My Leafy Green Vegetable of Choice

Ever since I was young, whenever my mother asked me what vegetable I'd like for dinner, my answer 99% of the time was "chao ong choy", the idiomatic Cantonese term for stir-fried water spinach. (In non-idiomatic Mandarin it's 炒空心菜 cǎo kòng xīn cài.) I don't know what made me love it from an early age on, but it always tasted meatier than other stir-fried greens. Maybe because the hollowness of the stalks - hence the "kòng xīn", which means "empty center" - cradled whatever seasonings or sauce it was cooked with. Many many years later I still love water spinach, although I now dabble in other greens from time to time.

Chinese water spinach is usually in season during the summer, but here in Zhongshan, where warm whether stretches well into October, I can enjoy my leafy green for a bit longer.

My mother's recipe for stir-fried water spinach is simple and hasn't changed much since my days of single-veggie-fanaticism. Most Cantonese restaurants and other people's mothers will make a very similar version of this dish, which is why, apart from using old stalks or over-cooking, it's hard to make a bad plate of water spinach.

Recipe after the jump.

Stir-fried Water Spinach

1 bunch of fresh water spinach, washed
15 mL (1 tablespoon) peanut oil
3-5 cloves smashed garlic
120 mL (1/2 cup) of water
1 dash chicken essence
1 dash chili sesame oil*
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat peanut oil in a wok or large skillet over high head. Toss in smashed garlic. When you smell the first hints of garlic, or when the garlic begins to brown, throw in water spinach. Watch as the large bunch wilts and shrinks more, more, more. Pour in water and cover with lid for 1 minute for stalks to steam through. Add chicken essence, chili sesame oil, salt and pepper. Toss with a spatula or a flick of the wrist. Take water spinach off stove, serve hot with your other mains and sides.

*Soy sauce or hoisin sauce can also be used instead