Learn To Cook Water Spinach Chinese Style

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Water spinach is the quintessential Southeast Asian vegetable. Learn how to cook it with these tips and recipes here

It has more names than almost any other tropical vegetable: ong choy, kang kong, water convolvulus, water morning glory, and swamp cabbage. In mandarin, it is known as 空心菜 (kong xin cai).

It grows easily even under difficult conditions. It is cheap and is widely used in Southeast Asian cuisine. It can be seen in humble home-cooked dishes as well as in high class restaurant fare. It is related to the morning glory which is a very common wild plant with purple, pink or white flowers. I used to see these purple flowers growing on fences. My parents told me that they can be eaten but we have never tried it.

Chinese Water Morning Glory

Fresh bunches of water spinach

Kang Kong has long hollow stems. Leaves are long and pointed. The stems are crunchy and the leaves are mild tasting. It is rich in iron and vitamin A. It lacks the bitterness of other iron-rich greens such as the spinach which is why it is so popular. It is quite good for people with diabetes, and high cholesterol but not so great for people with low blood pressure and weak digestive systems.

Cleaning and Preparation

They are usually sold in bundles with the roots already removed. Like the normal spinach, it shrinks significantly when cooked so don't worry if you think you got a big bunch. 

I was taught by granny to take each plant and pinch the stems into roughly 2-inch pieces starting from the top. The lower ends of the stems are quite tough and fibrous so they are mostly discarded. I like to make sure that there are 2-4 leaves on each piece. The faster way is of course to use a knife. Trim off the ends and the more fibrous stems. Then cut into 2 or 2.5 inch pieces. 

Soak them in a big tub to loosen any dirt or soil on the stems and leaves. Throw any wilted leaves away. 

Cooking with Water Spinach

1. Add to soups

Water spinach is great in quick boiled soups. Clean and prepare as mentioned. Add them to the soup in the final stages and cook till the vegetables are done. Do not overcook as they turn an unattractive dull yellow or grey if simmered for too long. 

Actually, you can add them to any clear soups, quick or slow cooked. Just add them last and cook till done. It is a great way to add bulk, fibre and micro-nutrients to your food. 

Mie Kangkung

Noodle with water morning glory veggy.

2. Add to salads

The leaves are mild tasting and the stems are crunchy so they are quite suitable in salads. Blanch them quickly and drain before use. 

There is a popular local salad known as "Sotong Kang Kong" featuring fresh cuttlefish, blanched leaves and a spicy sweet dark sauce and coarsely ground peanuts

Sotong Kang Kong

A plate of Sotong Kang Kong. You can't see the kang kong at the bottom, but it is there. 

3. In Stir-fries

This leafy vegetable is also great in quick stir fries. Fry it simply with garlic and shallots for a clean taste. But this usually isn't enough for the Southeast Asian palate. Too plain. It goes exceptionally well with strongly flavoured condiments.

For example, sambal balachan. This is a fairly fishy fermented prawn paste friend with ground chilli. Fry this with water spinach and you get "Sambal Kang Kong or 马来风光" (ma lai feng guang). I dare say this is a ubiquitous dish in any coffee shop. There is a really great recipe over at the Meatmen's.  

bali hai kang kong

A plate of sambal Kang Kong with shrimps and chili

Another classic condiment is white fermented bean curd 腐乳 (fu ru). This is very salty and tart. The bulk of the vegetable seems to take away the sharpness and tartness of the fermented bean curd leaving a nicely balanced and nuanced dish. Here's the recipe. 

Recipe 1. Stir-fried water spinach with fermented tofu

Fermented tofu is commonly served as a side dish for plain white rice congee. It can also be used as an ingredient to flavour vegetable dishes. There are basically 2 types: red and white although there can be some variations depending on the ingredients added during the fermenting process. The white one typically has a milder flavour.

This bottle of fermented tofu contains sesame seed oil.

Ingredients

  • 200g water spinach
  • 2 pieces of white fermented tofu 腐乳 (furu)
  • 1 tsp chopped garlic
  • 4 small red chillies

Seasonings

  • 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp water

Directions

  1. Cut the water spinach into small sections. I usually use my hands to pinch sections off. Start from the top and pinch a section of stem containing a few leaves and keep going until only the stalk is left. Discard the stalks
  2. Wash thoroughly and drain in a colander
  3. Slice the chillies, remove the seeds and cut into small pieces,
  4. Heat 1 tbsp cooking oil in a wok and gently fry the garlic, fermented tofu and chillies until fragrant
  5. Add the vegetables and seasonings and stir fry quickly until well combined. I would do a taste test first before adding the soy sauce. Depending on the saltiness of the fermented tofu used, it could already be sufficiently salty without the soy sauce.
  6. Plate and serve hot with steamed rice

Here is one without any bizarre or exotic ingredients. Just plain ground pork, garlic and red chillies. 

Recipe 2: Kang Kong with ground pork

Ingredients

  • 250g water spinach
  • 150g ground pork
  • 5 small red chillies
  • 1 tsp chopped garlic
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 tbsp shaoxing 绍兴 wine
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch solution
  • Cooking oil

Seasonings

  • 1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar

Directions

  1. Remove the roots of the water spinach and cut into finger-length sections
  2. Wash thoroughly and drain dry
  3. Wash the chillies and slice thinly with seeds removed
  4. Slice the shallot thinly
  5. Mix 2 tbsp cornstarch powder with 2 tbsp water
  6. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add some sugar and cooking oil into the water
  7. Blanch the water spinach for a few minutes
  8. Remove and drain well
  9. Arrange the water spinach on the serving plate
  10. Heat 2 tbsp cooking oil in a wok, and fry the shallots until crispy
  11. Remove from oil and keep aside
  12. Add the chopped garlic, ground pork and chillies and fry till the mix is fragrant
  13. Mix the ingredients of the seasonings together and add to the wok
  14. Stir fry to mix and add the cornstarch solution and the shaoxing wine
  15. Remove the ground pork from the heat and spread it on top of the water spinach
  16. Sprinkle the deep fried shallot
  17. Serve hot with steamed rice

There you are, all I know about water spinach. I hope you will give this Southeast Asian vegetable a go with the recipes and tips featured here. 

Happy Souping, Phoebe