Greens are a girl's best friend. Well, they're my best friend. Er... what I mean is that I love them like a best friend. Collards, tatsoi, chard, gai lan, arrugala, pak beung --- I can't get enough greens. Show me a green and I'll buy it, try, fry it up in a pan, toss it in a salad, add it to a stew. When I go to a wet market in KL I'm like a kid in a candy store; it's exhilerating to be surrounded by heaps and heaps of succulent greens, both familiar and unfamiliar, all begging to be added to a dish. But it's also frustrating, because every single time I'm forced to admit to myself that there's no way I can buy all that's on offer and cook it up for dinner that night. So I've settled for working my way through the mountains of greens available here, one leaf at a time.
The lovely bunch above caught my eye during a recent visit to Taman Tun market. Sour spinach -- aka red sorrel, pulichai keerai (Tamil), alas doce (Filipino), Hibiscus cannabinus -- it does indeed bear a remarkable resemblance to its infamous relative.
Sour spinach's thick, almost leathery leaves taste clean and a bit grassy, and true to the vegetable's name, they are extremely sour. One bite of this veggie in its raw state and I thought of cream soup, or a mild fillet of white fish napped in a tart creme fraiche sauce -- richness to counter tartness. My handy (albeit incomplete) reference guide to Asian leaves reveals that in India sour spinach finds its way into curries, stews, and dhal, or is transformed into a spicy chutney or pickle. So many possibilities ... but the abundance of fresh herbs -- like daun kesom (Vietnamese mint, laksa leaf), mint, Thai holy basil -- kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and a few buds of bunga kantan (torch ginger)
in my market basket dictated an uncooked dish. Rice salad won the day -- a sort of nasi ulam (literally, "herbed rice"). My version here omits an ingredient found in most others: grated fresh coconut. I didn't want the oiliness competing with the sour spinach's clean quality.
For this salad I used rice from the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak.
Sarawak rice is beautiful to look at, both before it's cooked -- when it's black-and-white and all shades of brown with dots here and there of brick red -- and after, when it's turned a beautiful dark magenta/red with black bits. It's a little nutty, quite grain-ish, and the stubby broken grains lend a pleasant chew. Sarawak rice makes white rice seem very boring indeed.
I can't find Sarawak rice in KL (this was given to me by a friend), so I'm not sure if it's even available outside of Malaysia. A possible substitute would be a mix of Bhutanese red rice or a good sturdy, nutty brown rice and American wild rice, say in proportions 3 to 1.
The predominant flavors in this salad are sour, salty, and fishy, and the torch ginger lends an ethereal perfumey essence. Caramelized shallots add a touch of sweetness and the various herbs are a riot of contrasting notes. I don't think you can go too overboard with herbs in this salad -- all those flavors converse beautifully with the punchy dressing. The ingredients aren't set in stone, of course, not least because if you're whipping up this dish in the US you may not be able to source some of the ingredients, like torch ginger and laksa leaf. Luckily, this rice salad won't be harmed if the dressing is adjusted to taste, or if this herb is substituted for that one. Come to think of it, some shredded arrugala might be a nice addition.
If sour spinach isn't available where you live (check Indian grocery stores), sorrel would make a reasonable substitute. Choose older, sturdier leaves, and add the sorrel to the dish at the very last minute so that it retains a good amount of crunch.
Sour Rice Salad (or, a sort-of nasi ulam)
serves 2 with other dishes
1/2 Tbsp dried shrimp, soaked for 30 minutes in hot water, then drained and squeezed dry.
1/2" square piece of belacan, toasted under the grill until light brown and fragrant
2 ounces cherry tomatoes -- or a wedge of a larger tomato
3 Tbsp kalamansi juice (1/2 Tbsp orange juice and 2 1/2 Tbsp lime juice)
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 - 1 Tbsp fish sauce
3 oz. shallots, roughly chopped
fresh chili peppers to taste, sliced and seeds removed if you wish
freshly ground black pepper
1 ginger flower, very thinly sliced
small bunch each (about 1 ounce) cilantro (keep stems), mint, and holy basil
2 sprigs of daun kesom
2 stalks lemongrass, bottom 3 inches only
3 fresh kaffir lime leaves, stacked, rolled like a cigar, and thinly sliced
8-10 sour spinach leaves, or double the amount sturdy sorrel leaves, sliced as the kaffir lime leaves
2-4 plump shallots
2 cups cooked rice at room temperature
Thinly slice the shallots from the salad ingredients list and drop them in a small pan of vegetable oil heated to medium. Fry till light brown -- careful here, they'll go from golden to overdone in the blink of an eye -- remove from the pan, and drain on paper towel. Set aside.
Make the dressing: In a mortar and pestle, pound the shrimp to a pulp. Add and pound together the shallots, garlic, and chili peppers, if using. Add the belacan and pound it as well, then the tomatoes/tomato wedge. Mix in lime juice, and add the fish sauce 1/2 Tbsp at a time; taste dressing after the first 1/2 Tbsp, you may not want to add the other. Add black pepper to taste and try the dressing again -- more kalamansi juice will be in order if your tomatoes were exceptionally sweet, or if you're after a real pucker.
Pick leaves from mint and basil sprigs, and chop these very finely together with the coriander. Pick the leaves from the daun kesom stem and chop a bit less finely. Remove the hard outer layers from the lemongrass stalks, quarter them lengthwise, and slice thinly.
Mix rice and dressing, then add torch ginger, coriander-mint-basil, daun kesom, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and sour spinach or sorrel and mix again. Allow the rice to stand and absorb the flavors of the herbs and the dressing for about 1/2 hour.
Serve topped with fried shallots.