January 15, 2009

Kangkung and Papaya Blossoms

I don't remember ever eating the buds and blossoms of papaya when I was growing up in Jakarta. And I know for sure I never ate them while I was living in the United States (are they even available there?). But since returning to Indonesia a year ago, it's one more 'vegetable' I have fallen in love with.

Papayas are in abundance here. The ripe fruit is lusciously sweet, the green (unripe) one has a mild taste and is pleasantly crunchy, often used in fruit salads and spicy pickles. But the leaves, buds and blossoms, which are used in vegetable dishes, are a contrast in flavor: they're bitter. The bitterness, however, can be scaled back by boiling those parts before cooking them with the other ingredients.

Below is my favorite way to cook (and eat) papaya blossoms: the Manadonese style (which means it's hot and spicy)! If you live where papaya blossoms or kangkung are not available, don't despair (see my note after the recipe). This recipe is more about technique, actually: vegetables stir-fried in garlic and a bit of cooking oil. You just need to sauté the greens until wilted. This cooking method is simple, quick and versatile, used not only in Indonesian cooking, but also in many other Asian cuisines.

Manado-style Kangkung and Papaya Blossoms
serves 4 as a side dish

A large bunch of kangkung*
A large handful of papaya buds and blossoms (more or less, depending on your preference for bitter greens)
2 garlic cloves (more if you want), finely chopped
4-5 red chilies, thinly sliced on an angle
[if you want it really spicy, you can add a few chopped Thai/bird's eye chilies)
cooking oil
salt and pepper

First, clean the greens. Rinse the kangkung well and drain the excess water. Using your hands, scissors or knife, pluck/cut the leaves from the stems, but also include the cut green stems until about 5 cm below the leaves, they're still delicious and provide a nice crunch. Discard the lower stems. The prepped kangkung may look like a lot, but they'll cook down considerably.

Rinse and drain the buds (which look like short, light green Q-tips) and blossoms, discarding any hard stems. If you like very bitter greens, you can leave them as is. If not, you can cut back on the bitterness by boiling these (not the kangkung!) in water over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Drain well.

Heat a wok or sauté pan on high heat and swirl 2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil, making sure you coat all the surface. Sauté the garlic and chillies in the hot oil, stirring all the time. When the garlic is fragrant, but not yet browned, mix in the boiled (or raw, if you prefer) buds and blossoms. Stir for about 30 seconds. Then stir in the kangkung, working in batches if you need (waiting for the leaves in the pan to wilt, then adding the next handful, and on until all the kangkung is in the pan). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Take off the heat as soon as all the kangkung is wilted but still retains its green color. Don't overcook it. Serve immediately over hot steamed rice.

*Note: in southern California, kangkung (where it's labeled ong choy, water spinach or water convolvulus) is widely available at most Asian supermarkets. I don't know its availability in other parts of the United States (or other non-Asian countries). If neither papaya blossoms or kangkung is available, you can try substituting them with other dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collard greens, Chinese brocolli (gai lan/kai lan), bok choy, etc.


  1. Hi, I arrived here thru' Chubby Hubby. Great blog!

    This dish is my favourite. Unfortunately, while Kangkung is in abundance here, papaya blossoms are near impossible. But I drool all the same.

    PS: Can I link you blog to mine so I remember to come back from time to time? Thanks!

  2. @V: of course! Thank you for doing that :)