Having finally vanquished my giant work project, I decided this weekend it was time to spend some quality time in the kitchen. I’ve been exploring Malaysian and Indonesian food recently, and one inspiring source has been James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor, which is one of those rare cookbooks you can read for pleasure as well as cook from. It’s not just a list of recipes but a real education in the foodways and culinary techniques of the Southeast Asian Spice Islands. I played around with a few dishes this weekend but my favourite was a variant of the cooked vegetable salad urap.

I might have mentioned my love of chilies. Asian spicy salads are probably my favourite thing to cook because the flavours stay bright and separate, and the textures of different vegetables (and sometimes meats) contrast in the mouth. Thai pomelo and chicken salad, Vietnamese grilled beef and lime, and Indonesian gado-gado are some of my longstanding favourites. These salads are main dishes not sides, and once you have a sense of some of the basic structures, you can easily branch out and create new variants.

This recipe is for a slightly simplified version of urap, which you can make with more or less any vegetables you have available seasonally. Dark greens like spinach would be a nice addition, but I went for red cabbage for colour contrast. In some versions of this dish, the coconut is cooked with a spice paste to give a rich, toasty flavour that can also include shallots and shrimp paste. Made that way, you get more of a sambal quality, but I wanted to keep the lightness of the lime flavour and fresh veggies.

Urap (Indonesian vegetable coconut salad)

This salad is properly made with fresh coconut, which does make a big difference to both taste and texture, but I find grinding up coconuts not to be conducive to everyday cooking if you don’t have company coming. It’s a different dish with desiccated coconut, but still a delicious one. You could up the sugar levels to compensate, but I have instead made the whole thing less sweet to create a more lime and chile oriented dish.

  • 5 or 6 lime leaves
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 4 long red chilies, roughly chopped (Holland or similar, not small Thai ones but not so big as to be overly mild either)
  • 4cm chunk of fresh turmeric, chopped
  • 4cm chunk of ginger, sliced in thin matchsticks
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 4 tbsp lime juice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup desiccated coconut
  • 1 cup (or more) breansprouts
  • a big handful of green beans
  • 1-2 cups of red cabbage, shredded
  • 1/2 cucumber, in matchsticks
  • a big handful of Thai basil

To make the dressing, first cut out the centre strip from the lime leaves then slice them finely. Put them in a mini-prep food processor with the garlic, ginger, turmeric, chilies, palm sugar and lime juice and blend till smooth. Put in a bowl and add coconut and salt to taste. (Be careful with the salt: you might need less than you think.)

Now blanch the veggies: set a pot of water to a rolling boil, and throw in the beansprouts first. Blanch for just a few seconds, scoop them out and drain under cold water. Blanch the green beans for a couple of minutes at most and drain the same way. Then do the cabbage for about 30 seconds to a minute. If you use other vegetables, blanch for as short a time as seems reasonable. Once they’re all drained and cooled, dry them off gently with paper towels (or a clean teatowel if you’re feeling green) and put in a big bowl with the cucumber and Thai basil.

Now mix in the dressing, which will be fairly thick. Taste for salt and lime juice and serve immediately. (Actually, I’ve been eating it happily for a day or so – it’s probably not optimal but it’s still pretty darn good.) You could eat urap on its own with just steamed rice, but here I’ve paired it with a lamb and coconut milk curry. It would also be nice with a homemade sambal belacan, to add some of those funky shrimpy notes in contrast to the freshness of the vegetables.

Recipe adapted from James Oseland’s Cradle of Flavor.