A very simple recipe suitable for beginning cooks on up, this dish contains only three ingredients, and is considered one of the signature dishes of Taiwan. The focus of the dish is the taste of the sweet potato leaves, which should be as fresh as possible. Sweet potato leaves are available at certain Asian markets, although they're decidedly rare. I get mine every Saturday morning from a stall run by a family of Taiwanese farmers at the Irvine Farmers' Market. Sweet potato leaves are a summer vegetable, so may not always be available. If you're unable to find sweet potato leaves in your neck of the woods, you can substitute full-grown western spinach. Baby spinach is not an acceptable substitute. Please be aware that should you choose to use spinach, while the texture of the resulting dish will be similar, the flavors will not. If at all possible, try this dish using sweet potato leaves.
1 large wok or stainless steel skillet (A wok is recommended.)
1 pair of stainless steel kitchen tongs
1 lb of fresh sweet potato leaves on stems
1 tbsp of finely minced garlic
1 tbsp of vegetable oil (I prefer rice bran oil.)
1/4 tsp of kosher salt (You can add more to suit your taste, but that's the amount I usually use.)
Leave the leaves on their stems, since we're going to be eating those as well. Thoroughly wash the plants in cold, lightly salted water. I always lightly salt the water when washing greens. A number of the harmful the bacteria and other organisms found on greens are destroyed by contact with salt molecules. Make sure that no dirt or grit remains on the plants. Drain the plants and pat them dry with some paper towels. Trim the ends off of the stems, and chop the stems and leaves into two inch long segments. Place in a large bowl or plate with a few paper towels on the bottom to sop up any excess moisture. Set aside.
Peel your garlic and finely mince it. Set it aside.
Heat your wok on high heat for several minutes. You want the metal as hot as your stove can make it. I wouldn't recommend anything with plastic handles or a Teflon coat for this style of cooking. Add the oil and use the tongs to spread it around the bottom of your wok.
Once the oil starts smoking, you'll need to work fast. Add the garlic and toss it in the oil for a few seconds to flavor the oil. Before the garlic starts to brown, add the sweet potato leaves. Timing is important since, at the level of heat you're working with, the garlic will burn very quickly. Toss the sweet potato leaves rapidly, using your tongs to control them. Make sure that nothing stays in contact with the wok for longer than a few seconds. This step is critical, since prolonged exposure to the heat will destroy the cell walls of the leaves, causing them to release their moisture. Too much liquid will result in stewed greens, which is not the effect we're going for here. If you toss the greens quickly enough, and your wok is sufficiently hot, the garlic infused oil will sear the juices into the greens. What little moisture escapes will be evaporated by the heat of the wok.
Continue tossing the greens in the wok for three to five minutes until the stems are tender. You want to soften the fibers of the stems, but to preserve their crunchiness. The timing will vary based on the shape of your wok, and on how hot you managed to get and keep it. It’s tough work, but think of it as a workout and a meal, all in one. Add the salt to the greens and toss a few more times to distribute. Plate and serve immediately.