Morning glory or paak boong? It’s a splendid stir-fry no matter the name

The Guardian
23 Feb 2020
By Palisa Anderson
Stir-fried water spinach from Chat Thai.

Water spinach is known by many other names – and cooked lightly with a few additions, it always tastes as sweet

I used to dread every time my restaurateur and chef mum, Amy Chanta, would ask me to write up a new menu. Over the 30 years we’ve been operating, we’ve attempted so many styles of Thai menu writing.

First there was the old school: write everything in English and try to explain the ingredients and cooking method in thorough detail, then categorise the dishes into sections. But anyone familiar with Thai food will know that by the end of a 100-item menu, we may as well just print a novel. Back in the day, menu printing was based on word count and not size – a novel would’ve been cheaper.

Trying to write up a menu describing Thai food in the 1980s and 90s was excruciating. A Thai soup can be described as a curry, a salad, a stir-fry and so much more. Round hole, square peg.

When that didn’t work, we became more experimental and prefaced all the menu items with the English spelling of Thai words. This is where we ran into serious issues – ‘priks’ (chillies) and ‘fuks’ (all squashes) galore.

I was only 12, having to explain to diners what this all meant.

Enter morning glory. In Thai, it’s paak boong. Now it’s called water spinach, but back then it was always morning glory. I didn’t then know what that was slang for. It was usually the first thing I’d suggest to diners, especially vegetarians. It was one of my favourite dishes.

“What do you recommend to go with the Masaman curry, something green?”

“Well, I really like morning glory stir-fry with shrimp paste and garlic.”

Grown men with their wives and children would be giggling behind a menu. I still flush with embarrassment recalling these memories.

All convolvulus varieties are referred to as morning glory, not because they have a good time in the AM, but because their trumpet-shaped flowers herald the rise of the sun. They begin to furl their exit by dusk and then drop off completely.

Imagine your one moment of full glory literally being your time in the sun.

Two varieties have been a beloved staple of many Asian, African and Islander cuisine. One has a fat stem and usually grows wild alongside open waterways or is cultivated in ponds – these are tremendously popular for their long, fat, crunchy stems and squatter leaves.

The other thrives in moist, rich humus and is a deep, vibrant green with narrower stems and lengthy, arrow-shaped leaves. I prefer the latter and grow that on our farm – I like the underdog.

The ever lovely O’Tama Carey, of Lankan Filling Station, makes an addictive rendition of the ubiquitous morning glory stir-fry. The dish is available all over the Asian continent but her green vegetable mallung, made with water spinach, is a splendid Sri Lankan version. It has just three other ingredients: dry Maldive fish, garlic and green chilli. It’s deceptively simple, but with layers of complex flavours and textures.

Thank goodness in 2020 we have more extensive language around food. Either that or menus are no longer expected to be short novels and people have a more trusting attitude towards chefs. I sigh with relief when handed a menu with a total of 10 items, each with a maximum of ten words:

Chicken-butter leeks corn epazote coriander

The arrangement has absolutely no interest in abiding to any rules of grammar. It has given me much creative licence in describing our Thai-based menu at Chat Thai:

Water spinach, garlic, chilli, yellow bean sauce

Which of course now comes with pictures. Diners study the lovely glossy photos, point and order. It eliminates everyone’s anxieties.

Water Spinach Stir Fry

Serves 2

  • 2.5 tbs heaped rendered pork fat/lard/schmalz/macadamia oil
  • 5 small cloves organic garlic, soft skin left on, smacked with a cleaver or large knife until flattened but somewhat intact
  • 1 large bunch water spinach, washed, dried and cut into 10cm lengths
  • 1 long red chilli, sliced on the diagonal
  • 1 tbs yellow bean sauce/miso/black bean sauce – anything fermenty is good
  • 1 tbs brown rice vinegar or mirin
  • 1 tbs oyster sauce

Make a sauce of the last three ingredients by whisking into a bowl until well incorporated, set aside next to the stove.

Heat your wok on the highest heat element and, when the wok is very hot, add the fat.

When the fat starts to ripple – about 1-2 minutes – add in the garlic and chilli and allow them to brown but not burn.

Add the water spinach and the sauce. Turn off the heat and toss the vegetables around until most of them have been kissed by the heat. Plate up and eat immediately, with rice or not as you prefer.

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