Coconut Kangkong Stems

Stems. Ends. Odd bits. Leftovers. Overlooked and misunderstood things. Often chucked into the bin for lack of a better idea. Well let me tell you, one man’s trash is this girl’s treasure! I’ve always loved end bits and odd things. The end part of a roast beef carving where the fat and meat have caramelized into an almost-burnt butt of goodness. The rind of a hard hunk of cheese which I save scrupulously to toss into a pot of soup. Pig’s ears. The sugary edges of brownies and cookies (I’m sure I’m not the only one here). The grub at the bottom of the pan. Celebrities who seem beyond all hope. I love them all.

In truth, I’ve been a bit of a scavenger all my life. As a child I used to collect old receipts with much relish and excitement, going through them and filing them away like they were documents of utmost importance. Now, I collect leftovers (even the tiniest bits!), bones, veggie stems and trimmings, the oil that renders when I fry bacon or chorizo – all are tucked away in the freezer until the time comes when inspiration, or necessity, hits and they come out to be reborn.

This dish is not technically made with leftovers – the long stems of kangkong (water spinach) are usually used in the same dishes as the leaves. I do feel though that there is something sadly afterthought-ish about them – like they were only used because their leaves were used and “saying naman” (what a waste) if we tossed out their stems (which make up more than half the plant!). So in save-the-underdog fashion, I set out to make a dish where the stems played the starring role (and the leaves became the afterthought) :)

This is inspired by a local dish called Gising Gising (which literally translates to something like “Wake up, wake up!”) which typically uses green beans (string beans or what we call “Baguio beans”) sliced thinly and cooked with coconut milk and chilli (I am assuming the chilli is supposed to be the wake-up call). It is usually flavoured with patis (fish sauce) and some powdered seasoning (Maggi or Knorr or whatever), but I decided to use bagoong (shrimp paste) instead because I think it works much better with kangkong.

Coconut Kang Kong Stems
  • Stems from one bunch of kangkong, sliced thinly (roughly 1 1/2 cups when sliced as pictured on top)
  • 2-3 pieces sili pangsigang/sili mahaba (long green chilli), sliced on the diagonal quite thickly (I slice it this way so some poor unsuspecting diner does not mistake it for the kangkong)
  • One small red onion, chopped finely
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into rounds
  • 1-2 rounded teaspoons of bagoong (shrimp paste)
  • 1/3 cup coconut cream
  • Canola or vegetable oil
  • Freshly cracked black pepper

- Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. Add onions, garlic, ginger, and chilli and sauté until onions are soft and everything is fragrant.
- Add kangkong stems and bagoong (shrimp paste) and toss. Sauté until kangkong stems are bright green.
- Add coconut cream, stir, and cook until the cream bubbles and kangkong stems are cooked. Season with freshly cracked black pepper.

Although this is a recipe for the stems, if you haven’t already used the kangkong leaves, and have them on hand, you can toss them in with the coconut cream and cook until wilted (which is actually what I did here). This is all about the stems though – letting this otherwise-considered-second-class part really shine as it is the crunch that gives this dish its engaging personality. The combination of shrimp paste, coconut milk, and chilli is something I borrow again and again from Bicolano cuisine (a region in the Philippines known for its liberal use of chilli and coconut milk!). And why not? It is a fantastic mix of richness, intense flavour, and heat that provides an exciting backdrop for our oft-neglected kangkong stems!

So don’t knock the odd bits and off-beats. Those unlikely suspects that are left at the corner of a serving platter, or the edge of a dance floor, may just be what you never knew you always wanted!