WARNING - this vegetable dish is legitimately and strangely funky. You have to be a fairly adventurous eater, and enjoy spicy, somewhat fishy tasting thing to like this dish. The first time I tried this dish at Fatty Crab I didn't really like it. It is one of two dishes that I have tried there and not been totally into. Part of the reason I disliked it was because the water spinach felt gritty in my mouth, like it hadn't been thoroughly washed. And that could have been the case, or it could just be that the shrimp paste they used had a grittier consistency to it. I honestly don't know. But when I saw the recipe for kangkung belacan in The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, I figured I had to give it another shot if I happened across some water spinach. And having purchased some water spinach in Chinatown last week (and having purchased the shrimp paste at Bangkok Center Grocery the week before that), I decided it was time to go ahead and roll the dice and see if I liked this dish any better when it's homemade.
And the answer was yes, I did. Our water spinach wasn't nearly as gritty (although I did get one or two mouthfuls with a hint of grittiness to them), which was probably the main reason that I liked our version better. This version is no less funky or spicy than the one that they serve at Fatty Crab. In fact, if I were to make this dish again at home, I would probably up the amount of water spinach while leaving the amount of spice paste the same, to de-funk the dish just a tad more. There's nothing wrong with a little funk, but with the funky level as it is I can only eat so much of this dish before I suffer from palate burnout. The dried shrimp paste has such an aggressively shrimpy flavor, and once you add in more dried shrimp, shallots, garlic and chilis, it is an incredibly pungent and aggressive spice paste. Cooking it mellows it a little bit, but not a ton, so the end result remains very assertive. Oh and if you have an exhaust fan in your kitchen you are going to want to get it going full blast before you fry the paste. The chilis in the paste will make you cough and the smell of the paste really lingers. Unfortunately, we don't have one in our apartment here in NYC and our apartment smelled like this dish for days. Oops.
Recipe after the jump!
Water Spinach with Shrimp Paste and Chilis (Kangkung Belacan)
The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens
By Patricia Tanumihardja
2 tbsp dried shrimp, rinsed
boiling water for soaking shrimp
1 lb water spinach
5 Asian shallots or 1/2 small yellow onion, coarsely chopped (1/3 cup)
4 cloves garlic
3 long, fresh red chilis, stemmed, seeded if desired, and coarsely chopped; or 1 tbsp prepared chili paste
2 tsp dried shrimp paste
3 tbsp vegetable oil, or more if needed
2 tsp sugar
salt (optional; the shrimp paste is already salty, so add sparingly if at all)
In a small bowl, soak the dried shrimp in enough boiling water to cover until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain, reserving 2 tbsp of liquid.
Wash the water spinach in cold water and drain well. Trim of and discard the bottom 4 inches of the root ends which are usually very fibrous. Trim off and discard any tough, woody stems. Cut into thirds, separating the stems and leaves.
Combine the dried shrimp, shallots, garlic, chilis, and dried shrimp paste in the work bowl of a 3-4 cup food processor and whirl into a thick, clumpy paste resembling cooked oatmeal, about 1 minute. Scrape unground bits down toward the blade as you go. Do not overprocess; confetti-sized bits of chili are fine.
In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Drop in a little spoonful of the shrimp-chili paste. If it starts to sizzle cheerfully, the oil is ready. Add the rest of the paste. Cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the wok continuously to cook the paste evenly and prevent scorching. If the paste absorbs all of the oil and begins to stick to the wok, add more oil, 1 tbsp at a time, until the paste moves easily around the wok again. If the paste starts to burn, remove the wok from the heat temporarily before continuing. Adjust the heat as necessary. Paste is ready when its original pungent smell has mellowed to a pleasantly sweet fragrance with no trace of raw shallots or garlic (the shrimp paste will still smell like crazy). Cooked paste should be several shades darker than the raw paste.