With over 20 years’ experience cooking genuine Peranakan dishes, Debbie Teoh has garnered herself a formidable name as a celebrity chef. But she has one more accolade up her sleeve: she has managed to transform her body and build up her muscles through the humble nasi ulam.
Being a chef and a mother of three, Teoh’s mealtimes are never on time. She rarely has proper breakfast and usually takes her dinner at 9pm.
The situation becomes more challenging when she travels to other countries for work. “No one cares whether you have jet lag or if you feel uncomfortable. The moment you touch down at the airport, shooting starts immediately,” says Teoh.
Shooting can last up to 18 hours and those giant woks can be extremely hefty. “That is why I have to eat. I have to be fit, and I believe in taking carbohydrates for energy.”
Unlike many fitness regimes which strongly oppose the intake of carbohydrates, Teoh does not avoid it. “Staying fit doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to forgo many things. I can’t just eat broccoli; it’s so bland,” says Teoh.
And after two months of consuming nasi ulam, her theory was proven right.
She used her knack in cooking to create her meals throughout her body transformation challenge, leading her to experiment with her own culture rather than use western methods. “I am not against western methods, but it has to be sustainable. We eat in ringgit and I need to put my three kids through school. No one can afford to eat salmon and avocado every day,” Teoh says.
This was where the idea of using nasi ulam as part of the fitness regime came in. Not only is it cheap, healthy and easy to prepare, the herb rice also provides the carbohydrates that Teoh needs.
“I am not a nutritionist. I am just a chef. If I can cook, that means I can create. I am my own guinea pig and relying on my instinct should work. Nasi ulam is all herbs, and is eaten raw. Our ancestors had known its health benefits long before the internet said that it is good for your health.”
Wanting more protein for her macronutrient needs, Teoh added ikan cencaru into her nasi ulam, and after adhering to her nasi ulam-ikan cencaru diet as her lunch and dinner for two months, her picture says it all – it works just the same as salmon and avocado.
“Our ancestors have been eating nasi ulam for generations. They were healthy because they worked a lot, and that meant the calories were burnt. It doesn’t matter whether I am taking in a high-carb diet because if I can burn the calories, I won’t gain weight – it’s that simple,” she says.
When asked whether nasi ulam as fitness food will help revive Peranakan culture, Teoh is uncertain. “People nowadays are put off when they see 20 ingredients listed for one recipe. I don’t feel surprised if people find prepping nasi ulam troublesome.”
She is frustrated because people do not understand that preparing genuine Peranakan food is a labour-intensive task that involves tedious steps and long cooking hours. “If you want to get three kuih for RM1, then what do you expect of the quality? The vendors have to use low-grade ingredients to fulfil the needs of both parties. What I am trying to show is that whether it is Peranakan or French cuisine, preparing a hearty meal is an onerous task. But for nasi ulam, all you need to do is slice the herbs and mix it with rice, and eat it. It’s not difficult, and it’s healthy.”
Whether nasi ulam will be a hit in the fitness industry remains to be seen, but for now, Teoh advises all to eat in moderation. “You can enjoy your meals and be fit at the same time. You can love Peranakan kuih, chicken rice or your chap fan, but don’t eat 10 pieces or five plates at one go. Watch your food intake and exercise more, and you can keep yourself balanced.”
Nasi Ulam Recipe
Herbs and ingredients used to make nasi ulam.
- 450g cooked rice
- 15g salted fish
- 40g (3 tbsp) dried prawns
- ½ tsp ground black/white pepper
- Salt to taste
- 3-5 ikan cencaru (torpedo scad/ hardtail scad)
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 tsp salt or to taste
- 125-150ml water or more
- 5 shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
- 2 stalks lemongrass, sliced thinly
- 3 stalks laksa leaves
- 3 stalks mint leaves
- 2 large fresh turmeric leaves, vein removed
- 8 kaffir lime leaves, vein removed
- 5-6 wild pepper leaves (daun kaduk)
- 3-4 cekur leaves
- 1 ginger flower (bunga kantan), sliced
- 20g fresh turmeric root, peeled and julienned
- 5-8 stalks pegaga leaves
- 1 stalk ulam raja leaf
- 2-5 stalks bird’s eye chili to taste
To prepare ikan cencaru
Remove the gills from the fish and wash the fish clean. Heat oil in a wok, add salt and once the wok is heated, add the fish. Pour sufficient water into the wok until water almost covers the fish.
Cover the wok with a lid and let the fish cook. Turn over once and wait till the water dries up. Test the fish by piercing it with a fork. The fish is cooked if it is fork-tender. Remove and set aside.
Wash the dried prawns in running tap water and discard any impurities.
In a clean wok, pan fry the dried prawns until aromatic and set aside.
You may fry the salted fish with some oil but if you would like a clean diet, you may omit frying in oil. You can just charcoal-grill the salted fish instead.
Using an electric blender, finely grind the salted fish and dried prawns. Set aside.
How to slice the fresh herbs:
Lay the largest leaf, e.g. the turmeric leaf, at the bottom of the chopping board.
Pile on the rest of the fresh herbs, removing all their stems and taking just the leaves, onto the turmeric leaf.
Roll the leaves up tightly like a cigar.
Using a sharp knife, thinly slice the herbs. Set aside.
Julienne the turmeric roots, and slice the rest of the shallots, garlic and bird’s eye chili.
To toss nasi ulam:
Place cooled rice in a large mixing bowl.
Add all the herbs, bird’s eye chili, ground dried prawns and salted fish to taste. Serve immediately.
Peter Soh has published his works in Eksentrika, Malaysian Indie Fiction, Ricepaper Magazine and Penang Monthly. One of his short stories was featured in the Emerging Malaysian Writers 2018 anthology.