A leafy green plant (ipomoea reptans) that is native to Central and East Asia. It is used a vegetable in many Asian cuisines, but is particularly revered in China and Malaysia. It is also known as water convolvulus and somewhat less fortunately, swamp cabbage. The plant grows in swampy, brackish areas and will need a good wash once you get it home.
Water spinach has slender and pointy green leaves, which are just as delicate as spinach, but differs by possessing rather thick and hollow, round stems that provide a crunchy counterpoint once the vegetable is cooked.
The plant goes by many names, even in the west; so a few ethnic monikers may help in identifying water spinach. In China it is known as ong choy, kankon in Japan, kangkung in Malaysia, pak boong in Thailand and rau muong in Vietnam.
Water spinach is often included in soups, but it is in stir-fry where this fantastic vegetable really shines through. This is mostly due to the crunchy texture of the stems. It possesses a rather more forceful flavour than other popular Asian greens, such as bok choy and gai lan and as a result stands up well to strongly flavoured accompaniments.
The following Malaysian dish illustrates this perfectly. It contains belachan, which is a pungent dried shrimp paste not for the faint hearted, but when cooked mellows to a delightful savoury flavour that complements water spinach perfectly. I often cook this dish served with plain steamed jasmine rice for a simple, but soul enhancing meal.
Stir fried water spinach
1 bunch water spinach, well washed and chopped
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 hot red chilli (pepper), finely chopped
1 tsp belachan (dried shrimp paste, also known by the Thai kapi)
1/2 Tbs fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
Wrap your piece of belachan in a piece of kitchen foil and place in a medium (180 °C/360 °F) oven for 10 minutes. This little trick is supposed to mellow the flavour a little, but I suspect otherwise. In my experience, it mainly helps to break the shrimp paste up as you fry it.
If you can't find belachan, don't fall apart. Just double the amount of fish sauce instead.
Heat the oil in a wok to a high heat and add the garlic, chilli and belachan. Stir-fry for a few seconds, then add the water spinach. Mix well and add the fish sauce and sugar. Stir well to combine; the whole affair should be over in less than a minute.
Serve with freshly steamed jasmine rice.
Oh it’s good to have well traveled noders at your disposal. Anthropod tells me that water spinach is often cooked in Thailand in fearsomely hot woks, giving the dish the added title fie daeng, or red fire. This reminds me of nothing more than the Chinese phrase which escapes me now, but translates to the beautiful breath of the wok, meaning the delightfully charred flavour that you can only get from a really hot wok.