Spicy Water Spinach (Kangkung Belacan) + Giveaway!

Welcome to Day 2 of our three part Malaysian Food Series! If you missed Day 1, Hainanese Chicken Rice, you can check it out here.

If you are Asian, you’re bound to have heard of water spinach, or hollow heart vegetable (空心菜). Even though I don’t know Southeast Asian food well, I instantly recognized this vegetable because we also eat it in Chinese cooking.  In fact, the water spinach is so prolific in Asia, it 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.

Malaysia’s version of this dish is called kangkung belacan. It is served all over Malaysia, from casual food courts to upscale hotel restaurants. Traditionally, this is a peasant preparation of the dish, though it has gotten trendy in recent years.

Let me tell you, if you are unfamiliar with Malaysian ingredients, it might be a bit frustrating the first time you go grocery shopping in a Chinese market. To be honest, I don’t know how easy it is to get all these ingredients. I stumbled around Boston’s Chinatown for quite some time, only to turn up relatively empty-handed. I was able to find Sambal Oelek (left) in the Chili Section, but it was hard finding everything else.

In fact, the belacan (dried shrimp paste pictured on the right) is from a store in Southern California. I have no idea where to get it in Boston. I seriously think it may just be less intimidating to buy all your ingredients online. At least you can just search for your term and order it!
Hollow Hearts!
Finding the ingredients was really the hardest part of this dish. Once you have everything, you just make a sauce by blending together aromatics, spices, and shrimp paste. Saute your vegetables with the sauce, add a few spices, and voila, that’s it!

The belacan definitely adds a deep and flavorful umami to the entire dish that’s really different from the Chinese version. Just a word of caution about belacanthis stuff is really really potent! It’s got a really strong smell – definitely vent the place and maybe even open some windows especially if you plan on toasting it. Your toaster oven will smell like belacan for a while afterwards. We opened the windows even though it was below freezing outside!

The smell of the belacan lingered in our tiny little apartment for days.

Neverthless, the dish itself is still delicious and quite authentic. Our table of diners polished the whole dish off in no time.


This Malaysian series was inspired by a free review copy I got of Flavors of Malaysia by Susheela Raghavan. You can read a more detailed account of my thoughts regarding the book here. The publisher has been kind enough to provide me with THREE books to give away! I will be giving one away per day during this series – one for each dish I cook from the book!

The first Giveaway is still going on: Click here if you want to enter that one as well.

For this giveaway, comment below and tell me your favorite Southeast Asian restaurant! If you don’t know any Southeast Asian restaurants, just name your favorite Asian restaurant.

For me, I woefully have very little exposure to Malaysian food. In fact, I think the only restaurant I’ve tried is Penang (in both Harvard Square, Boston Chinatown, and New York City!). In all three cases I thought the food was delicious!

Giveaway ends Thursday, March 3, 2011 at midnight! I reserve the right to pick another winner if I pick the same winner twice during this three-part giveaway series.

Spicy Water Spinach 
from Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey Through Time, Tastes, and Traditions

2-3 T cooking oil
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/8 tsp turmeric powder or 1/2 tsp chopped fresh or frozen turmeric root (1/4 inch to 1/2 inch piece)
1 tsp regular soy sauce
1 T tamarind concentrate or tamarind juice extracted from pulp
1 small bunch (about 6-8 stalks with leaves, 8 ounces) water spinach, bottom stems trimmed about 1 to 2 inches and washed in water, swirling a few times to remove and dislodge dirt and sand
Optional: 1/4 tsp salt

Spice Paste
1/4 cup sliced shallots or onions
1 heaping tablespoon sliced garlic cloves
1/2 tsp sliced ginger or galangal
1 to 3 fresh red chilies (cayenne, Fresno, jalapeno, Serrano, Thai, or cherry), sliced
1/2 tsp dried shrimp paste (balacan) toasted at 400 °F for 15 minutes or 1 heaping tsp of dried whole shrimp, soaked in hot water for 10 min to soften and then drained
1/4 cup water

1. Process Spice Paste ingredients to a coarse paste

2. Heat 1 T oil in a wok or skillet and saute Spice Paste for about 5-6 minutes, till fragrant, adding 1 to 2 more T oil if needed. Add ground coriander and turmeric and stir for another 1/2 to 1 minute.

3. Add soy sauce and tamarind juice and stir for about 1 minute.

4. Add water spinach and stir for about 4 minutes, turning the leaves over often and coating well with sauce, till leaves wilt and become bright green with stems still retaining their crispiness. Add salt if needed.


Time to time I receive free products, meals, etc. as a food blogger. I do not receive any payment for blog posts/reviews nor am I required to write a post when I receive free products, meals, etc. The views expressed in this post are completely my own. I was given a free review copy of the book.

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  1. says

    Rasa Malaysia was a great quick-serve Malaysian restaurant in Seattle years ago. They had seven locations, but are all gone now. Loved that place. I can’t think of a restaurant that is specifically Malaysian that I eat at. I miss Rasa Malaysia.

  2. Phong says

    My favorite recipe would have to be Braised Pork Belly and Eggs. My mom’s recipe is totally amazing (of course, I might be just a bit biased ;D)

  3. Soniamangla says

    wonderful spinach recipe. I just love it in any form and yours is looking so inviting and refreshing. I need to give it a shot soon !

  4. gertrude says

    Sorry, forgot to answer to your question. My favorite Malaysian restaurant will be New Malaysia in NYC

  5. jentinyurbankitchen says

    Hi Janice!
    I totally agree these are Singaporean dishes too (I even invited my Singaporean friend over to help me cook!), but the book is called Flavors of Malaysia, so the series is sort of named after the book. :)

  6. Julia says

    Penang is in Philadelphia Chinatown too! This is my FAVORITE Southeast Asian restaurant (Thai and Malaysian food). It was a regular for me for 4 years because of their Mango Chicken dish! Every time my crew went, we would order the Mango chicken dish first and then choose other dishes to go along with that first one.
    I think it is the same chain that is in Boston, NY and NJ.

  7. Anh says

    Belacan is also Mam Ruoc in Vietnamese. As Gertrude said, all of the ingredients needed for this dish can easily be found in a Vietnamese market. You can even find them all at H Mart in the Vietnamese section.

    My favorite Southeast Asian restaurant is Hai Duong in Alexandria, VA. Their Bun Bo Hue is the closest to my mom’s.

  8. says

    My favorite Asian restaurant is Le Cheval X in Oakland, CA. They have the best traditional Vietnamese food and are always happy to adjust cooking to your dietary needs. The salt & pepper crab is my go-to menu item accompanied by the watercress salad!

  9. Yvonne says

    I first had water spinach while in China – I’m excited to try your recipe. Hmm… Favorite Southeast Asian restaurant… Now that I’m in Davis, probably a Taste of Thai.

  10. says

    I’m Malaysian so this is one of my fav dish too. When I migrate to NZ I thought I won’t be able to get this veggie anymore, but luckily we can still enjoy water spinach here during summer. Beside stir fry with belacan, I like to stir fry water spinach with bean paste in Thai style ( Pak Bung Fai Daeng).
    As for my fav SEA Restaurant is Malaysia Satay Restaurant Ltd one of the most popular Malaysian restaurant in Auckland.

  11. says

    Amazing recipe…
    My favorite southeast Asian restaurant ” Din Tai Fung”. I visit this place more often specially for their yummy Dumplings…

  12. Beata says

    I think I’ve only been to one SE Asian restaurant other than Penang (does Penang count? i don’t know if it’s authentic), and I haven’t been there in a few years… but I used to like it a lot: Restoran Malaysia in Richmond Hill, Ontario (suburb north of Toronto).

  13. Sadye says

    Penang in Philadelphia. It’s more authentic that other Penang resturants…this one is in the heart of Chinatown.

  14. Bernadine says

    Loving your Asian recipes! Don’t have a Southeast Asian restaurant but LOVE Great China in Berkeley, CA.

  15. Flo says

    Sea Harbor seafood in LA. It serves made to order dim sum in the mornings and great dishes in the evenings.

  16. ShesCookin says

    Congrats on today’s Top 9! Such a beautiful and healthy dish. Where I am its mostly Vietnamese – so Brodard in Little Saigon. Would love to learn more about Malaysian cuisine.

  17. Pretend Chef says

    This dish looks and sounds so delicious! My favorite Asian restaurant here in the Houston area has to be Nit Noi. I love their Green Chile Chicken with Sticky Rice. Heavenly! What a great giveaway as well. bisqwik2@aol.com

  18. Barbara says

    I have never eaten Malaysian food but I love Korean and Chinese so I am sure I would love this too.

  19. Julie says


    I live in Seattle and my favorite restaurant here is Noodle Boat. It is Thai and they have a full Thai menu, not just noodles. Back in Singapore, my favorite Thai restaurant is the newly opened Jim Thompson. :) Lovely ambiance, peaceful and out of this world!! Julie

  20. beyondkimchee says


    I can’t not describe enough how much I love Kang kong, especially with belachan. I wish I can find the glorious vegetable here.
    I would love to enter the giveaway, although I never tried entering before and I perhaps won’t have high chance to win. The reason I would love to win the Malaysian cookbook giveaway is that I am moving to Malaysia in the summer. I think the cookbook will help me to learn more about Malay cuisine and its ingredients.
    Oh, my favorite noodle dish has to be Kway Teow. It is #1 dish we order always. I love your photos by the way.

  21. MG says

    Malaysian chicken curry with roti canal. I had this a million years ago at Penang in Chinatown in Boston and *loved* it. I’ve been trying to replicate it, but I just come short :)

  22. says

    Penang is the only Malaysian restaurant I’ve ever been to but it’s delicious so it’s my favorite. I love kangkung. We prepare it slightly differently in the Philippines but it’s delicious any way I have it!

  23. Lianfollmuth says

    I always enjoy the beef rendang at Straits Cafe in San Francisco. The beef is very tender and flavor is explosive with good balance of spices when you take in your first bite. Hainanese Chicken is reasonably good as with most items on the menu.

  24. Kelly says

    In Portland, OR I like Pho Van up the street from me. One of my favorite recipes is Malaysian: Tandoori Salmon published in the food section of the NY TIMES back in 1998, Molly O’Neil editor. Every time I make it, I cannot believe how great it is!

  25. says

    For some reason, Malaysian ingredients are becoming increasingly difficult to find. I remember it wasn’t always the case. The best chance of finding them would be at a Vietnamese grocery store selling Thai, Malaysian, and Singaporean ingredients.

    Kangkung belacan is a quintessential Malaysian dish – spicy and full of flavor. Yes, the belacan is really potent and it is best to have windows opened when cooking this ingredient :)

  26. Judi in Singapore says

    We spent Wed, Thurs & Fri in Kuala Lumpur and had a wonderful time, especially due to having familiarized myself with some of the local dishes thru this website! THANK YOU! Now I need to learn how to prepare some of those delicious dishes now that I’m back in Singapore.

  27. Judi in Singapore says

    My favorite Malaysian restaurant is in Kuala Lumpur and its name is TOP HAT. All the foods prepared there are “from scratch,” even the noodles, the ice creams, EVERYTHING. And everything is super delicious while the prices are incredibly quite reasonable. There are lots & lots of places to eat in this terrific city, but TOP HAT beats them all!

  28. says

    I just discovered this green at a farm just down the road.  We LOVE it…especially the hollow stems.  Much milder than spinach.  I just sauteed it with garlic and it was fantastic!

  29. Ju says

    I’m Malaysian and nice to see your kangkung belacan recipe. I’ll have to give your version a try sometime. I’m pretty sure belacan can be bought at the local Asian grocery stores here as I’ve seen it sold. Now as to good Southeast Asian restaurants, Penang in Boston’s Chinatown is decent if you’re desperately missing Malaysian food. For good Thai, Lanna Thai diner in Woburn is the only decent Thai restaurant in Boston and greater Boston area.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog entries — thanks for sharing!

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