Kangkung belacan is a rustic, quick and easy vegetable side dish that is simply perfect on its own with some rice, or as part of a Malay, Chinese, Nyonya or Eurasian meal. It is a very typical hawker fare not just in Singapore and Malaysia, but also the surrounding region.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
What’s in a Name?
Let’s break it down as usual, shall we?
Malay words are usually pronounced as they are spelled.
- kang = the a is pronounced as in the u in lung
- kung = the u is pronounced in the same way as the u in fur
- be = the e is also pronounced as the u in fur
- la = the la in do re mi far so la
- can = the c is pronounced as ch in chair, the a is the same as the a in far (incidentally, the old spelling, when I was in school, was belachan)
Kangkung is the Malay and Indonesian name for this very popular East and South East Asian vegetable. Ipomoea aquatica is a tropical plant and is semi-aquatic. It is variously known as:
- ong choi in Cantonese (Chinese dialect)
- water spinach
- water morning glory
- water convolvulus
- and a few others
Belacan is shrimp paste in Malay. I’ve covered this in a separate post; it is an essential ingredient in South East Asian cooking. Click here to read more about shrimp paste.
Kangkung Belacan = Kangkung cooked with shrimp paste.
But of course, the belacan is only one of the ingredients we use.
Kankung Belacan Recipe
It is a very easy recipe to make, and can be done in 15 minutes flat. The actual cooking time is no more than 4-5 minutes.
For those of us who are no longer living in South East Asia, the most difficult part of this recipe is the sourcing out of the kangkung itself!
20 years ago, finding kangkung in the UK could have been a bit of a hit and miss. But these days, most Chinese grocers and supermarkets will stock it.
And it goes without saying that you can find it online, very, very easily.
Can’t find Kangkung?
You could use other greens like kale, spinach or pak choi, if you want to stick with a green vegetable. However, I make this exact same recipe, by substituting beansprouts for the kangkung.
So instead of kangkung belacan, we have taugeh belacan (taugeh = beansprouts). It’s absolutely delicious and something I should be publishing as a separate recipe, shouldn’t I?
So besides the kangkung, we’ve also mentioned shrimp paste. What gives this ong choi recipe its depth is the combination of the aromatics and the use of both shrimp paste and dried shrimp (udang kering in Malay).
Shrimp paste and dried shrimp are chock full of umami notes and scream of the briny smells of the sea. While they can be used separately, they are complementary ingredients, like lemongrass and galangal, and are often used together for maximum flavour.
Dried shrimp is something you can easily find at East Asian stores and certainly online. Shrimp paste can be found in the larger supermarkets here in the UK, and naturally, also in East Asian stores and online.
Store the dried shrimp in your freezer, the shrimp paste in your fridge, and you will have a supply for months and months. If you don’t use it up, that is.
Apart from the water spinach, shrimp paste and dried shrimp, the other ingredients for kangkung belacan are all commonly found. We only need onion, garlic and chilli for flavour, besides the oil, salt and water.
How to Serve Kangkung Belacan
Kangkung belacan is traditionally served as a side dish with rice, along with other dishes like curries and stews or other stir-fries. It can also be served with noodles, there really are no hard and fast rules.
Here are just some examples of other dishes you can serve kangkung belacan with. Just click on the images to get to them:
And on that note, shall we get cooking?
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Kangkung Belacan (Stir-fried Water Spinach with Shrimp Paste)
- chopping board
- chopper (or pestle and mortar)
- wok or large frying pan
Paste Ingredients (Rempah)
- 300 g kangkung
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
- salt if needed
Make the paste
- Peel and quarter the onion, peel the garlic and roughly chop the chillies (in 2-3 pieces).
- Place all the paste ingredients into a chopper and chop to a fairly fine paste. You could use a pestle and mortar, if you like. If you are, soak your dried prawns in very hot water for 10 minutes. Then drain and pound.
Let's make some Kangkung Belacan
- Rinse and chop the kangkung into roughly equal lengths, measuring about 5cm/2 inches. Separate the harder stalks from the leaves, as the stalks will need cooking slightly longer.
- Heat oil in a frying pan on medium-high heat and fry the ground ingredients until fragrant, for about a minute.
- Add the kangkung stalks, stir, then add the water. Mix again and leave to cook for 2 minutes.
- Now add the kangkung leaves, give it a quick stir just to let the leaves wilt. You don't want to cook it for more than 30-60 seconds. Take it off the heat. Like spinach, kangkung cooks quickly and is best eaten with a slight crunch as is true for all vegetables!
- Check seasoning and stir in the salt if you want it saltier (the shrimp paste and dried prawns are salty ingredients). Serve immediately.