This is a spicy, punchy dish that emphasizes the crispness and texture of the Chinese spinach stems. Chinese spinach (aka Kong Qing Cai aka Ong Tsai aka Hollow Green aka Water Cress aka Water Spinach) should neither be confused nor substituted with Western spinach. It is an edible variety of Southeast Asian creeping vine that is available in a number of Asian specialty stores. As with most of my Asian vegetables, I either get mine every Saturday morning at the Irvine Farmers' Market, or from one of the two 99 Ranch Market stores nearby. If you are unable to find Chinese spinach, I recommend substituting celery cut into 1/4 inch wide, 1 inch long strips. This version of this dish is a bit heavier in flavor than the original, which used a small amount of thinly-sliced fresh chilies. Since the markets near me sell those chilies in wonking big bags that I can never finish using before they go moldy, I've substituted dou ban jiang (a fermented spicy bean paste from the Sichuan province of China). To thin out the heaviness of the dou ban jiang, I also add a little tian mian jiang (a sweet bean paste made with plums and garlic, also from the Sichuan region). The result is more of a Sichuan-Taiwan fusion, but it retains the soul of the original.
The original version of this dish was made using either sliced pork belly or strips of fatty pork from the back. Because I try to cook healthy, I tend to use either ham or lean pork for my version, relying instead on the dou ban jiang and tian mian jiang to add back some of the richness in flavor. If you're vegetarian, feel free to omit the meat entirely, or substitute strips of Chinese smoked and pressed tofu (available in any Chinese market).
1 large wok or stainless steel skillet (A wok is recommended.)
1 pair of stainless steel tongs
1 lbs of Chinese spinach
1 tbsp of vegetable oil (I prefer rice bran oil.)
1 cup of ham, sliced into 1/4 inch by 1/2 inch by 1/8 inch strips (It doesn't really have to be that precise.)
1 tbsp of finely minced garlic
2 tsp of dou ban jiang (Resist any urge to use more. It's strong stuff.)
1 tsp of tian mian jiang (Resist any urge to use more. It's strong stuff.)
Leave the leaves on their stems, since they're the star of this dish. 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 1/2 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.
Slice your ham into 1/4x1/2x1/8 inch strips. It really doesn't have to be that exact. Just make sure the ham is thinly sliced on one side so it cooks more quickly, and that it's cut into small, roughly rectangular pieces. If substituting lean pork or smoked tofu, you'll need to go with 1/4x1x1/4 inch strips and cook them slightly longer.
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 ham to the wok and move around rapidly, frying until it's crispy. 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 Chinese spinach. Timing is important since, at the level of heat you're working with, the garlic will burn very quickly. Toss the Chinese 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 Chinese spinach, causing it to release its 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 dou ban jiang and tian mian jiang, and toss a few more times to distribute. Plate and serve immediately.