I had the great pleasure of meeting the author of All Under Heaven, Carolyn Phillips, at a cookbook event in San Francisco more than a year ago. She told me that it took her 10 years to research the 500+ page cookbook that covers 35 cuisines of China.
Being a third generation Cantonese who grew up in Malaysia and now lives in the US, many of the recipes in this book speak directly to my culinary roots and allow me to recreate the taste of home. I think every Chinese food enthusiast should own a copy!
I picked this recipe because it's from the Guangdong region in China where my ancestors are from. This is also a vegetable dish my dad cooked a lot for the family when I was growing up in Malaysia. It uses humble ingredients but packs in big flavors thanks to the unique fermented bean curd that I promised to tell you about when I shared my simplified recipe for Buddha's Delight. This recipe also gives me the opportunity to talk about a vegetable that we cook a lot in Southeast Asia.
(You can read about other Asian greens and check out my Spring Discovery series for more veggie love!)
In Malaysia, we know water spinach as "ong choy" in Cantonese and "kangkung" in Malay. Some say it tastes like spinach but it has a different appearance recognisable by its hollow stems and thin, arrow-shaped leaves. Like spinach, the leaves cook rather quickly and reduce a lot in volume so don't be afraid to grab a big bunch. Do note that the stems are chewier and require a longer cooking time.
A fun fact I learned from Wendy Kiang-Spray, author of The Chinese Kitchen Garden, is that water spinach is illegal to grow in some states and has apparently been listed by the US Department of Agriculture as a federal noxious weed! No wonder it's not an easy vegetable to find. I've only ever seen it at my local Asian supermarket.
Fermented bean curd has that rich, pungent flavor often compared to cheese, which explains why it also goes by the moniker "Asian cheese". It is however not dairy and is completely vegan. As the name suggests, it's a soy product made by fermenting tofu cubes in brine. Depending on where it's made in China, it may also have rice wine and dried chilies.
Keeping to the region of this recipe, I picked a jar from Guangdong that lists water, soybeans, salt, edible alcohol, and salted chili as the ingredients. The cubes have a custardy texture like feta cheese and are very salty, so bear in mind that a little goes a long way. It creates a creamy, umami-strong sauce that stands up nicely to the "green" taste of the water spinach.
I enjoy being the person who brings the greenest dish to a potluck (have you see my green cake?). My Water Spinach with Bean Curd "Cheese" and Chilies (p210 of All Under Heaven) shared the table with another favorite childhood vegetable dish of mine, Napa Cabbage with Dried Shrimp (p36), which my husband David chose to make to gain a better understanding of dried fish. And I'm really glad he did.
Joseph made Sesame Noodles (p216) with the option of zucchini noodles (bless his heart!) and I swiftly fell in love with Chinese sesame paste, which reminded me of the tahini used in making hummus. Zacky made Uyghur Pilaf (p369), a hearty rice dish from his hometown of Xinjiang in Northwest China that has a Middle Eastern touch.
Water Spinach with Bean Curd "Cheese" and Chilies
Excerpted from All Under Heaven by Carolyn Phillips. Serves 6 to 8.
1-1/4 pounds water spinach (about 3 fistfuls)
2 to 3 cubes fermented bean curd "cheese", plus a few spoonfuls of the brine
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 thin slices fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 green jalapeno pepper, diced
Splash of rice wine
Sugar, light soy sauce, or more fermented bean curd "cheese", if needed
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1. Wash the water spinach carefully and trim off the ends, as well as any tough stems. Cut the bunch in half where the leaves start to grow more thickly.
2. Cut the bottom half of the stems into 2-inch pieces and put them into one pile; cut the leafy stalks into 2-inch pieces and set them in another pile. Place the bean curd "cheese," or doufuru, in a small bowl in the brine and mash it with a fork.
3. Heat the oil in a wok over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the ginger and quickly stir-fry it until it begins to brown. Add the jalapeno pepper and then the water spinach stems and toss them in the hot oil until they turn a brilliant green. Add the leafy stalks and stir-fry the leaves quickly until they barely wilt. Pour the mashed doufuru into the wok and use the rice wine to rinse out the bowl into the wok, as well. Quickly toss everything together and taste, adjusting the flavor with more doufuru or a dash of sugar or soy sauce if needed. Sprinkle the sesame oil over the water spinach and serve hot.