Stir-Fried Water Spinach, Nyonya Style

This image courtesy of Christopher Hirsheimer

Water spinach, a hollow-stemmed green with a rich, almost nutty taste, is called kankung in Malaysia and Indonesia (and the Philippines, too). I urge you to familiarize yourself with it. I have liked its pleasing crispness ever since I first encountered it in a stir-fry like this one, a Nyonya classic. Sautéed with a flavoring paste of chiles, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste, it personifies the Nyonya way with vegetables. The tart tamarind serves as a counterpoint to the sweetness of the soybean paste, while the salty shrimp paste constasts with (and ultimately deepens) the taste of the water spinach. The result is an irresistibly lovely tangle of green and red. Water spinach is ubiquitous in the Malay Archipalageo. Many cooks don’t even bother to buy it at the market. They just pluck it from the edges of rice paddies and roadside ditches, where it grows wild like the water-loving weed that it is. There are hundreds of varieties, but two are most commonly seen in markets in Asian and North America. The more typical is a deep green and has long, narrow leaves that extend from a thin, straw like center stem that’s slightly thinner than a pencil. The other is pale to lime green and has stubby, triangular leaves and slightly thicker (but still hollow) stems. The latter is grown directly in soil, rather than in swampy earth. Both varieties are comparable in texture and taste. Western spinach, which is similar in name only, doesn’t make a good substitute.

Makes4 servings

Cooking Methodstir-frying


Total Timeunder 1 hour

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Courseside dish, vegetable

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, lactose-free

Equipmentfood processor, wok


Taste and Texturecrisp, salty, sweet, tart

Type of Dishvegetable


  • 1 teaspoon tamarind pulp, plus 3 tablespoons very warm water to make extract
  • 1 medium-sized bunch water spinach (about 13 ounces/370 grams)
  • ½ teaspoon dried shrimp paste
  • 3 shallots (about 2 ½ ounces/70 grams total), coarsely chopped
  • 1 to 3 fresh red Holland chiles or other fresh long, red chiles such as Fresno or cayenne, stemmed and coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon sweet soybean paste
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • Kosher salt (optional)


  1. Place the tamarind pulp in a small nonreactive bowl and mix it with the warm water. Let the pulp rest until it softens, 10 to 15 minutes. Squeeze and massage the softened pulp through your fingers, loosening the fruits’ auburn pulp from the shiny black seeds, brittle brown the skin shards, and sinewy bits of string. With your fingers, remove all the solid pieces from the liquid and discard them. All that will remain is a thick caramel-colored extract. Set the tamarind extract aside.

  2. Inspect the water spinach, discarding any yellowed or spoiled stems or leaves. Trim off the bottom ends (about 1 inch/2.5 centimeters) and discard. Wash the greens in several changes of the coldest possible water; tepid water will cause them to wilt, and you want them to stay as perky as possible before they’re cooked. Test the stems for toughness by biting into a few discard stems that are thickly and woodt. Cut the greens into 3-inch (7.5 centimeter) lengths. If any of the stems are thicker than 1/3 inch (9 millimeters), cut them in half lengthwise, or they’ll likely be took chewy when cooked. Dry the greens in a salad spinner or set them aside to dry on a kitchen towel or on paper towels. The leaves should be very dry. Damp leaves will result in a watery dish.

  3. To make the flavoring paste, place the shrimp paste in the center of a 5-inch (13-centimeters) square of aluminum foil. Fold the edges of the foil over to form a small parcel, and press down with the heel of your hand to flatten the shrimp paste into a disk ¼ inch (6 millimeters) thick. Heat a gas burner to medium-low or an electric burner to medium-high. Using a pair of tongs or 2 forks, place the sealed parcel directly on the heat source. Toast until the paste begins to smoke and release a burning, shrimpy smell, about 1 ½ minutes. With the tongs or forks, turn the parcel over and toast the other side for another 1 ½ minutes, then turn off the burner. Again using the tongs or forks, remove the parcel and let cool for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Carefully unwrap the foil; the edges of the disk should be black-brown and toasty and the center should be golden with some black-brown patches. Using a spoon, scrape the toasted shrimp paste into a small bowl and allow it to cool for another 30 seconds. Discard the foil.

  4. Place the toasted shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, chiles and sweet soybean paste in a small food processor. Pulse until you have a smooth paste the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes. If the paste will not puree properly and repeatedly creeps up the side of the processor instead of grinding, add up to 2 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon at a time, periodically turning the processor off and scraping the ungrounded portions down toward the blade.

  5. Heat the oil in a wok, 12-inch (30-centimeter) skillet, Dutch oven, or soup pot (any pot large and wide enough to hold the greens comfortably will do) over medium-low heat. Test to see if the oil is the right temperature by adding a pinch of the ground paste. The paste should sizzle slightly around the edges, not fry aggressively or sit motionless. When the oil is ready, add all the paste and sauté, reducing the heat s necessary to prevent scorching and stirring often, until the paste begins to separate from the oil, 5 to 7 minutes. The sugar in the sweet soybean paste makes this flavoring paste prone to burning. If you notice signs of over browning, remove the pan from the heat immediately, reduce the heat, and resume sautéing only after the pan has cooled down a bit.

  6. Add the water spinach, tamarind extract, and soy sauce. With a spatula or large spoon, stir until the water spinach is well combine with the flavoring paste. Raise the heat to medium-high and begin to stir-fry the water spinach vigorously around the pan until the greens just begin to go limp but the leaves are still spring green and the stems are still crunch crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste for salt, and add a pinch if needed. (The dried shrimp paste, sweet soybean paste, and soy sauce may provide enough saltiness.)

  7. Transfer the cooked greens to a large serving plate. Don’t put them in a small dish, which will concentrate their heat and may make them mushy. Eat immediately.


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