Kangkung as an excellent vegetable
Published on: Sunday, February 02, 2020
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A patch of aquatic kangkung taken up from a pond and adapting well as a terrestrial plant.
KANGKUNG? Never heard of the word? Impossible, unless you are talking to aliens or someone from the North Pole. The plant is so Malaysian that the humble name has even been invoked in political circles together with the holy name of the Almighty, in the hope of grabbing more support.

For the basic, ubiquitous kangkung, it is as Malaysian as nasi lemak, asam laksa or char koay teow.  The vegetable is high in nutritional value and comes endowed with various health-enhancing minerals and vitamins. When prepared and served in an unending number of ways, it becomes so mouth-watering that it is capable of eliciting hidden roars and rumbles in the belly.  

A good cook is normally able to serve up a strong, overpowering and pungent aroma within the vicinity long before the dish reaches the table and be wolfed down.

This brings to mind the popular Malaysian dish of kangkung stir-fried with belacan, garlic and a blisteringly hot dose of chilli padi.  I can assure you that despite the scorching fire on your tongue, you will still be downing the delicious vegetable until the last scrap is wiped clean off the plate, to be followed by expectations for another plateful.  

This is the power of a very kampung type of vegetable that has been uplifted and elevated to a whole new level that is much sung in praise and exaltation.

That is the awesome popularity of such simple plants.  Apart from the kangkung, there are also many other truly local kampung vegetables and dishes that are always in demand, including pakis, lambiding, pucuk ubi, losun, hinava, tuhau, ambuyat, pinasakan, bosou, butod, etc.  All these simple stuffs are usually consumed by Sabahans with gusto and glee in much the same way that chilli is a necessity on the table. 

It is amazing that simple plants and items that are often overlooked by city folks, can be turned into such delectable and delicious dishes. It is therefore not surprising that there are repeat visitors to Sabah who always insist on certain particular dishes based on locally sourced materials as they are deemed to be natural foods. Interestingly, such foods are regularly consumed by people from all segments of society.

Sabah is therefore not only The Land Below The Wind, but should also be known as The Land Of Natural Foods.

The kangkung, or water convolvulus, is also known as water spinach, but in local dialect, it is called ongg choi (Cantonese) or eng chai (Hokkien).  The plant may bear white, pinkish or white tinged with purple in the middle.  

Virtually everyone from all communities recognise the vegetable and consume them in great quantities.  It is cultivated mainly as a quick-growing, fresh and excellent source of green vegetable to meet an ever increasing demand and to supply a growing garden market. Its cultivation can either be soil or water-based which makes it even easier to have fresh and clean kangkung.

For the big growers, the quantity of rejects that have been selected out, are considered as a low quality vegetable, and these are usually collected by truckers who then deliver them either to their own farms or to other farms for a fee.  

Rejects can sometimes be quite substantial especially if the quality is substandard, and as such, they are repurposed and reused as animal feed on terrestrial or aquatic situations.  The end result is that there is zero wastage, and everybody gets to amble leisurely and smiling all the way to the bank.


A bed of kangkung grown on soil. 


Cheap and easy to grow kangkung

Unlike most other vegetables, the cultivation of kangkung requires nothing very special by way of inputs especially if it is done simply in the backyard or in containers. For instance, one does not need to master any deep knowledge or learn special skills about growing the vegetable before one embarks on such an undertaking.  

Other inputs such as fertilisers, manures, chemicals, tools, machineries, may or may not be necessary depending on the way the planting is carried out.

In terrestrial cultivation, a little more work is necessary such as in the preparation of the soil in the planting bed or containers. There are soils for sale that are already prepared and mixed with some organic matter or manure and such soils, if they are from a fertile source, should be a good planting medium that needs little or no back-breaking work.  

Your friendly but honest garden supplier may be able to give you a good deal, but beware of the unscrupulous ones who may supply you with bags of semi-hardened mud as their main aim is to be able to grab some quick bucks.


As usual, planting beds that are expected to produce home-growns may be of any size.  There is no hard and fast rule about this as the most important thing is that there is no stress or torn muscles.  

Just go ahead as long as it suits your convenience as well as fit into the narrow confines of the backyard.  Fortunately, the cultivation of kangkungs do not require deep pockets as the cost of the few small inputs is quite negligible.

To start from scratch, seeds are necessary if you want to grow the soil-based kangkung. These can be bought cheaply with a small packet being able to fill several planting beds with seedlings.  In this case, direct sowing is usually practiced, with the seeds being dribbled into shallow lines worked into the surface of the planting beds with a piece of bamboo.

 Poking holes into the soil with fingers is not recommended because they are usually too thick, fat and stubby to do a neat job.  

The best way is to use a piece of twig or sharpened bamboo to prepare the planting line.  Even an expired ballpen would do just fine.  Just make sure the depth of the line is about 1 cm with rows that are about 10-15 cm apart.  After sowing, lightly brush the surface so that the lines are covered with some soil.  The entire bed is then watered with a fine rose so that it is well wetted but without run-offs.

Surprisingly, germination is rather rapid, as most of the seeds should crack through the surface within four to seven days. Oversown beds should be thinned as the plants grow taller, and plants are very tender if they are about 20cm in height.  

They should not be wasted as they are perfect for the preparation of an early dish for everyone at home.  Such an early harvest may be continued for a couple of times until the final harvest which leaves nothing on the ground.


Kangkung stems running all over the place.


Aquatic kangkung is much easier

The kind of kangkung that is easiest to grow is the so-called aquatic kind that is opposed to the terrestrial kangkung that is grown on soil beds or pots.  Aquatic kangkungs generally have broader leaves, and they may survive and flourish on virtually any medium including water or soil. 

Like all kangkungs, they have long, jointed and hollow stems which allow them to stay afloat irrespective of whether they are in deep or shallow waters.  Stagnant ponds of water or slow flowing streams, rarely-maintained storm water retention ponds, waterways and drainage channels, among others, are favourite spots for aquatic kangkungs.  

Under such wet conditions, they proliferate very quickly, often in competition with other aquatic plants such as water hyacinths or Pistia stratiotes (Water Cabbage), and within a short period of time, entire surfaces of such spots very quickly becomes covered with a thick layer of the aquatic plants.  

This may impede the flow of water, and may result in water levels rising faster than normal. If the pond happens to be a sump for the pooling of organic waste matters, that is all the better for such aquatic plants as they will have a great time fattening up themselves for an ever discerning market.

If there is no pond or stream for you to use, it doesn’t matter as any piece of soggy ground is still usable. Just scatter some sections of unwanted kangkung over such areas and then tamp them down with your feet until they are in contact with the soil or water.  

Such planting materials are easily obtained from the bundles that you buy in the market.  After having taken the tender sections from the bundles, the tough and old leftovers can be used to generate a new crop.

With the presence of moisture for continuous periods of time, the sections soon begin to send out numerous adventitious roots at the nodes along the stems.  

Such roots may enter the water directly, or if soil is the main contact, then the roots may even penetrate the soil surface for support and sustenance.  


Flower buds are produced at the nodes.

If the sections are scattered during the dry season, they tend to shrivel and dry up, and that will be sayonara for the day’s effort.

Usually, growth of aquatic kangkung is very much faster than soil-based ones, especially if water is continuously present. 

This is more evident where the waters have a high level of nutrient content. For this reason, aquatic plants have often become a nuisance in varying degrees in many waterways.  

Besides, they affect the entire aquatic ecosystem much to the detriment of many other water-borne organisms. And it usually costs a big bundle to the local authorities to have the nuisance cleared, in fulfilment of their sloganeerings to serve the rakyat first.

By the time you arrive at this line, your sprawling kangkung project would perhaps be ready for thinning to fill your kuali with young tender kangkung.  But make sure your belacan, garlic and a large dollop of fiery chilli padi are ready.

Jom, enjoy!

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