Easy Water Spinach 空心菜 (Kangkung)

Easy Water Spinach

All things are difficult before they are easy. ~  Thomas Fuller

Here is recipe that starts easy and stays easy. It will make a cook out of anyone. It’s that easy.

Water spinach is more closely related to the sweet potato than to spinach as we know it in western countries. It is also called water morning glory, water convolvulus in English-language recipes. In Singapore where a multitude of dialects reign along with its four national languages, trying to buy this in the market means you will know it’s also called kongxincai 空心菜 in Mandarin, eng chai in Teochew and Hokkien dialects, ong choy 蕹菜 in Cantonese dialect, kangkung in Malay and Indonesian. The name in Chinese means ’empty heart’ or ’empty centre’, on account on its hollow stems. They grow extremely well in water. In fact, I’ve heard it described as ‘vampires’ sucking up so much water that even nearby weeds starve to oblivion. Any plant that can conquer weeds has my respect. Yessir.


Water spinach grows easily with little care in tropical climates. Based on stories from parents and grandparents, it was relatively abundant during the war. Even after World War II ended in South-East Asia, water spinach continued to be cheap and plentiful, often referred to as ‘poor man’s food’. One of favourite preparations is with belachan, a Malay recipe. I can smell it even now…


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Be sure to wash it thoroughly before cooking as debris, soil, tiny worms and grit can get trapped in the hollow stems. Shake out as much of the water as possible before cooking. A salad spinner helps.


Easy Water Spinach
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Sides
Cuisine: Chinese
Serves: 4
  • 1 large bunch of water spinach 空心菜
  • 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 2" ginger, julienned
  • 1 cup water or chicken stock
  • 2 tsp Chinese cooking wine
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  1. Wash spinach thoroughly to get rid of debris. Pluck leaves with some stem attached from the main stem.
  2. Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a wok or pan till smoking hot.
  3. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry till garlic just turns golden.
  4. Add spinach, keeping heat high. Use spatula to loosen the spinach as they tend to clump together.
  5. When spinach are halfway wilted, add wine and cook for another minute. The alcohol will have evaporated by the time we are finished while enhancing the flavour of the vegetables.
  6. Add liquid (water or chicken stock). Cook for another minute. Spinach should be bright green and wilted.
Watch thoroughly before cooking. The hollow stems trap debris and grit.

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