Water spinach is one of our favorite vegetables. It is a popular vegetable to stir fry in Southern China and Southeast Asia. When quickly fried at high heat, its leaves wilt and the stems stay crunchy. Its flavor is like a cross between spinach and watercress.
This Vegetable grows in wet subtropical areas and has several names in English: water spinach, water convolvulus, Chinese watercress, and sometimes morning glory. In Chinese this is generally known as “empty heart vegetable” (kong xin cai 空心菜) or “open heart vegetable” (tong xin cai 通心菜), as in hollow stem. In Chinatown you might hear it referred to by the Cantonese name, Ong choi (蕹菜). In Philadelphia it is available year round, and can be found in two or three varieties: A green version like the one I’m using today, a pale green variety, and a variety with very thin stems can sometimes be found at Cambodian markets.
Seasonings for cooking this vegetable can be as simple as salt or soy sauce, but they often include a funky fermented paste of some sort, and a touch of sugar. In China and Taiwan, fermented tofu (doufu ru 豆腐乳) is often broken up and added to the this vegetable as it is quickly sauteed. The pairing may seem odd, but the pungent creamy tofu really pairs well with the grassy crunch of the vegetable.
Likewise in Indonesia and Malaysia, it is common to fry this (which they call kangkung) with fermented shrimp paste. See here for a Google image search of that dish kangkung belacan. That is a very similar flavor pairing to the pungent tofu (and to the bean paste version I’m making today).
This is also delicious in Southeast Asian soups and curries. For example, it is delicious in place of eggplant in a Cambodian sour beef soup that I posted on a few years ago.
I will prepare this today our favorite way… a typical Sino-Thai style with fermented soy bean paste, garlic, and chile. In Thailand this preparation is popularly called “red fire fried water spinach”, referring to how this is often prepared at street carts, starting with a big ignited flame in the wok as the pile of seasoned and sauces vegetable is thrown in–not recommended for home kitchen stoves with a low overhead.
Red fire-fried water spinach — ผัดผักบุ้งไฟแดง
Get yourself a nice bag of water spinach. Chinese markets tend to sell these in big quantities. I usually do a big wok full at a time (about 1/2 a bag) for a nice accompaniment to another stir fry and rice. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last as long in the refrigerator as most other long leaf greens (like Chinese broccoli, bok choy, yu choy, or kale), so you need to try to use it sooner than later. Trim wilted stem ends off of the bunch and remove any blackened slimy leaves, then wash well in a big bowl. Next, cut the vegetable up into about 2-3 inch long pieces (including the leaves). I usually wash them again at that stage and drain:
Finely chop 3-4 cloves of garlic, and slice a few chiles into large chunks (depending on how spicy you want to make it). Today’s chiles were relatively mild, I used some large red Korean chiles.
There are two ways to do this dish. Some people fry the vegetable in the garlic and chile and add sauces/seasonings one by one. Today I did the flash fry method where I added the seasonings right into the bowl of chopped vegetable and tossed it all in the hot pan at once. My seasonings were pretty standard: about 1 Tbsp Thai fermented bean sauce (here is a link to an image of the kind commonly available in Philly), 1 tsp oyster sauce, 1 tsp fish sauce, just a touch of sugar. I put those right onto the chopped vegetable in the bowl.
Start a large wok or pan on high or medium high heat. When the pan is ripping hot, add enough oil (1 Tbsp or more). Throw in the vegetable and sauces, chiles, and garlic into that hot pan, and stir constantly. Add a little water to keep the mix from burning. The vegetable will cook very fast, likely in about a minute or so. If you are unsure if it needs more salt, taste for seasoning and add a squirt of fish sauce or soy sauce if you need to. When all the leaves are wilted, turn off the heat and plate the vegetable. Enjoy.