Sauteed Hollow Heart Vegetable with Chinese BBQ Sauce


This vegetable, known simply as “kong xin tsai” (空心菜) in Mandarin Chinese, is called so many other names in America that I get really confused. I’ve seen it called water spinach, water convulvulus, Chinese watercress, and ongchoy . . just to name a few.  It’s called hollow heart vegetable in Chinese because the stems are characteristically hollow. The hollow stems have a unique crunch that makes them fun to eat.


Hollow heart vegetable is prolific in Asia, and does not even need soil to grow, profusely thriving in marshy wetlands, rivers, and streams.  In parts of the US, it has become so prolific that the USDA has official designated it a “noxious weed.”  It grows THAT easily.


We recently had a fun filled afternoon collecting bounty from our pastor’s garden. Instead of apple picking, we went “kong xin tsai” picking. It was hard work! . . bending over with scissors cutting stalks and stalks of this “noxious weed.”


This stuff is so easy to grow, my friend Emily from Emily Ku Photography bought some from the supermarket, stuck some in a cup of water, and grew her own! Remember how I said it just grows in rivers in Asia?


Kong xin tsai is delicious and has nutritional benefits similar to spinach. It’s my husband’s favorite Chinese leafy green, and we order it at restaurants all the time.  The vegetable is prepared in countless different ways in Asia.  You can cook it with shrimp paste (Malaysian), fermented tofu (Cantonese), or simply saute it with some garlic, which is classic. Here is another one of my favorite ways.


1 bunch of kong xin tsai
2-3 cloves of garlic (smashed)
1 T Chinese BBQ Sauce (Satsa – see photo to the right)
salt to taste

Note: my veggies came from the garden so they were pretty clean. If you buy these in the market, they can be pretty dirty. You might have to wash multiple times. Soak, drain, soak, drain, etc. Treat it like you do fresh spinach.

Step 1:
Remove the thicker stems from the leaves and cut, diagonally, into 1 inch pieces.  [If you see super thick stems that seem really tough, discard those!]


Step 2: Add ~ 1T oil to wok and heat on high until the oil is almost smoking.  Add garlic and saute until fragrant (about 30 second or so – don’t let it burn!).  Add the stems first and saute until softened, maybe 2-3 minutes or so.


Step 3: Add leaves in and then quickly stir around until leaves are wilted (this won’t take too long – maybe like 1 minute).  Remove from heat.

Step 4: Stir 1 T of Chinese BBQ Sauce (or more, to taste) into the cooked veggies.  Add salt to taste. Enjoy!

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  1. says

    I just recently found your blog when I was searching for broccoli stalk recipes. I haven’t tried your broccoli stem salad yet, but I did follow your recipe for lo bah png. It came out wonderfully!!

    These veggies are also my husband’s favorite, I’m glad to hear they’re so easy to grow. This looks like a tasty way to prepare them too! Thanks for posting!

  2. says

    Livia – actually, I love fermented tofu (dofuru), but I’ve never actually made it before. The dried shrimp paste is not stinky at all! :) I’ve had it at Penang and thought it was scrumptious.

    • Bryan says

      You’ve found fermented shrimp paste that’ not stinky? I have to shop where you shop! I love shrimp paste as well as fermented tofu, and both have invited complaints from neighbors. I love using shrimp paste and shrimp sauce when friends come over because the partially decaying shrimps freak them out. All those hundreds of shrimp eyes staring back at you…

      On an unrelated note, my two current favorite techniques are Pressure Cooking and Sous Vide. Pretty ironic considering that they are opposites in terms of speed. Too cheap to buy a Sous Vide machine, I usually do it in large pot of water over a gas stove, monitored by a cordless cooking thermometer. Temperature is usually stabilized within 30 mins, and it will maintain that temp +/-2F for the next 20 hours or so. Then I realized that my $49 El Cheapo pressure cooker has a never-used Keep Warm function, programmable in 1F degree increments. Ding ding ding — a Sous Vide machine! Sure it’s missing a water circulator, but I’ve found that putting the lid on produces a thermally-homogenized water bath. With a timer, delay cooking, browning, slow coking and steaming functions, and of course, its main function as a pressure cooker, it’s become my main cooking appliance. But I digress…

      To being this back to Chinese cooking, there is a sale on beef short ribs in Chinatown ($3/lb). We bought 4 lbs but can’t decide if we should Pressure Cook it or do it Sous Vide. I’ve heard that the latter produces orgasmic results but is it worth the 72 hours specified in one recipe? Or is 30-60 mins of Pressure Cooking tasty enough? We’re also debating on the spices. Since we’ll be entertaining Chinese guests, we want to do something Chinese, but none of us like the sweetness in most of rib sauces, i.e. Hoisin, sweet and sour, barbecue, etc. Maybe we could use a fermented bean sauce or something. I wonder how miso would work. If it was up to me, I’d just dump in two 99 cent bottles of Italian salad dressing and Pressure Cook it. :)

  3. Anonymous says

    my absolute favorite vegetable hands down. so good. just sauteed with like garlic and soy sauce is delicious….or however my mom makes it. so simple.

  4. says

    This vegetable is one of my top favourites! There are 2 types…water and ground. The usual ones are water which has slender and pointy leaves. The ground species is broader and a bit shorter. Besides cooking with sambal and/or with belacan , I like to cook it with cockles + chillies. It’s one of the conditments in Prawn Noodles or Hokkien Mee. Gosh, am hungry already! :-)

  5. says

    This is my fav veg too. I like it tender soft and crunchy. My mom who’s from S’pore also fried it with red chilies. So, between the shrimp paste and chilies, pretty incredible. I always order this when it’s on the menu. Didn’t realize it was so easy to grow!

  6. says

    I used to eat this stuff with beef and garlic in Taiwan like every single day (or in the middle of the night at the night markets) Will it grow in colder areas (Utah?)

  7. achineseguycookingpaella says

    In the Philippines, we call it Kangkung… and just as you mentioned…it grows everywhere as long as there’s water…and it grows fast…really FAST. Usually, it’s sauteed with garlic here, and paired up with fermented shrimp paste.

    This dish really brings me back to my childhood with my super-chinese-y grandma cooking it with XO sauce and chinese wine. yummmm

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  9. Linda says

    Visiting Taiwan and bought some 空心菜 at the store only to get it home and not know what to do with it! Thanks for the post. It tasted great!

  10. Pat says

    My sister-n-law brought me some hollow heart seeds. Can I grow them in a container? Sun or shade? Lots of water!

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