Union Square has awakened from the dull winter once again. Determined home cooks arrive at the Farmer’s Market early to find someone in a white jacket to follow around, asking questions about arugula and asparagus and ramps, vegetables whose arrival is often announced with exclamation points on their signs.
The sight of all those white tents and bright greens is enough to bring tears to a cook’s eye. Meanwhile, in Chinatown the vocabulary is entirely different. Along Canal Street, the last of the snow pea shoots are selling for $2.50 a pound, just past their prime. “How do I put this,” Soo Wong, the manager at 208 Restaurant on Grand Street said the other day, “They’re getting too hard.”
Wong said he is getting excited about another leafy green—a peculiar one too. A symbol of springtime in East Asian markets, this vegetable, pronounced “ong choy” in Cantonese, is most commonly known as “water spinach” but translates to “hollow vegetable” in English. The hollow part is all you have to keep in mind to find it at a vegetable stand. The long, slender, buoyant stems grow in water and are like drinking straws—delicate little pipes.
Hollow vegetables have just appeared at produce stands downtown. In the early hours of the day, before they’re all snatched up, pristine-looking bunches can be found outside WK Vegetable Co. on Mott, displayed on a cardboard box, for $2.20 per pound, and across the street at Shing Hing Trading Corp. for $2 per pound. But these particular bunches have come from California. In a few weeks, they’ll be available locally, and therefore even cheaper and superior in taste and texture.
In New York, water spinach is one of those unnamed, rotating “seasonal vegetables” on Chinese menus, usually prepared simply with garlic, like at Joe’s Shanghai. The Vietnamese restaurant, Nha Trang Centre has a similar version. But there’s gourmet love for these greens as well—Gray Kuntz, chef at Café Gray, who grew up in Singapore and later worked in Hong Kong, is a fan of hollow vegetables.
Unlike most leafy vegetables we eat, the stems of hollow vegetables are not discarded, but valued for their crunchiness. They’re enhanced by a range of flavors throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia, from simple garlic stir fries to shrimp paste or preserved bean curd, Water spinach is usually cooked very quickly or eaten raw, such as in a green papaya salad. The taste can be compared to spinach (though the two are not related), but water spinach lacks the harsh flavor of iron that has made so many young enemies throughout time.