Cilantro Substitute : Kesum

My search for cilantro substitutes, which gave me my first introduction to papalo, also introduced me to another herb called Rau ram (1) and, although this herb was found in Teubners book (2) as a potential substitute for cilantro, its flavour was simply too different and I have never really used it (either in cooking or medicinally). I have grown it though. I do have a tendency to grow plants that interest me so that I can develop a relationship with them. You can learn a lot from a plant simply by spending time with it as it grows.

  1. Vietnamese mint
  2. See Post Ayauhtona. Another Poreleaf?

Rau ram has recently interjected itself into my life again and it bears a deeper look.

I found this pamphlet being used as a bookmark in a random book I was looking through in a Second Hand store.

The pamphlet had a section with images of unusual ingredients with their Malaysian names and their English translations.

This is a delightfully sour curry flavoured with tamarind, turmeric and lemongrass and is very similar to a Sri Lankan fish curry I demonstrated in my Nutritional Recipes lectures (1). Then I hit a snag in the fish head curry. 1 bunch kesum leaves? Kesum was not in the list of ingredients so I was at a bit of a loss. I searched my library and could find no mention of this herb in any of my books (which, quite frankly is a little unusual)So, off to Google I go.

  1. I have included this recipe at the bottom of this Post. Later on in this Post there is also a recipe for a gotu kola (herb) salad. This goes very well with the fish curry and is part of the same series of Nutritional Recipes lectures.

Some of my better reference materials when it comes to Asian herbs.

Back to the question at hand.

¿Qué es kesum?

Daun (1) Kesum

  1. daun = leaf

Persicaria minor – Other names for this herb include Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese cilantro, Cambodian mint, hot mint, laksa leaf, and Praew leaf.

Ahhh. Rau ram. I know this herb.

This herb then led me to a Malaysian recipe Nasi Ulam (nasi = rice, ulam = assorted herbs or vegetables). This is an arroz verde of sorts. It is a little unusual in that it is served cold. The rice is allowed to cool before a blend of finely sliced aromatic herbs is mixed into it and the dish is served like a salad (of sorts)

Nasi Ulam

Ingredients (serves 4 – 6)

  • 1½ cups jasmine rice
  • a few pandan leaves (tied into a knot)
  • handful of dried shrimp (optional – hey this is an Asian dish after all)
  • 2/3 cup grated fresh coconut (substitute with dried shredded coconut IF YOU REALLY MUST)
  • splash of oil
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, finely sliced then minced
  • 8 kaffir lime leaves, central ribs cut out, stacked, rolled together and sliced very finely
  • Fresh herbs (**See NOTES*** below) – a generous handful of at least 2 varieties, finely sliced
  • 1 red shallot (or more to taste), cut into fine slivers
  • juice of ½ lime, or more to taste
  • 1½ teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt


Fresh herbs used might include coriander (cilantro), Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, (regular) mint, lemongrass, daun kaduk, pegagan, kemangi, lemon basil, more difficult to obtain leaves such as betel leaves, turmeric leaves, torch ginger flower, and (of course) kesum. For some of the stranger names see the images and identifications below.


  1. Cook the rice as you normally would, and leave it to cool down to room temperature. Cook your rice for the dish with a knotted pandan leaf added to the pot/rice cooker. Discard the leaf once the rice is cooked.
  2. Finely shred (julienne) the herbs one variety at a time (with a very sharp knife – some of the more delicate herbs might bruise and blacken if not cut with a sharp knife). Remove the outer leaves of the lemongrass stalk and finely mince the white core. Mix your herbs into your cooked and cooled rice. Mixing the herbs into hot rice is not a good idea as it blackens the herbs. The herbs (including the kaffir lime and lemongrass) are not cooked, but finely shredded and mixed through cooled rice.
  3. Meanwhile (if you are going to use them), soak the dried shrimp in hot water for 30 minutes. Drain the shrimp and rinse them, then chop up roughly.
  4. Heat a dry frying pan over low–medium heat and add the coconut, moving it around constantly until nicely golden. Tip into a large bowl.
  5. Return the pan to the heat and add a small splash of oil. Add the shrimp pieces and stir-fry for a minute or so until golden.
  6. Add to the bowl with the toasted coconut. Allow to cool a little and add to the herbed rice. Toss well. Season with salt or lime juice if required

Grilled chicken or fish are ideal accompaniments. In Malaysia it is often served with fried chicken and a sambal. This rice would be perfect picnic (or taquiza) food. Serve with sambal tumis.

Sambal tumis.


  • 30g dried red chillies – washed and soaked until soft
  •  2 tablespoons belachan/ shrimp paste (this too is strongly flavoured – like the dried shrimp in the recipe above. Do not leave the belachan out of your sambal as it will change the entire nature of the dish)
  • 300 g red onions – roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons tamarind puree
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup oil


  1.  Blend chillies, chopped onion and ½ cup of oil into a smooth paste.
  2. Heat wok (or use a wide based pan if you haven’t a wok) and add ¼ cup of oil.
  3. Add the chilli paste into the wok.
  4.  Bring the heat up to a quick ‘boil’, then lower heat to a simmer.
  5. Add salt, tamarind paste and belachan
  6. Gently stir and cook on medium heat until oil splits
  7. Remove from heat and stir in sugar

The Herbs

Pegagan – Gotu kola – Centella asiatica

Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) (1) is a plant from Apiaceae family native to the tropical regions of Southeast Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia as well as South Africa and Madagascar. It is a valuable medicinal plant which has been cultivated successfully due to its medical importance, and it has a long history of utilization in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Most gotu kola is consumed fresh as a vegetable.

  1. Synonyms. Centella coriacea Nannfd., Hydrocotyle asiatica L., Hydrocotyle lunata Lam., and Trisanthus cochinchinensis Lour.

Gotu Kola Salad

The gotu kola leaves are slightly (and only slightly) bitter. The bitterness is foiled well by the fresh coconut and the tart lime juice/palm sugar dressing. The green chile adds a nice warming edge to the dish.


  • 300g gotu kola
  • 10 green onions – finely chopped
  • 2 green chiles – seeds and stems removed and finely sliced (julienned if you can)
  • 60 g freshly grated coconut (Do not use dried shredded coconut. Frozen fresh coconut is acceptable)
  • 4 Tblsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp palm sugar
  • Salt to taste


  1. Wash gotu kola well and strip leaves from the stems. Finely shred with a sharp knife
  2. Combine with rest of ingredients and serve immediately
I like this brand. Check your local Indian or Sri Lankan grocer and see what they’ve got

Kemangi – Lemon Basil – Ocimum × africanum (1). Lemon basil is a popular herb in Arabic, Indonesian, Philippines, Lao, Malay, Persian and Thai cuisine. Lemon basil is the only basil used much in Indonesian cuisine, where it is called kemangi. The seeds resemble chia seeds after they have been soaked in water and are used in sweet desserts.

  1. Ocimum ×citriodorum. While the exact origins of the variety are unknown, experts believe the cultivar is a hybrid between American basil, Ocimum americanum, and sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum. It is however also said “to be native to Asia and northeast Africa and has been used for ages” and “is believed to be native to India and has been growing wild since ancient times.” So your guess is as good as mine.
The differences between “lemon” basil (daun kemangi) and “Thai” basil (daun selasih – which is anise flavoured).

Ulam raja – Cosmos caudatus (1). I find this one to be quite exciting as it is from the Americas and it has given me another culinary/medicinal plant to acquaint myself with. It’s really quite like falling in love. Native to tropical America, it was brought by the Spanish to Southern Philippines. Upon seeing these white rajas eating this salad (ulam), the natives called it Ulam Raja (King’s salad)

  1. Synonyms: Bidens artemisiifolia subsp. caudata (Kunth) Kuntze, Bidens berteriana Spreng., Bidens carnea Heer, Bidens caudata (Kunth) Sch.Bip., Cosmea caudata (Kunth) Spreng., Cosmos caudatus var. caudatus, Cosmos caudatus var. exaristatus Sherff.

Cosmos caudatus is an annual plant in the genus Cosmos which bears purple, pink, or white ray florets (flowers). It is native to Latin America (from Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil to Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico), and the West Indies, though it has naturalized in tropical parts of Asia, Africa, and Australia. Cosmos caudatus is edible and its common names include kenikir (Indonesia) or ulam raja. In Indonesian cuisine and Malaysian cuisine the “flavorful (sic), pungent, and nutritious edible” leaves of this plant are used for salad.

I will dedicate a Post to this herb in the near futrure.

Daun kaduk – Piper sarmentosum. A relative of Hoja santa (1) which is also used for its edible leaves. You are probably more familiar with daun kaduk under its name “Betel leaf” (2)

  1. Piper auritum
  2. although technically Betel (as in the betel leaf used for paan or betel nut) is Piper betle
P.sarmentosum leaves.

According to Nasi Lemak Lover this is how to differentiate the two.

  • Daun Kaduk- Shape-round, shinning, soft and smooth surface , taste a bit lemony then followed by bitter taste, but surprised after cooked, it taste so nice. (sic)
  • Daun Sirih- Shape-same shape like daun Kaduk but longer, dull and a bit rough surface, taste mint aroma, followed by bitter and hot, numb the tongue.
Paan is an Indian mouth sweetener, freshener, and digestive made from betel leaves. This is at my local Indian grocer.

Bunga kantan – Etlingera elatior (1). Torch ginger. These flower buds have a floral ginger-like scent (as the name suggests) and taste sweet and sour with hints of tart citrus flavours. They are used as cut flowers and have medicinal usage. It is an important ingredient used to enhance the flavours of many Malay, Nyonya, Indonesia and Thai dishes such as Laksa, Assam Laksa, Nasi Kerabu and (of course) nasi ulam.

  1. also known as torch ginger, ginger flower, red ginger lily, torch lily, wild ginger, combrang, bunga kantan, Philippine wax flower.
You can also use the dried flower.
Simply Soak in warm water and let re-hydrate.
You can then use it in cooking, salads or even to make refreshing pink drink.

Torch Ginger Cordial


  • 4 young torch ginger flowers (with the stems), bruised and chopped (or use 25g of the dried flower)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1.5 cups (400ml) water


  1. Combine sugar and water. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
  2. Add the torch ginger flowers to water (in a pan) and over a medium heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture comes to a boil.
  3. After it has boiled, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Allow to cool, strain out the flowers and bottle your cordial

Daun kunyit

Turmeric is a flowering plant, Curcuma longa, of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, the rhizomes of which are used in cooking. Although the turmeric plant is widely known for its edible roots, all parts of the plant including the leaves and flowers can be consumed. Turmeric leaves are commonly used in curries, soups, chutneys, or can be pickled. They are also used as a wrapper for steamed dishes. Turmeric leaves are used extensively in Indian Ayurvedic practices with many ancient cultural and medicinal uses.


Pandanus amaryllifolius is a tropical plant in the Pandanus (screwpine) genus, and is commonly called pandan. It has fragrant leaves which are used widely for flavouring in the cuisines of South and South eastern Asian cuisines. The taste of pandan has been described as floral, sweet, grassy, as well as like vanilla. A restaurant I once worked at used to steam their white rice with coconut milk and a knotted pandan leaf. This gave the rice an ethereal and elusive flavour that intrigued those not familiar with pandan.

In Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, it is commonly called pandan or pandan wangi (fragrant pandan). The green juice acquired from its leaf is used extensively in Malaysian cuisine and Indonesian cuisine as green food colouring and flavouring agents that gave pleasant aroma for kue, a tapioca, flour or glutinous rice-based traditional cake. A tied knot of bruised pandan leaf is also added into fragrant coconut rice to enhance the aroma.

Seri Muka is a Malaysian dessert consisting of two layers.
The custard layer is infused with pandan and sits on a coconut milk glutinous rice base.
It is also a popular dessert in Indonesia.
Seri Muka means a smooth and beautiful face.

Kaffir lime

Citrus hystrix, called the kaffir lime or makrut lime, is a citrus fruit native to tropical Southeast Asia. Its fruit and leaves are used in Southeast Asian cuisine. Kaffir limes are known more for their leaves while regular (western) limes are used more for their zest and juice. The skin of the kaffir limes is warty and the fruit doesn’t give a lot of juice. On the other hand, regular western limes are often smooth skinned and usually contain more juice. The limes themselves are used predominately in Thai, Lao and Cambodian cuisine in soups, curry pastes and stir fries. While less common, the zest and rind of kaffir limes are used in some Southeastern Asian dishes and in Cambodia, they candy the entire fruit to enjoy as a treat.

How to choose a good kaffir lime leaf. You want the ones on the right.

Serai (Cymbopogon species)

Lemongrass is one of approximately 55 other species of grasses in the Poaceae family of grasses. Of these multiple varieties, the two most popular ones are Cymbopogon citratus and Cymbopogon flexuosus. East-Indian lemongrass (C. flexuosus) (also known as cochin or Malabar grass) is native to India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, while West-Indian lemongrass (C. citratus), is of a Malaysian origin and is more typically used for cooking. When crushed, the fragrance is unmistakeably lemonish.

In East India and Sri Lanka, Lemongrass was historically used to make soups, curries, and a local drink called “fever tea,” which was intended to treat not only fevers but also diarrhea, irregular menstruation, stomach aches and skin infections. In China, it had similar uses. Today, it continues to be used in Cuba and the Caribbean to reduce blood pressure and to assist with digestion.

As promised………

Fish Curry


  • 1 kg mackerel – cut into 2 to 3 cm thick slices
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ cup tamarind paste soaked in 1 cup warm water
  • ¼ cup coconut oil
  • 2 large onions – chopped
  • 8 tomatoes – quartered
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 green chile – seeds and stem removed and chopped
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup fresh or dried shredded coconut
  • 1 eggplant – cut into 1 cm cubes


  1. Rub turmeric into fish pieces
  2. Soak tamarind for 15 minutes, remove the pulp and pour liquid over the fish. Marinate for 10 – 15 minutes
  3. Heat oil in a large pan. Add onions and fry until they wilt (1-2 minutes)
  4. Add tomatoes, coriander, cumin and chile. Fry for 1-2 minutes. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes
  5. Add water and stir in coconut.
  6. Add eggplant and cook, covered, for 10 – 12 minutes
  7. Add fish and cook, covered, for 3-5 minutes. Take care not to overcook fish
  8. Add salt to taste


  • Bodeker G (2009). Health and Beauty from the Rainforest: Malaysian Traditions of Ramuan. Kuala Lumpur: Didier Millet. ISBN 978-981-4217-91-0.
  • Cheng, Shi Hui & Mohd Yusof, Barakatun Nisak & Anthony, Joseph & Ismail, Amin. (2015). Potential medicinal benefits of Cosmos caudatus (Ulam Raja): A scoping review. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. 20. 1000. 10.4103/1735-1995.172796.
  • Hassan WE (2006). Healing Herbs of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Federal Land Development Agency. ISBN 978-983-99544-2-5.
  • Ibrahim, Maizatul & Ghazali, Nor. (2018). Phytochemical and pharmacological profile of Kaduk (Piper sarmentosum Roxb.). Malayan Nature Journal
  • Kunth, K.S., 1818. Cosmos.Nova Genera et Species Plantarum, 4folio ed. [ed. by Bonpland, A.J.A., Humboldt, F.W.H.A. von].
  • Melchert, T.E., 1968. Systematic studies in the Coreopsidinae: cytotaxonomy of Mexican and Guatemalan Cosmos.Amer. J. Bot., 55(3) 345-353.
  • Orhan IE. Centella asiatica (L.) Urban: From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine with Neuroprotective Potential. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:946259. doi: 10.1155/2012/946259. Epub 2012 May 14. PMID: 22666298; PMCID: PMC3359802
  • Sherff, E.E., 1932. Revision of the genus Cosmos (Family Compositae).Field Museum of Natural History, Botany, 8399-488.
  • Sherff, Earl Edward, (1964). Some New Or Otherwise Noteworthy Coreopsidinae (Compositae) from Mexico. Brittonia, 16(1), 58–73. doi:10.2307/2805184Sousa Sánchez M, Cabrera Cano EF (1983). “Flora de Quintana Roo”. Listados Florísticos de México. 2: 1–100.
  • Sprengel, C.P.J., 1826. Systema Vegetabilium, editio decima sexta.
  • Teubner, Christian; Witzigmann, Eckart; Schonfeldt, Sybil; Gerhardt, Ulric & Ruhlemann, Daniel. (1997) The Herbs and Spices Cookbook: How to Make the Best of Herbs and Spices in Your Cooking : ‎ Penguin Books; 1St Edition (January 1, 1997) ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0670871056
  • Yusoff, Nor Asma Husna & Ahamad Bustamam, Muhammad & Abas, Faridah & Khatib, Alfi & Rukayadi, Yaya. (2014). Antimicrobial activity of Cosmos caudatus extract against foodborne pathogens. Journal of Pure and Applied Microbiology. 8. 3681-3688.

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