Water Spinach: What It Is & How to Cook It: What It Is & How to Cook It – The Woks of Life

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Chinese water spinach, known in our family as “hollow vegetable,” is one of our favorite Asian leafy greens. We love ordering it at restaurants as well as making it at home. 

In this article, we’ll talk about what this vegetable is, different types, and how to prepare it! 

What is Water Spinach?

Water spinach is a long, leafy green vegetable with hollow stems that grows in water or damp soil. It goes by the name of ong choy in Cantonese or kōng xīn cài (空心菜) in Mandarin, which translates to “hollow heart vegetable.” 

In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is also known as kangkung. It’s known as phak bung in Thailand, rau muong in Vietnam, trokuon in Cambodia, and kangkong in the Philippines.

Despite its English name, water spinach is not really spinach, nor is it botanically related to it. It (ipomoea aquatica) is a member of the convolvulaceae (morning glory) family. Other English names for it include: swamp spinach, river spinach, and Chinese spinach.

Water spinach leaves

As a semi-aquatic tropical plant, it grows abundantly in natural waterways in Southeast Asia, where it is native. Here in the U.S., it is cultivated in California, Florida, Hawaii, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Fast Facts: The 2 Types of Water Spinach

1. Green Stem Water Spinach

The “green stem” variety has narrow leaves and as the name suggests, a more vibrant green color. It grows primarily in moist soil.

Hollow Stems of Green Stem Water Spinach

2. White Stem Water Spinach

The “white Stem” variety has arrow-shaped leaves, wider hollow stems, and a light green color. It primarily grows in water, similar to rice plants.

Hollow stems of white stem water spinach

Is One Better Than The Other?

In short, no. We buy both kinds—whichever looks fresher in the market is the standard we go by. Usually, the white stem kind is more tender than the green stem variety. They are both tasty, but when preparing green stem water spinach, just be sure to take more care when trimming, and discard the tougher portions of the stem.

Bunch of green stem water spinch
ABOVE: A bunch of green stem water spinach, with narrower leaves and thinner stalks.
Bunch of white stem water spinach
ABOVE: A bunch of white stem water spinach, with arrow-shaped leaves and thicker, light green stalks.

Is Water Spinach Invasive?

In its ideal natural environment of muddy, moist soil on the banks of waterways, water spinach grows aggressively and abundantly. In America, the Department of Agriculture has officially designated it a noxious weed, and heavily regulates its cultivation, requiring growers and sellers to have a noxious weed permit! 

While Florida in particular has been trying to eradicate it from its swampy environment to protect native plant species, for now, its cultivation and sale is still allowed in the U.S. We all just have to do our part to eat them up!

We have read that the plant can flourish in well-watered containers with lots of sun, which can be a great way to keep it in check if you’re thinking about cultivating your own. 

All you have to do is take some cuttings (make them about 6 inches long, just below a node), and root them in water. 

How to Prepare for Cooking

To prepare water spinach, you must wash it, trim it, and cut it down into manageable lengths.

You can eat both the leaves and stems. Surprisingly, even the hollow stems are quite tender. Just trim away the lower 1-2 inches of the stalk, which can be a little fibrous. 

If you see very young and tender water spinach in the market, just give it a quick rinse. Little trimming is needed since everything is tender and edible—a delight to prepare and eat!

After determining whether or not to trim it, cut the stalks into 3 inch lengths, including the stems. Soak in a large basin of cold water to remove sand and dirt (any grit will settle to the bottom of the basin). Change the water 3 times. 

Be sure to lift the vegetables out of the water each time, rather than pouring the vegetables into a colander, or you’ll just end up pouring all that sand back onto the vegetables.

Ingredients for kangkung belacan (shrimp paste), a popular Malaysian water spinach preparation.

How to Cook Water Spinach

There are many ways to cook this vegetable, but the most popular way is to stir-fry it in a searing hot wok.

Ong Choy (Water Spinach) in a hot wok

In Chinese cooking, there are three key preparations: 

  1. 清炒 (qīng chǎo): “clear stir-fry,” i.e. stir-fried with salt and a hint of garlic (and perhaps ginger) to highlight the natural sweetness of the vegetable, enhanced by pure wok hei flavor
  2. 蒜蓉 (suàn róng): “garlic” stir-fry, i.e. stir-fried with lots of garlic, to give the vegetables a garlicky kick
  3. 腐乳 (fǔrǔ): fermented tofu stir-fry. The fermented tofu has its own umami, wine-soaked flavor that compliments water spinach especially well.  

One of our other favorite preparations is kangkung belacan, or water spinach stir-fried with shrimp paste or belacan sauce. This Malaysian preparation is incredibly delicious, and again, water spinach is the perfect vegetable for it. 

Similarly, some restaurants in Hong Kong and southern China stir-fry water spinach with seafood-based ingredients like XO sauce or dried scallops. We have an XO Sauce recipe and an Ong Choy with XO Sauce recipe on our blog!

Ong Choy (Water Spinach) with XO sauce, by thewoksoflife.com
Ong Choy with XO Sauce

Buying and Storing 

You can find water spinach in large bunches in Chinese markets. Look for the long stalks—they can be as long as 18 inches! 

You may find the green stem variety, white stem variety, or both, usually neatly wrapped in plastic bags. Like any vegetable, prices vary depending on the season, though it is available year-round. 

Store it in the crisper section of the refrigerator, in the plastic bag it came in. It’s actually a relatively delicate vegetable, so cook within 1-2 days of purchase for best results, but no more than 4-5 days after purchase, depending on how fresh it was when you bought it. 

5 from 3 votes

How to Cook Water Spinach

Water spinach, known as ong choy in Cantonese or kōngxīn cài (空心菜) in Mandarin, is a hollow-stemmed leafy green vegetable native to Asia. Here’s how to prepare it.

by: Everyone



Bunch of green stem water spinch

serves: 4

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Total: 35 minutes

  • With the water spinach still bunched, trim away the lower 1-2 inches of the stalks, unless it is very young and tender. Cut the water spinach into 3 inch lengths, including the stems.

  • Soak the vegetables in a large basin of cold water to remove sand and dirt. Change the water 3 times, being sure to lift the vegetables out of the water each time to avoid agitating the grit that’s settled at the bottom of the basin. Drain thoroughly, shaking off any excess water. 

  • Prepare using your favorite recipe: Stir-fried Chinese Water Spinach or Stir-fried Ong Choy with XO Sauce

TheWoksofLife.com is written and produced for informational purposes only. While we do our best to provide nutritional information as a general guideline to our readers, we are not certified nutritionists, and the values provided should be considered estimates. Factors such as brands purchased, natural variations in fresh ingredients, etc. will change the nutritional information in any recipe. Various online calculators also provide different results, depending on their sources. To obtain accurate nutritional information for a recipe, use your preferred nutrition calculator to determine nutritional information with the actual ingredients and quantities used.

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