Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kang Kong and local treats

The Foochows love kangkong which is also known as water convolvulus, Chinese Water Spinach, swamp Cabbage, or Kung Sing Chai.

It has been considered a saviour of many poor people in both China and South east Asia especially during the Japanese Occupation. It is grown wild in any watery places and is free for as long as people can remember. Another variety is easily grown in plots in any backyard garden. Some housewives even grow them in flower pots or any container up above in shop houses and their families have adequate vegetables every week.

Known as a hazardous weed in the United States, it is treated as a social enemy even and laws have been made to prevent it from being sold or grown in most states in the USA! It has been known to clog up waterways and lakes, hence its notoriety.

However, as a Sarawak born Chinese, I definitely find kang kong a wondrous life saver. Associated with kang kong are some family stories which I would share with you in this posting.

First of all, let me introduce kang kong as a botanical plant.

Its scientific name is Ipomea aquatica which is a member of the Convolvalaceae (morning glory) family. Ipomoea raptans is a similar although lesser known plant.

The plant's smooth-surfaced leaves are either arrowhead-shaped, 5-6 inches long, or relatively narrow and pointed. Two major cultivar forms are grown. These being: Ching quat, the narrow leaved form most often grown in moist soils and Pak Quat, the arrowhead shaped form usually grown in aquatic conditions.

The plant is an herbaceous perennial aquatic, semi-aquatic plant of the tropics and sub-tropics. Alternate branches and leaves arise at the leaf axils of the trailing vine-like stems. The stems being hollow are adapted for floating in aquatic environments. Adventitious roots readily develop at nodes when in contact with moist soil and water. The succulent foliage and stem tips are light green in color. Flowering is favored by short days with the development of white and light pink flowers. Purple flowers develop in wild forms of Ipomoea aquatic. To obtain seed harvesting of the plants is stopped to allow developing flowers to mature, from which seed bearing pods form.

Other names. Kankon (Japanese); ung choi (Cantonese Chinese); toongsin tsai (Mandarin Chinese); ong choy, ungtsai, tung choy (China); kang kong (Filipino, Malaysian); kang kung, rau muong (Vietnamese); pak bung (Thai).

Then I have this little interesting anecdote. The great Filipino historian Teodoro Agoncilo when a visiting Professor at the University of Malaysia said," When I see kang kong, I would have tears welling up my eyes. It kept my family and I alive during the Second World War." His little and humble statement at the beginning of his lecture made lessons from history all the more real to me especially. He had touched the affective part of my learning brain.

Nonetheless, my interest in kangkong never wanes as it too helped my family and I survive the worse patch of our lives when we had very little cash after my father passed away untimely.

My siblings and I would check out the river sides, the drains and the swampy rubber gardens for this marvellous vegetable. I remember we would be just so happy to have kang kong soup, fried kangkong, poached kangkong even if it was everyday!! I really appreciated my siblings for not being choosy in food. A feast was just steamed luncheon meat (topped with soya sauce,fried kangkong, and boiled salty peanuts. It is still a very great meal for me today besides reminding me how blessed we are just to be alive!!

Associated with free kangkong was our little rabbit enterprise in the back yard of our house in Jalan Brooke Drive which was formerly known as Tiong Kung Ping Road. Free kang kong from the streams became an important commodity for us. We would pluck the vegetable for the rabbits. When the rabbits were big enough for the table, we kids would run away and my mum would put a piece of ginger to smuffle the life out of the rabbit , after which she would skin the poor animal for cooking. We would peep from behind the cracks of the door, watching her cleaning the animal, feeling the pain of the hot water on the beautiful white fur. And then we would close our eyes when she cut open the belly and take out the insides. When the flesh was in the basin, ready for chopping into smaller pieces, we all felt that we had no more appetite for our good friend, the now dead rabbit.

Even though we were short of protein on the table, we found it very difficult to eat the rabbit meat. So I suppose that was the end of our rabbit rearing endeavour. We never thought of selling rabbit as table meat because it was then not a popular meat then.

We had a favourite street pedlar who sold rojak, chendol, ice balls, and kangkong and cuttlefish. He was Hokkien and he had a little bell to attract his customers. His whole kitchen was on four wheels, and rain or shine he would be peddling along all the roads in Sibu, selling everything up by perhaps three oclock in the afternoon. With his day's earning he would go home and prepare for the next day's
work. As a child I saw him every day of the week. As a self employed man, he did not take a rest on Sunday. Perhaps his only holiday was the Chinese New year.

I fondly remember his Yew Hoo Eng Chai or kangkong and cuttle fish salad, with chillied prawn sauce and how we had a more colourful childhood because he filled it with joy and cheer just by selling us those memorable rojak, chendol, ice balls and his specialty with a pinch of love and joy.

And in later years, I found out that there was even a man called a Kang Kong King in Kuching who used to sell more than 300 ringgit of kang kong a day to the various hawkers of the city. What an enterprise!! Another business man dealing with kang kong and cuttlefish was even slapped with a big tax bill!! So something that was considered free from the humble drain had a great deal of significance to a lot of us.

And finally, an interesting kangkong recipe : the famous Singapore's Loh Kai Yik Recipe

(Stew of Braised Chicken Wings in fermented soy bean sauce with kang kong)

Ingredients: Serves 8
4 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

8 cubes of nam yee (soy cheese)

4 tables tau cheow (brown soy bean paste)

1 kg (2 lb) belly pork (buy the five flowered pork, wu hua rou)

15 chicken wings

300 g (approximately 9 oz) pig's intestines, rub thoroughly with salt, washed (optional if you don't fancy them)

½ cup red or brown hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

100 g (approximately 3 oz) pig's skin, bristles removed

150 g (approximately 5 oz) pig's liver

4 processed ju her (cured cuttlefish)

20 taupok (fried cake toufu/tofu puffs)

400 g (12 oz) kangkong (water convolvulous), blanched, knotted into small bundles

½ teaspoon salt


Bottled chili garlic sauce or mix pounded fresh garlic with bottled sweet chili sauce (use the Thai variety),

light soy sauce and lime juice


Heat oil in a pot large enough for the stew. Sauté until fragrant but not browned, the garlic, shallots, nam yee and taucheow. Brown the pork, chicken wings and intestines in this mixture. Add water to cover, flavor with hoisin sauce and sugar. Bring to the boil. Skim surface of soup scum, turn down fire to simmer and add the whole piece of pig's skin, liver, ju her )cuttle fish) and taupok(fired cake toufu). Leave to cook until tender and remove ingredients from the pot. Taste stew to adjust seasoning. Add the kangkong to warm and remove. To serve, slice meats and cut ju her (cuttlefish) and taupok (fried cake toufu) into bite-sized pieces. Place on a bed of kangkong and ladle over the gravy. Serve with white rice and chili sauce on the side.

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