In a cuisine not known for its prominent use of vegetables, there are few other Malaysian vegetable dishes that are so revered and cherished as this classic Nyonya dish! In fact, ask any Malaysian’s what their favourite vegetable dish is and most would probably lick their lips and tell you that it’s sambal kangkong! Made with lots of chillies, dried shrimps and a good dollop of belacan, this dish is as fragrant as it is hot and is not for the fainthearted or the nasally sensitive!
Sambal kangkong is a dish that has always reminded me of home – its heady fragrance and robust flavours are irrepressibly Malaysian and just the thought of it makes my mouth water in anticipation! Indeed, this is a dish that elicits passionate cravings in many of my fellow countrymen, myself included. Since leaving Malaysia, I’ve been slightly obsessed with recreating sambal kangkong, but it has always been a dish that was out of reach for the simple reason that I couldn’t source the key ingredient – kangkong. Also known as water spinach, water morning glory or water convolvulus, kangkong is readily available throughout South East Asia where it grows within the local waterways with an almost weed-like voracity. In spite of its endemic abundance regionally, it remains stubbornly difficult to find in the rest of the world. Whilst you can make a similar dish with green beans, sadly it is a poor substitute and there really isn’t any alternative vegetable that comes close to replacing kangkong.
Like all Malaysian expats, when I first moved to Cape Town I had a mental list of all the food items that I prayed would eventually find their way onto the local shelves. Mostly made up of Asian staples and childhood favourites, the list was extensive and largely amounted to wishful thinking! I’m happy to report, however, that over the years I have managed to find almost everything on that list, kangkong included! Along with finding IndoMee and Lingham’s Chilli Sauce in Cape Town, I was delighted to be able to cross this exotic leafy green off my list!
Now I just need to find petai locally and I’ll be, culinarily speaking, complete.
As with most other Asian cuisines, it is virtually impossible to find a definitive recipe for any Malaysian dish and sambal kangkong is no different. Generally speaking most sambal kangkong recipes list the same basic ingredients, but in varying quantities. How much you decide to use of any particular item is entirely down to your own preference and tolerances, so feel free to play around with the quantities.
Sambal Kangkong: Serves 2 as a side dish
- 250g kangkong
- 2 tbsp. dried shrimps
- 2 dried chillies
- 2 red chillies, seeded and chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 1 to 2 tsp. belacan (shrimp paste)
- 2 tbsp. oil
- 1/3 cup water
- A pinch of salt and ground white pepper
- Using a small pair of scissors, split the dried chillies in half lengthways and remove the seeds
- Soak the dried shrimps and chillies in some hot water till soft
- Cut the kangkong into 10cm lengths, disregarding any woody ends. Wash the kangkong thoroughly to remove any grit
- Drain the dried shrimps and chillies. Roughly chop the dried chillies
- In a pestle and mortar (or a mini-food processor) add the shrimps, dried chillies, fresh chillies, garlic and shallot. Grind until you have a fine paste. Decant the paste into a bowl and mix in the belacan
- Heat the oil in a wok over a medium heat
- Add the paste and fry vigorously for a couple of minutes until fragrant, making sure not to burn the paste
- Add the washed kangkong and stir-fry for another couple of minutes
- Increase the heat and add the water. Continue to stir-fry for another minute, or until the kangkong wilts and the sauce starts to look glossy
- Sparingly add a dash of salt and ground white pepper
- Serve immediately