Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

A significant part of Malay culinary tradition is “ulam,” which refers to wild or cultivated vegetables that are eaten raw or briefly blanched as an accompaniment to the rest of the dishes of a meal. Almost any vegetable can be used as an ulam as long as it is edible raw. An extension of the ulam concept is “kerabu,” which is basically the Malay word for “salad.” The aforementioned ulam are combined and dressed with sambal (usually sambal belacan, which includes shrimp paste along with red chiles and lime juice) and toasted grated coconut, and then perked up with lime juice to make a fresh and spicy salad. Kerabu can be seen as one part of a larger vegetable-focused theme across Southeast Asia, from the fresh som tam, or “pounded salads,” of Thailand to the cooked urap salads of Indonesia, all of them no doubt influencing each other in taste and texture.

Serious Eats /Michelle Yip

Much like Western-style salads, kerabu tends to be based on a star ingredient. While you can find kerabu featuring meat like beef lungs, chicken feet, or jellyfish throughout Malaysia, it’s much more common to see kerabu based on vegetables, both raw and blanched. Multiple vegetables are sometimes found in one kerabu, but it’s more common for each kerabu to feature a single main ingredient. Popular choices for the main component of vegetable kerabu include crunchy green pods like long beans, green beans, or, my personal favorite, winged beans (kacang botor). Leafy vegetables are common, too, particularly hardy and mild-flavored greens like water celery (daun selom or, in Korean, minari, as featured in the eponymous 2020 film) or edible varieties of pennywort. These leafy greens tend to be wild weeds, gathered as part of a delicious, cheap, and nutritious meal.

An important ingredient in kerabu is kerisik, or toasted grated coconut; it adds a smoky-sweet flavor and pleasant chew to the salad. To make it, you dry-fry the coconut in a pan for roughly an hour until it reaches the desired level of toastiness: Blond kerisik is the shade a piece of lightly toasted bread and retains some fresh coconut flavor; dark kerisik is more deeply smoky and caramelized. While fresh grated coconut is preferable, as it has more of its flavorful essential oils intact, I’ve discovered in the process of developing this recipe that using shelf-stable desiccated coconut can cut the cooking time for kerisik by half. That, plus the availability of desiccated coconut over fresh grated coconut, makes it a worthy option.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Blonde kerisik is faster to make and plays well with leafy versions of kerabu. When kerisik gets to a very dark stage, it’s dried out enough that it can last for up to a month in the fridge. Folks usually make kerisik like this in bulk, so it’s ready to add to kerabu, gulai, rendang, and other dishes that benefit from a smoky coconutty hit. In a well-stocked Malay kitchen, sambal belacan and kerisik are almost always on hand in the fridge. This means that kerabu can be pulled together in as little as 10 minutes, making it an easy weeknight win.

A new favorite dinner party idea of mine is to set up a kerabu bar, where guests can choose what goes into their individual kerabu. I like to set out different fresh and blanched greens, along with kerisik and sambal belacan, plus a mixing bowl at the table for folks to mix their individual kerabu. Fried or grilled proteins like fish and tofu are great to serve with the kerabu, as is a pot of cooked rice to eat with it.

For the Kerisik: In a dry skillet or wok, add the grated or desiccated coconut and set over medium heat. Toast coconut, stirring continuously, until it reaches the desired color, anywhere between light tan to chocolate brown; it will take between 40-60 minutes to toast fresh grated coconut, or 10-40 minutes for desiccated coconut. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. If making a darker kerisik: Transfer the cooled toasted coconut to a mortar and pestle, spice grinder, or food processor, and pound or process until it becomes a powder.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

For the Kerabu: Heartier vegetables like beans or water celery are best if blanched, while leafy vegetables are often better left raw. If blanching the vegetables: In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups (1 quart/1L) water to a boil over high heat. Add chopped vegetables and cook until crisp-tender, about 30 seconds (time will vary depending on the vegetable being cooked). Strain vegetables and set aside to cool.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

In a large mixing bowl, add the vegetables (blanched or raw), sliced shallots, sambal belacan, lime juice, and 1 tablespoon kerisik and stir to combine. Taste for balance: It should have the crunch of the vegetables, the astringency of the shallots, the spice and savoriness of the sambal belacan, the smoky sweetness of the kerisik, and the bright acidity of the lime. Add more sambal belacan, kerisik, or lime if needed and mix well. Serve.

Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Special Equipment

Mortar and pestle or spice grinder or food processor 

Notes

Water celery or minari is available at Korean marts. Fresh grated coconut and winged bean (also called goa bean) can be found in specialty Asian markets. Desiccated coconut is usually available at baking supply stores.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Dark toasted kerisik can last up to a month in the fridge if stored carefully. It also freezes well for up to 6 months. Prepared kerabu, depending on the vegetable used, can last up to 2 days in the fridge.

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