Wow guests with this salad and irresistible tangy dip

The Malays have a healthy habit: they offer a plate of raw vegetables, or ulam, to accompany their fiery sambal sauces at meals.

I forgot about this habit, which the Peranakans also took up, until I ate at my sister-in-law's house the other night.

Her sister Catherine, a true nonya cook, served ikan masak assam, known as tamarind fish.

A simple but addictive dish, for it is tangy with tamarind, aromatic with turmeric and galangal, yet rich with the shrimp paste that also goes into the spice paste.

You just poach the fish in this spiced tamarind gravy, but the nonyas go one step further.

They may shred the fish found in the pot, add a dollop of sambal belacan, or chilli with shrimp paste, and eat this dip with raw vegetables or ulam on the side.

The ulam is interesting: Generally, it comprises raw cabbage, cucumber, green chilli and, importantly, three varieties of beans - long beans, winged beans and petai beans, also known as the stinky bean.

The beans make a lot of sense for they bring lots of fibre, vitamins and protein to the plate even if your meal is just rice and sambal.

The habit of offering ulam is also ideal for those following a paleolithic diet, where carbs are strictly prohibited and meals are restricted to protein and vegetables for health and weight control.

And to think this is an old-school dish that came about during a time when nutrition was not so well researched. Yet the older generations knew what was good for them.

All the vegetables bring their own nutritional value to the dish, but the beans are especially high in protein and fibre and low in fat.

They also have a low glycaemic index score, that is, they do not make your blood sugar levels shoot up.

The petai bean, in particular, is supposed to help with depression, premenstrual tension and, being high in potassium, also with high blood pressure.

As for the assam gravy, it is a classic recipe.

I have written about it before, but not as a dip teamed with ulam.

Masak assam is easy to turn out and highly versatile. It is also the gravy for the famed nonya dish, tamarind prawns with pineapple, as well as Penang laksa.

You merely process all the ingredients required and then boil it up with tamarind water.

The fish can be whichever variety you prefer, but I like mackerel as it is an oily fish with only a central bone, making it easier to shred.

You can also fry an egg to pop on top of the shredded fish and ladle lots of that aromatic gravy over it. This is an easy way to stretch the dish - one of the many good ideas learnt at my grandmother's knee.

Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous recipes for Eat To Live can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste.

This article was first published on Oct 23, 2014. Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to for more stories.