. One by one, cut each of the herbs – basil, Vietnamese coriander, mint, and — into super fine shreds. Gather them into tight bundles or stack them, then wield a sharp knife. You want fine shreds so that the herbs later become well dispersed in the salad.
As you work, put the herbs in a large bowl. You should net 1/3 lightly packed cup of each of the basil and Vietnamese coriander. With the mint, aim for about 3 lightly packed tablespoons of the mint.
5. Trim and cut the lemongrass into 3 to 4-inch lengths. Halve each one lengthwise then cut crosswise into super thin half-moons. The thinner the better. Discard the tough triangular core at the bottom. Add to the herbs. Blot the shallot dry, then add to the bowl too.
6. Use a mini food processor to grind the shrimp and salt to the texture of sawdust. Add to the bowl of herbs, along with the black pepper.
If you want the coconut to be finely textured, grind it in the mini food process too. Transfer all but about 1 tablespoon to the bowl of herbs.
7. Use a spatula, spoon, or your hands to mix the seasonings. Add the rice, and gently mix and toss to combine well. Add the lime juice, wait for 5 minutes, then taste again. You may need extra salt, pepper, or lime juice. Aim for a balance of all the flavors. The herbs are subtle yet their pungent fragrant selves should shine too.
Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the reserved coconut. If you use super fresh, heady herbs – like the kind you grow yourself — this salad will taste great up to 3 hours after you’ve combined all the ingredients.
Adapted from James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor (W.W. Norton, 2006)