Water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica)

Water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica)
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Ipomoea aquatica is a semi-aquatic tropical plant grown as a leaf vegetable. Its precise natural distribution is unknown due to extensive cultivation, with the species found throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world.

Common names include water spinach, swamp cabbage, water convolvulus, water morning-glory, kangkung (Indonesian, Malay), kangkong (Tagalog), tangkong (Cebuano), kang kung (Sinhalese), trawkoon ( Khmer: ត្រកូន), pak boong (in Thai: ผักบุ้ง) (Thai), rau muống (Vietnamese), kongxincai (Chinese: 空心菜; pinyin: kōngxīncài; literally “hollow heart vegetable”), home sum choy ( Hakka), and ong choy or tung choi (Cantonese pronunciation of 蕹菜, ngônkcôi; pinyin: wéngcài).

Ipomoea aquatica grows in water or on moist soil. Its stems are 2-3 m or more long, hollow, allowing them to float, and these root at the nodes. The leaves vary from sagittate (typical) to lanceolate, 5-15 cm long and 2-8 cm broad. The flowers are trumpet-shaped, 3-5 cm diameter, usually white in colour.

It is most commonly grown in East and Southeast Asia. Because it flourishes naturally in waterways and does not require much if any care, it is used extensively in Malay and Chinese cuisine, especially in rural or kampung (village) areas. It is not to be mistaken with watercress, which often grows in similar situations.

It has also been introduced to United States of America where its high growth rate caused it to become an environmental problem, especially in Florida and Texas. It has been officially designated by the USDA as a “noxious weed.” Despite this ominous label, the plant is not in any way harmful when consumed (“noxious” is, in this context, a legal term denoting the plant’s harmfulness to native plants). In fact, the plant is similar to spinach in its nutritional benefits.

The vegetable is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian dishes. In Singapore, Indonesia and Penang, the leaves are usually stir fried with both Malay and Chinese seasonings, including chile peppers, garlic, ginger, dried shrimp paste (belacan) and other spices. In Penang and Ipoh, it is cooked with cuttlefish and a sweet and spicy sauce. During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War II, the vegetable grew remarkably well and easily in many areas, and become a popular wartime crop.