When you are at a vegetable shop, you have to be quick at picking vegetables that come once in a while. So, when I laid my hands on a bunch of leaves that looked like miniature lotus leaves with pointed ends, the lady standing next to me sorting baby potatoes snapped at me: ‘Those are my kolmi saag. I saw them first’.
To my defence, I answered, “I was only trying to understand what they are.” Kolmi or Water Spinach has thin, hollow stems with long, flat, arrowhead-shaped leaves. If one has to discuss its taste and flavour, its succulent texture is similar to that of the common spinach with a wild and nutty undertone. Those who love rustling these leaves for a quick Indian-style stir-fry or with a mixed veg curry, usually prefer the tender shoots and leaves. The mature ones can get a bit chewy with a strong wild taste. A common favourite in Bengali kitchens, this leafy vegetable is ideal to cool the body and can be very easily grown on damp or swampy land.
Ipomoea aquatica is also known as kangkong in Southeast Asia and is a semi-aquatic plant. With light ovate leaves and a hollow stem that allows it to float on water, the stem and leaves are edible. Under tropical conditions, water spinach can be harvested throughout the year, while in cooler climates it is grown annually.
Of the many names by which it is known in Asian countries, swamp cabbage, Chinese spinach, asagaona, ong choy, phak bung and ensai are most common. The Hindi name of the commonly available leafy vegetable, which is a favourite of the Bengalis and Oriyas, is kalmua saag.
In much of Southeastern Asia, water spinach is considered a tonic, as it contains several vitamins, including A, B, C, and E. As a home remedy, this leafy vegetable is used to treat stomach and intestinal disorders. In many Southeast Asian countries, this vegetable is used in cooking methods that include stir-fry with garlic and chillies, in soups and sometimes as batter-fried tempura.
Since it is inexpensive and easily available, the vegetable is consumed widely in India, because it is said to be useful in treating ulcers, menstrual pain, toothaches and nosebleeds among others. Water spinach, being rich in chemical antioxidants, is said to be more resistant to damage from exposure to the sun and thereby minimises wrinkling of the skin. Due to its healing and detoxifying properties, the leaf is also used as a kitchen remedy against skin itching or insect bites. To use it as a skin ointment, sprinkle water spinach with salt and dab it on the sore spot.