Kangkung Belacan is a very traditional and popular vegetable stir fry found in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the surrounding countries. (First published September 2011. Updated April 2019.)
It is, quite possibly, my favourite vegetable dish. Ever.
So colour me flabbergasted when I discovered the vegetable on Ocado, in their “What’s New” section. Ocado is an online supermarket that specialises in quality, exotic and artisanal products. And this one comes courtesy of the guys at Curious Fruit and Veg.
That discovery prompted this update, seeing how it was one of the very first posts I ever did on this blog! Almost 8 years ago!
Kankung belacan always reminds me of an old, ferrari-driving friend of mine, whom I used to go dancing with in my 20s, in Singapore. Whenever he was giving me a lift home, we’d always stop off at this Chinese food stall. We’d order some rice or noodles, a chicken or beef dish, some sort of spicy sambal and always, always this kangkung belacan.
And because the kangkung was always the quickest to arrive, we’d start every meal with him asking the server, in colloquial Malay:
lu ingat gua kambing, ka?
“Do you think I’m a goat,” in English. Isn’t it wonderful how certain foods always come attached with memories?
What is Kangkung or Water Spinach?
It is a vegetable by so many other names. A semi aquatic plant, ipomoea aquatica has hollow, reedy stalks with long, thin leaves, resembling arrows. Everybody in Singapore and Malaysia calls it kangkung, whatever our ethnic background. Off the top of my head, it is also known as:
- water spinach
- water convolvulus (still get a tickle out of this one)
- water morning glory
- Chinese spinach
- ung choi
I’ll do a blog post on it soon, for our Culinary Garden page, let’s just talk about the recipe today.
How to cook Kangkung?
It wants the briefest of cooking times for one thing. Because the stalks are harder, we often split the stalks and the leaves, giving the former an additional minute of cooking time. In fact, much like when I cook spinach, I tend to add the leaves after I’ve turned the heat off, allowing them to just heat up and cook ever so slightly.
Like spinach, kangkung cooks quickly and is best eaten with a slight crunch, as is true for most vegetables!
Kangkung Belacan Recipe
This is one of those recipes that most of the ethnic groups in Singapore and Malaysia lay claim to. You’ll find it sold by the Chinese, the Malays, the Nyonyas and the Eurasians. Head on over to the Singapore and Malaysia page to read up on the various ethnic groups in these countries.
This is also, more often than not, a spicy recipe. You can always control the heat level by using more or less chillies, and also by the type of chillies. Jalapeños are going to be mild, while a bird’s eye type chilli will be spicy. Like chillies? Check out The Chilli Page!
Cooking kangkung belacan is a speedy process, with the actual cooking taking no more than 3-4 minutes. Let’s take a look at a couple of “pesky” ingredients as I like to call them.
Click here to read more and for substitutes. This smelly paste screams umami, and is an indispensable ingredient in South East Asian cooking. If you plan to do any Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian or Vietnamese cooking, then I suggest you source out some shrimp paste. Try Amazon, if there isn’t a store nearby.
Here in the UK, most of our large supermarkets sell it.
If you can’t get shrimp paste, you could use a couple of anchovies in oil or brine, patted dry, mashed up and used in its place. Naturally, it won’t be the same flavour, but it will be delicious!
Click here to read more and for substitutes. Sun dried shrimp, these smell and taste of the sea and are brimming with umami. Again, Amazon stocks it, as does countless online shops here in the UK. I get mine from the local Chinese.
Traditionally, dried shrimp in recipes like this one, will be soaked in hot water before being used. But I’ve recently done away with this soaking part, and am quite happy with the results. Bonus: it cuts down on the total time too.
Substitute for Water Spinach in Kangkung Belacan
Chinese greens like choi sum and pak choi make good substitutes.
A great non green vegetable to use in this recipe is the humble beansprout. Stir fried beansprouts using this exact recipe and amounts are absolutely delicious.
Vegetarian Kangkung Belacan (or Vegan)
You would have noticed that this isn’t vegetarian, because of the shrimp and shrimp paste. I remember having a conversation with a Singaporean uncle of mine not too long ago. He said that Malay food is very non vegetarian friendly. And he was right, for the simple reason that dried shrimp and shrimp paste are routinely used in most vegetable dishes, as a flavour base.
So how do we make this vegetarian? We need to lose the shrimp base and replace it with something.
To me, shiitake is one of the best vegetarian umami ingredient there is out there.
And it’s my go-to ingredient when converting recipes for vegan clients and students.
Dried are better, as the flavour and aroma is more concentrated. You could soak them before using, as is the norm. However, if you have a good chopper or spice mill, place them dry and grind to a powder before using. For this recipe, a handful of dried shiitake will do.
How to Serve Kangkung Belacan?
It’s a side dish, so would be perfect with rice or noodles, and perfect as part of any Oriental or South East Asian meal. Take a look at the gallery below. Then let’s get our aprons on!
Singapore and Malaysian Recipes on LinsFood