On Friday, Lee and I went out to eat Malaysian food at Penang in Bethesda. Penang is actually a small chain, and I’ve eaten at their restaurants in Chicago and New York. One of my favorite Malaysian dishes, which I first sampled at Penang in Chicago, is hollow vegetable (also known as water convolvulus) stirfried with chilies and shrimp paste (kang kung blachan). After some coaxing, Lee agreed to forgo beef in favor of this unknown vegetable.
However, when we attempted to order it, the waiter informed us that they didn’t have any hollow vegetable. We would have been satisfied with that answer, but the waiter went on to explain that kang kung has actually been banned in the US, which is why they don’t serve it anymore. Banned?! How can this be??? We ordered the beef rendang instead, and it was good, but no substitute for my beloved hollow vegetable. After dinner, I hit up the Google to find out if our waiter had been telling us the truth.
Water convolvulus aka “Chinese water spinach”, kang kung or kongxincai 空心菜 (Chinese translation: “hollow heart vegetable”) is considers a “noxious weed” by the USDA. You can only import it into the US with a special permit. Because it grows in water, raw water convolvulus may also carry water-born parasites. Cooked, it is a completely safe, but apparently a noxious weed. The point is, this is very sad because hollow vegetable is delicious and one of my favorite Asian vegetables.
For those of you that have never had the pleasure of munching on hollow vegetable (and, at the rate things are going, apparently never will unless you leave the country), it has a uniquely squishy-chewy texture. The stems are slightly crunchy at the outset, but give way easily because there is nothing in the middle. (If too mature, the stems will be tough.) The delicate leaves are soft and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The flavor is a bit woody and slightly bitter, a little bit like spinach crossed with chives. When stir-fried, the oil and flavors coat both the exterior and interior of the vegetable, allowing for a slightly greasy burst of flavor in your mouth. With the rich salty tang from the preserved shrimp and the popping heat of the chilies, it is truly divine.
Since a trip to South East Asia isn’t really on the budget right now, I believe the next best thing is to head north. There must still be hollow vegetable on the North American continent. This summer, I will be going to Canada and ordering myself a giant platter of kang kung. And, if the Canadian waiter tells me that hollow vegetable is banned, I will probably cry into my plate.