It’s not often that we get rare ethnic dishes served in hawker centres or anywhere in Singapore. My last encounter with anything remotely close to that was Bamboo Nasi Rendang in Chinatown. It’s to my pleasant surprise that I stumbled upon The Little Red Hen at Amoy Street Food Centre, which opened in Aug 2022. It only serves nasi ulam, which is a herb-infused rice dish.
As someone who’s unequivocally proud of his heritage, I’ve never had nasi ulam before. I was aware of its existence and roughly what it was, but it never occurred to me to give it a go. I am very familiar with its blue cousin, the nasi kerabu, which is often cooked during Hari Raya in my household.
Depending on who you ask, the origins of nasi ulam range from the straits of Sumatra all the way to Malaysia. It is widely agreed that like many other local dishes, nasi ulam is an accumulation of many culinary cultures.
The nasi ulam found here is based on the Malaysian take, which consists of cold boiled rice that is mixed with finely chopped herbs such as torch ginger flower, kaffir lime leaf, turmeric leaf and Vietnamese mint leaf. Because of the concoction of herbs, nasi ulam is often touted as a healthy dish that supposedly has natural antioxidant properties.
What I tried at The Little Red Hen
I had the Nasi Ulam with Ayam Percik set and the Nasi Ulam with Beef Rendang set, both at S$8.50 each. There was also the Nasi Ulam with Udang Kunyit set (Turmeric Prawn) and Nasi Ulam with Ikan Pepes (Steamed Fish wrapped in Banana Leaves) set at S$10 each.
Each order also came with a choice between urap salad or oven-baked veggies that consisted of broccoli, carrots and capsicum slices. There was also half a boiled egg and expertly smeared homemade sambal on the side.
There were an astonishing 15 different fresh herbs and ingredients used to make their nasi ulam. The herbs, after being sliced, were hand massaged into the rice.
I tried the Nasi Ulam with Beef Rendang set first, and went ahead to try the ulam rice which looked like ice cream with sprinkles. It only took me a bite to understand that the arduous process of making ulam rice wasn’t in vain.
There were refreshing bits of herbiness with every bite. There were definitely kaffir lime leaves in there, though I couldn’t pinpoint what the other floral tastes were. I quickly gave up on trying to identify the herbs and proceeded to fully enjoy my meal. Apart from the differing flavours, the herbs also added a nice fibre-like texture to the soft pillowy rice.
The Beef Rendang was decent. It wasn’t spicy and was on the sweeter side of things. It definitely added to the herbal experience with its sweet and savoury layers. Having said that, I thought the portion was on the low side but with the increasing cost of beef, I somewhat accepted it for what it was.
What wasn’t so good were the oven-baked vegetables. I think it was baked and then placed in some soup as the broccoli and carrots were soggy. It also seemed a little out of place as the assortment of vegetables looked as though they were sides to a Western dish.
The boiled egg didn’t do me any favours either as it had a weird jelly-like texture. It was literally jiggling when I had a nibble and just felt off. I really appreciated the fact that the sambal was smeared in style, but it also wasn’t for me too as it was just a little too salty. It packed a good amount of heat though.
Next was the Nasi Ulam with Ayam Percik set. This time, I went straight for the chicken. Having fully anticipated the heat of the lemak chili padi gravy, I was taken aback by a savoury-tasting gravy. It was really familiar to the gravy used in laksa perlis, where fish and a few other herbs such as laksa herb are blended together, giving it a rich coconutty taste with hints of turmeric.
While the chicken was dry, it still had a delicious smoky grilled taste to it. The rich gravy also alleviated some of the dryness.
I had the urap salad instead of the oven-baked vegetable option. The urap salad consisted of bean sprouts, winged beans and grated coconut. It might look deceptively simple, but it packed a strong punch in both flavour and texture.
The bean sprouts were at their crunchy best and the grated coconut seemed to be spiced. It also had tanginess to it which either came from the tamarind juice or salt. Overall, a much better option as compared to baked veggies.
To think I spent nearly 24 years of my time alive without trying nasi ulam…that’s 23 years wasted! Whilst the nasi ulam is a definite must-try, I found the accompanying dishes not quite to the high standards set by the humble herbed rice. As for the cost, especially considering the high labour and ingredients used, the relatively high price for a hawker centre is acceptable.
Understandably, if the price is still too steep, I would recommend getting just the Nasi Ulam (S$3) and pairing it with cheaper dishes from any economic rice stall or better yet, something homemade. The rice is the star of the dish after all, and it certainly shines!
Expected damage: S$8.50 – S$10 per pax
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