They’re vegetables from three distinct plants. Spinach is Spinacia oleracea, swamp / water spinach is Ipomoea aquatica, Malabar / vine spinach is Basella alba.
If the scientific names are too much information, let’s do it differently: Spinach is what Popeye ate, swamp / water spinach is kangkong or kangkung (also goes by the name morning glory) in Southeast Asia, and alugbati is the common name of Malabar / vine spinach.
When I was a kid, Popeye tried to share a secret but I didn’t listen. It wasn’t until I was an adult did I learn to love spinach. Not straight from the can like Popeye but with eggs, meat, chicken, fish, noodles and even tofu and other vegetables.
But the problem with spinach is how it can turn any dish rather soupy because of the amount of water it contains. What I do is to squeeze out the excess water.
First, I rinse the spinach very well to remove any sand embedded in the stalks and leaves.
Next I trim the spinach. I separate the leaves and tender stalks from the bigger stalks and discard the latter.
Then, I wilt the leaves. I do this either by (1) placing the spinach in a colander and pouring boiling water over them or (2) blanching the spinach for about 10 seconds.
Whichever procedure I do, I always refresh the spinach to stop the “cooking”. If I pour boiling over the leaves, I just turn on the tap to give them a cold water bath. If I blanch them, I strain them then dump them in a bowl of iced water.
After refreshing, I strain the spinach well and just squeeze the leaves to remove as much of the water as I can.
After that, I cut the spinach into whatever size I need for whatever dish I’m cooking. The spinach is now ready to go into the pan for fast cooking. With all the excess water gone, they won’t make salads nor stir fried dishes soupy.
Recipes with spinach:
- Spinach and cream cheese dumplings
- Spinach and Shiitake Oshitashi with Goma-ae (Roasted Sesame Dressing)
- Sauteed spinach with garlic and toasted sesame seeds
- Spinach and Cheese Lumpia (Spring Rolls)
- Fettuccine With Bacon and Creamy Spinach Sauce
Swamp / water spinach (kangkong, kang kong or kangkung)
For the longest time, I was under the impression that kangkong only grew in the Philippines and that only Filipinos eat it as a vegetable. Wrong impression.
If you Google “kang kong” (yes, two words) and “kangkung”, you’ll discover that it is just as ubiquitous all over Asian and in various Malayan cuisines, including Indonesian and Malaysian. In Thailand, it is called phak bung; it is rau muong in Vietnam; kolmishak in Bangladesh and the Chinese has many regional names for it.
Kangkong is a semiaquatic plant that grows in swamps. Hence, the name swamp or water spinach.
The shape of the leaves vary. Kangkong with arrow-head leaves is common in Chinese cooking. The kind with wider and somewhat heart-shaped leaves is what we have in the Philippines.
Both the hollow stalks and the leaves are edible although the stalks are tougher and take a bit longer to cook. For best results, here’s how to prepare kangkong for cooking.
First, cut off about two inches of the bottom portion of the stalks and discard. That part is fibrous and too tough to eat.
Second, separate the leaves from the stalks.
Third, cut the stalks into two to three portions.
Cook the lowermost portion first. Add the middle portion after the first batch has cooked for a few minutes. Throw in the upper portion of the stalks next. Cook for another few minutes before throwing in the leaves.
Cooking with kangkong:
- Roast Pork Belly With Water Spinach (Lechon con Kangkong)
- Sweet and tangy pork, water spinach (kangkong) and pineapple spring rolls
- Sinigang na Tiyan ng Salmon (Salmon Belly Sour Soup)
- Baked Spicy Chicken With Garlic Spinach
- Osso buco, Asian style
Malabar / vine spinach (alugbati)
My introduction to alugbati came late in life. I had heard of it, of course, but I don’t remember eating it as a child. Then, a few years ago, we spent a week at the hacienda of a law school classmate and one of the dishes served was a soup called laswa. A meatless soup with an assortment of vegetables that includes alugbati and saluyot.
I did not shy away from eating alugbati after that although I did not seek it out in particular. But when alugbati started growing in our garden, I found myself harvesting as much of the vegetable without killing the plants. Yes, I managed to cook my version of laswa.