See our cover story on water spinach and its cultivation locally in a Cambodian village near Rosharon.
Water spinach, sold in Asian markets, where it is called ong choy, is called rau muống in Vietnamese. It thrives in swampy, wet soil, where it grows like weeds, and is harvested by cutting at stalk. When I was a kid, we used to eat it every week, served with rice and a salty protein dish.
Fresh from the grocery store, water spinach comes in a long, leafy, bright green bunch, about 18-20 inches in length, and costs a bit less than $2 a pound.
In Houston, you can find water spinach stir-fried with garlic, or rau muống xào tỏi, at most Vietnamese family restaurants that serve a la carte dishes. In fact, if you ask for a vegetable recommendation at a Vietnamese restaurant, the server will probably recommend the water spinach -- it's that common. I've had it at most Vietnamese restaurants I frequent: Bodard Bistro, Thuan Kieu Com Tam and Que Huong, among others.
The best version of stir-fried water spinach I've found, however, happens to be at Rice Bowl II on their Indonesian menu. I think it's the use of belacan, or fermented shrimp paste, as a seasoning that gives the Rice Bowl version a depth of flavor that resonates on the palate. Every time I've had it, it's also been cooked to just the right temperature, leaving the stalks with a good, crisp bite that isn't too fibrous, and preserves the bright-green color of stalks (overcooking water spinach will turn it a brownish-olive dark-green color).
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SHOW ME HOW
For those of you who want to take a stab at making this dish at home, it's very easy and inexpensive. Just the other day, I brought home a bunch of water spinach so I could perfect the recipe, below. A large bunch was less than $3; I split the bunch in two and made the same dish over two days.
Recipe Stir Fried-Water Spinach with Garlic
- 1/2 or 1 bundle water spinach, or Ong Choy
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-3 tbsp fish sauce (use sparingly)
- 2-3 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
- pinch of salt and pepper, to taste
Directions: 1. Cut water spinach into 3-4-inch segments, discarding at least 2 inches of the lower end of the stalk. Wash water spinach thoroughly, rinsing at least twice to remove any remnants of dirt or sediment. Drain and set aside. 2. In a wok or large pan, heat oil and add minced garlic, stir-frying over medium-high heat to release the aromatics. Cook until golden brown. Remove half of the garlic and set aside, leaving some garlic in the pan. 3. In the same pan, add the water spinach, turning over to wilt the leaves. Sprinkle some salt to help release water, reduce heat and cover for 1-2 minutes, until water spinach is reduced. Add salted 1-2 tbsp fish sauce (optional) and/or salt and pepper according to taste. Mix until done. The stalks should still have a slight crisp when you bite into them, but should not be overly fibrous. 4. Plate, then garnish with fried garlic that was previously set aside.