Malaysians are doing amazing things for our country. And so are our expats, some of whom now call Malaysia their first home.Eric Olmedo, principal research fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), is establishing The Ulam School to create a new culture of eating. Why? Consuming more ulam will help curb obesity in Malaysia and alleviate the impact of noncommunicable diseases, he opines.

In Tapai: Travels & Guilty Pleasures of a Fermented Malaysian by Hishamuddin Rais, the flaneur and food lover insists that, “A Malay makan without ulam is just like the French having a meal without wine.” So it’s interesting that Frenchman Eric Olmedo is putting his backbone into reminding Malaysians of the importance of ulam in a balanced diet.

Why ulam? When it could have been lauk-pauk, kuih-muih, or other dishes particular to the Malay Peninsula?

“Sorry to be an alarmist,” says the affable sociologist. “But Malaysia, Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, Cambodia, are facing a public health crisis. In these three countries, which constitute my team’s fieldwork, the increasing prevalence of overweight and obese citizens from 1990 to 2013 has been staggering.”

Fat Nation

There is no sugarcoating the fact: Malaysia has reached the highest obesity prevalence in Southeast Asia. “Almost half the population is affected,” reveals Olmedo, quoting the Asian Development Bank Institute. “The exponential rise of urbanisation, sedentary lifestyles, and unhealthy eating habits have been recognised as the leading factors for obesity and its associated health complications.” It certainly doesn’t help that our country is awash with fast food chains.

“Furthermore, the high volume of imported low-nutrient vegetables has made  it expensive and logistically challenging to obtain healthy meals,” adds Olmedo, making a case for the locavore movement. “This is why we need ulam — to fight against imported macro greens with low nutrients. By the way, as you can guess, ulam is not specific to Malaysia. Vietnam has its rau thorn and Cambodia its chi, but they are all essentially the same.”

An Original Paleo Dish

When asked to put a timeline on the tradition of eating ulam, Olmedo draws upon his encyclopedic memory. “As far as raw ulam is concerned, it probably dates back to the first presence of hominidae in the Malay peninsula, as Man is notoriously omnivorous.”

And because food often speaks for a culture, our next question is: What does ulam say about Malaysia? “Well...” begins Olmedo’s faltering response. “All the ulam-ulaman actually tend to say ‘Goodbye,’ as the rate of urbanisation in Malaysia has reached 76 percent in 2018. If you take the remaining 24 percent, about 70 percent of this is overridden by palm oil plantations.” Such a pity, as according to science, ulam practically pulsates with health benefits. Perception is another hurdle to the preservation of ulam.

A sizable part of the upper middle classes in Malaysia view ulam as too kampung and beneath their social status.

Olmedo tut-tuts disapprovingly. “This has to change.”

The Ulam School

With Olmedo cutting the first turf, a team of academics and chefs are laying the groundwork for The Ulam School project. “I am in good company,” he says appreciatively. His comrades comprise the ‘ethnicity and food’ research cluster at KITA, colleagues from Sunway University and INTI International University & Colleges, members of the Asia Pacific Food Studies Network, and chefs “who have a true vision” such as Darren Teoh of Dewakan. Spanning over two years with fieldwork in three countries (Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam; notwithstanding conceptual research in Japan), the transnational project has a clear goal in sight.

Provided all goes as planned, The Ulam School will manifest as a physical and virtual school — within Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s research faclities inside the Langkawi UNESCO Global Geopark in 2020, but first on the World Wide Web (“because not everybody can visit Langkawi”). Complete with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), educational videos, and more, the cyber-school will be completely FOC.

Investing In Ideas

When an email from Olmedo drops into my inbox in November 2018, his excitement is palpable, even across cyberspace. Enclosed are photos of him among some 25 sharp-suited strangers, mostly Japanese, standing out with his shock of silver hair and a matching tie.

“Felicitations on being funded by The Toyota Foundation!” I gush. “How will the monetary assistance help bring The Ulam School to fruition?”

“Merci!” he replies. “The Toyota Foundation grant enables us to travel to meet the other teams in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as to collect plants and oral tradition from local farmers and ethnic minorities.” It is also thanks to the Toyota Foundation that the third Food & Society Conference taking place in Paris this March 2019 will receive partial funding.

But how can we, as individuals, aid The Ulam School’s research and outreach?

Playing Our Part

In Olmedo’s own words:

  • First, eat ulam: it does miracles for your body.
  • Second, if you happen to know about an overlooked plant or herb and its culinary usage or medicinal properties, contact Olmedo’s team at
  • Lastly, if you are planning to spend early spring holidays in Europe, do stop by at Sorbonne University for the third annual Food & Society Conference. This year's theme is “Indigeneity and Food.” You might learn something from food experts and scholars, all while enjoying side workshops and demos from three-Michelin star chefs and great Asian chefs. If nothing else, rest be assured that there will be good food and a chance to tour some amazing historical venues!



*On February 22nd 2019, the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia was awarded a UNESCO Chair on Social Practices in Intercultural Communication and Social Cohesion. Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin is the chair holder while Eric Olemdo assumes the role of chair manager. This marks a scientific chair first in Malaysia.

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.