Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Water Spinach – The Revolutionary Vegetable

I knew this lowly vegetable had arrived a few years back when a white gentleman, who shared a table with me at a San Francisco Thai noodle shop, commented how much he liked the crunchy “cilantro” in his beef stew noodle soup.
“What cilantro?” I asked.
“This,” as he held them up with his chopsticks.
“Oh, you mean water spinach.”
“Water what?”
Milder & Crunchier White Stem Variety 
Water spinach – a member of the Morning Glory family – is also known as swamp cabbage in the Philippines, trokuon in Cambodia, phak bung in Thailand or pak bong in Laos, respectively, kangkong to all the Malays of Southeast Asia, kolmi in South Asia, especially Bangladesh, ung tsoi or ong choi to Chinese speakers and, finally rau muống to this Vietnamese's ears.  

As the name implies, it grows in freshwater lakes, ponds and on river banks everywhere throughout Southeast Asia and Southern China. It earns the name cabbage because it is the leafy green that is good for you, as good as cabbage, but cheaper or free. Even though there are now two different cultivars – white and green stem – that are widely grown on dry land, because of its humble beginning in stagnant water, some people still look down on this heroic herbaceous perennial aquatic plant as peasant food worthy only for the pigs and ducks, which it is often used as feed. The wild variety, which is much darker in color, has a somewhat harsher flavor and tougher bite. 

Harvesting wild water spinach in the Mekong Delta.
(Photo: Tuoi Tre Online)

A heroic plant? You ask. Yes, this lowly vegetable played a very important role in Viet Nam’s fight for independence beginning in 1935.
At Viet Nam’s very first Communist Party Congress, known as the Indochinese Communist Party at the time, which was held in Macau in 1935, as delegates settled in and began their assembly, it was discovered that the man in charge of food and lodging had disappeared with the cash.
The resources required to bring delegates to Macao, especially for a group that was operating in clandestine, did not leave much for lodging and food. So, as the story goes, water spinach soup and dried fish were served at the first Indochinese Communist Party Congress.
Fast forward 30 years later, once again the lowly swamp cabbage played its part in many war stories and memoirs by north Viet Nam’s soldiers, as well as their southern comrades. The most often told stories related to the famous Ho Chi Minh trail.
Ho Chi Minh Trail 
(Photo: Viet Nam National Military History Museum)
The trail, the unofficial north-south thoroughfare, which was not much more than a footpath in some areas, served as THE logistical and supply line for North Viet Nam as its troops pushed southward. It was heavily bombed by the U.S. Air Force, day and night. In fact, during the Viet Nam War, many of the cutely-named bombing runs were targeting the trail, hoping to disrupt the north’s southward march. 

The bombs left their marks all along the trail in the form of craters. It did not take long for mother nature to reclaim her now defiled body. Rainwater soon filled the craters.

Bomb Craters
(Photo: Viet Nam National Military History Museum)
The soldiers began to put fish in there and, you got it, dropped in a few stalks of water spinach for good measure. There were no PXes or mess halls along the Ho Chi Minh trail, but plenty of fish and water spinach that did not require shipping or refrigeration. They also developed a self-regulating system, taking turns to stock and restock these craters so that there was always a ready supply when needed for the next group of soldiers – market fresh. Where-ever the trail left the jungle and the soldiers had no access to nearby craters, both the fish and water spinach were dried for the road.

Uncle Ho tending his water spinach patch.
(Photo: Ho Chi Minh Museum)
So as you can see, the lowly water spinach did indeed play a heroic role in Viet Nam’s struggle for liberation and independence.
Here in Northern California, until a few years ago, water spinach was a luxury item, available only in the summer months. Like many other Asian vegetables, due to the explosive demands from the rapidly-growing Asian immigrant populations, it now can be found year-round, albeit a bit more expensive during the winter months.

Many farmers in California’s Central Valley now grow Asian vegetables in green houses year-round and the Mexican state of Baja California, which borders California, of course, has become the major grower and supplier for almost all of the Asian supermarkets in California, from Orange County to San Jose.

On a recent drive down to Ensenada along Highway 1, I couldn’t help but noticing the familiar vegetable farms dotting the landscape.
Green stem variety, which is now available year round
in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The best way to eat water spinach is a quick stir-fry, with nothing but vegetable or canola oil, garlic, coarse black pepper and a few dashes of fish sauce, of course. Like its name-sake cousin, 2 minutes in a hot wok or frying pan is all it needs. It loses its crunchiness if overcooked. Since it is a utilitarian vegetable of peasant roots, it can be cooked and served in many different ways: salad, soup or just quick-steamed.
For fancy get-ups, my favorites are ones prepared in Malaysian style, especially the one with dried shrimp paste and chili pepper (Serrano is fine) -- kangkung belacan.
Kangkung Belecan
I’ve ordered a few packets of seeds, both white and green stem, from an online seed store and plan to grow them in my little plot since I eat so much it. I can hardly wait for the night-time temperatures to rise a bit more so I can begin the planting.