The King of All Herbs

I have this strange satisfaction in eating the food that I grow.

When I was 10, I was already growing my own vegetable – no doubt it was a tiny patch right in front of our terrace house. It was a vegetable which to this day I call “slimy vegetable” because my mom used my harvest to make a soup with the green leafy vegetables. I don’t know what its scientific name is, till today. I do know that it produced tiny purple berries. If you squished the berries, the purple dye will stain your fingers.

I still enjoy growing herbs and vegetables because at the end of the day, I get to eat them!

Ulam Raja or Wild Cosmos
Ulam Raja or Wild Cosmos

Nic and I have a passion for ulams, especially ulam raja.

I am currently growing ulam raja (wild cosmos) in my backyard (also a tiny patch but what a lovely tiny patch I have). Ulam raja is an unforgettable taste. Its leaves are best eaten young and with a good dollop of kick-ass sambal belacan. Its flavour is a cross between lemon and mangga. The best way to know this is to take the fresh ulam raja and pop it in your mouth for a good chew.

This herb or ulam is quite beautiful too when it flowers. It grows easily from seeds (which you will get once the pink flowers die off) and you will always have fresh ulam to eat! Eating this ulam keeps you young (it has anti-ageing properties) and strengthens your bones (due to its high calcium content) and is a breath freshener.

Another ulam I have is one I do not know the name of! If you know the name of this ulam, please let me know. I got to know of this through my uncle. He’s a big fan of ulam with sambal belacan and he had a huge pot of this ulam in my grandma’s house compound. I plucked a few stems and propagated them successfully. This ulam has a different taste and texture compared to ulam raja.

Does anyone know the name of this ulam?
Does anyone know the name of this ulam?

Pegaga is also another ulam I grow in my backyard. I have 2 types – the round leaf variety (which you often see in ponds) and the market variety (sold in markets!). Pegaga is quite the miracle ulam, full of good stuff for your health. Nevertheless, do not over-indulge. It makes you woozy if you eat too much!

Pegaga growing with peppermint
Pegaga growing with peppermint

Below is a photo of the round pegaga which you can use as water plants for your aquarium (I use them in my aquarium anyway) and as food. Talk about versatility!

Pegaga - as ornamental plants, as food, as aquarium decoration
Pegaga – as ornamental plants, as food, as aquarium decoration

Daun kaduk (wild betel leaf) is also an ulam I have though I have yet to harvest and eat this. It is quite precious as it’s still growing and it seems to take forever to grow! (Update 2015: I noticed that if you let daun kaduk grow on the ground, it grows so much faster!).

It is not daun sireh – daun kaduk is softer and you can usually find this when you eat the appetiser, Mieng Kham, in Thai restaurants. This is the leaf you use to wrap the peanuts, dried prawns, chillies and all that yummy condiments. It is also used in Nyonya dishes such as perut ikan and otak-otak.

Glossy daun kaduk
Glossy daun kaduk

I also have daun setawar – I know it’s medicinal but is it an ulam? When I was in school, we used to pluck the leaves and use them as bookmarks! Apparently, it was magic to us kids because the “anak” (or baby plants) will grow from the sides of the leaf.

Daun setawar
Daun setawar

What disappoints me is that although my chili plants are growing and flower all the time, I have yet to see any real chilis! Any chili expert grower can tell me why?

The Heady Smell of Herbs

I’ve been dutifully composting my food scraps using the 10-pot system and it’s been about 7 months now.

Don of Green Crusaders (that’s him below) taught me this system and since using it, I’ve never had to throw out any food scraps! I have actually reduced the amount of rubbish I throw out as I compost mostly everything (except unedible and inorganic stuff).

This is Don, the tireless eco crusader!

I can safely report that all’s fine and I couldn’t tell you how pleased I was to find big, fat earthworms in my compost a few months ago. Earthworms make the job easier! Of course besides the earthworms, there’s a host of bugs, milipedes, ants and such but that’s part and parcel of the composting process.

But there is no smell. No stink. That is the beauty of Don’s 10-pot system. It’s really simple once you get the system all set up. And you don’t need to buy those plastic bins or composting contraptions which look really huge and ugly.

Now with enough compost, I can start my little herb garden. (Compost must be mixed well with regular red earth in 1:1 portions. Compost on its own will kill plants as it is too ‘nutritious’!)

I’ve always been interested in gardening. I wouldn’t say I’m Miss Green Finger but I do enjoy getting my hands dirty, watching plants grow and best of all, eating what I grow. That’s the best organic kind of food.

Of late, I’ve been poking around C&L Nursery (opposite Convent Green Lane) and buying pots of herbs.

Rosemary is one herb I really adore, especially its heady aroma as one brushes against its spiny leaves. I am still figuring if it needs direct sunlight or not as my previous pot of rosemary died after 2 years (that pot was kept on the balcony away from direct light). I don’t really use rosemary for cooking – I just want to inhale its fragrance!

Next I came across a type of mint which smells like lemon. Its mint leaves are thin and papery but again, it smells like lemon and lemongrass when you light brush your hands over its leaves. Again I bought this because of its citrusy smell.

Recently a friend gave me two cuttings of Indian borage. It is also known as local oregano because it smells just like that!

Indian borage

The heart-shaped leaves of the Indian borage are thick. big and hairy. In Malay, it is known as Daun Bangun-bangun. Apparently it is a hardy plant but what makes it attractive as a must-have herb in the garden is its ability to help with coughs. A fresh leaf boiled with some water is a good tea to sip if you have persistent coughing. Or pick a leaf and chew it if you have a sore throat.

And here’s more uses for Indian borage – if you have a blocked nose, crush some leaves and inhale.

If you have skin problems or insect bites, crush the leaves and use as a poultice.

If you have dandruff, use an infusion to rinse your hair.

This herb seems to be multipurpose. You can use it for increasing milk flow for new moms, to reduce flatulence and stomach cramps, to reduce menstrual pain and insomnia. Oh yes, it can also get rid of kidney stones!

Besides these herbs, I am also trying my hand at growing turmeric, plantago, basil and Thai basil. There’s something really special when you can eat the stuff you grow!