The Recipe: How To Make Thai Stir Fried Spinach with Chiles, Garlic & Oyster Sauce
This simple yet flavorful dish uses a common spinach green called water morning glory. Water morning glory is also called water spinach, water hyacinth, water convolvulus, water cabbage and swamp cabbage.
If you don’t find water morning glory in your area, you can substitute baby spinach or another light leafy green vegetable. The Thai water morning glory vegetable is inexpensive and packed with vitamins. It takes only a minute to cook and can add delightful verdant color to your dinner plate. It is available in some specialty Asian / Thai stores; I have substituted bok choy. Remember, with any leafy green, the leaves will shrink markedly when cooked so that looks like a boat load of greens in the market will reduce to a bowlful after cooking.
This dish is called by the florid name Phak Bung Fie Daeng or “Red Fire Spinach”. In the Thai language, Phak Bung refers to the type of vegetable; Fie Daeng means “red fire” and refers to a cooking technique where the chef tilts the wok and lets some of the cooking oil in the wok catch fire, imparting a smoky flavor to the dish.
Metric System Users: Some Thai recipes use small quantities of ingredients that are difficult to measure if the cook doesn’t have an accurate measuring scale in the kitchen. So, we use measuring spoons to approximate the quantity of ingredients in the recipe. Remember that 1 Imperial teaspoon is the same as the amount in a 5 ml measuring spoon and 1 Imperial tablespoon is the same amount in a 15 ml measuring spoon. Thai cooking should be a balance between the spicy, salty, sweet and sour flavors in the ingredients. This type of volume (versus weight in grams or ounces) measuring gives the cook in a home kitchen enough accuracy in measuring the ingredients. Most cooks will change these traditional recipes to suit their own tastes as they experiment and create Thai food at home.
1 long handled spatula
1 knife for cutting chilies, garlic
1 cutting board
1 tablespoon measuring spoon for measuring sauces and cooking oil
1 measuring cup for measuring spinach
1 bowl for holding spinach
1 little cup for holding water, oyster sauce & yellow bean sauce
Serves 2 people as part of a multi course Thai meal
4 cups Phak Bung water spinach (you can substitute baby spinach or other light leafy green vegetable). Remember, leafy vegetables reduce to a fraction of their pre-cooked volume so don’t be skint on the greens.
2 cloves large garlic, smashed flat with a cleaver and roughly chopped (Thai chefs often include the peel in the dish because it adds flavor and aroma to the dish. If using the peel, you can remove it before serving as Westerners find the sight of the peel disconcerting).
3-6 small red Thai chilies – if you want a mild chili flavor, just trim the stem off the chilies with a knife. If you want more chili heat, smash the chilies and then cut the chilies lengthwise. Using red chilies helps your guests identify the chilies and eat or avoid them, according to their own taste. The spicy heat in chilies is inside the fruit in the seed and inner membrane, so if you want to lessen heat in a dish, remove the spicy seeds and membrane.
3 tablespoons / 45 ml chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon / 15 ml yellow bean sauce (I prefer the Thai Healthy Boy brand)
1 tablespoon / 15 ml oyster sauce (I prefer the Thai Mae Krua brand)
PREPARATION OF THE VEGETABLE
Thai phak bung water spinach comes in bunches with the roots still intact. Much like asparagus, there will be a place about four inches from the base of the roots where the phak bung snaps off easily. Discard the lower quarter of the base stalk as it is too tough to eat when cooked in a stir fry method. You can pluck the remaining leaves and hollow stems into two-inch lengths (5 cm) and place them in the bowl.
1. Place the plucked spinach leaves in a bowl. Since things of the same size tend to cook at the same speed, I recommend you tear the spinach into 2 inch / 5 cm pieces.
2. In a small bowl, place the chilies and the smashed garlic. Reserve this bowl.
3. In a small cup, place the water, yellow bean sauce and oyster sauce and mix together with a spoon so the oyster sauce and yellow bean sauce are evenly distributed in the water. Reserve this bowl.
4. Turn on the stovetop burner to high. Place the wok on the lit burner. Let the wok heat up for 30 seconds or so. Pour in the cooking oil and swirl the oil in the pan, carefully to not slop the hot oil on you. The oil will begin to smoke after about ten seconds. Add the garlic and chilies and stir fry until the garlic begins to brown, about ten seconds.
5. Dump the entire contents of the bowl containing the greens into the wok. Add the water, oyster sauce, and yellow bean paste into the hot wok. Hold the wok handle in one hand and stir the greens rapidly for about 30 to 40 seconds with a long handled spoon, turning and flipping the greens so they become coated with the oil, water, oyster sauce and yellow bean sauce. Once the greens have wilted down to half their original volume and are shiny with the oil and other sauces, you can pour the contents of the wok into a serving bowl. Serve warm. Serves two persons as part of a multi-dish Thai meal.
If you want to play with fire, you can add the cooking oil to the hot wok and let it get hot until it starts to smoke. Then add the greens, garlic and chilies. Carefully tilt the pan until the oil is near the heat element. Depending on what type of stove you use (electric versus gas flame) you may get the flambé effect. But be careful as the flame can leap up. Generally, chefs employing this technique are using restaurant grade gas stoves with lots of holes from which the gas can escape to be ignited – your stovetop may be different.
This recipe uses chicken stock or water to help cook the greens and keep the ingredients from burning in the pan. This addition of liquid makes the ignition of the oil in the wok or saucepan hard to achieve. However, the flavor is still wonderful if you can accomplish it without burning down your home. Let the heat generated by your stove, your good judgment and your home insurance policy be your guide.