Pak Bung* Fai Daeng (ผักบุ้งไฟแดง ) is one of a few Thai street foods that can be made at home very easily, quickly, and with great results. The ingredient list is short; so is the preparation time. Containing no meat and featuring only one main ingredient, the dish costs very little to make. You can’t say this about most of the famous items you find on the streets. When friends who have never cooked Asian food their whole lives ask me to teach them an easy dish to make, I show them how to make Pak Bung Fai Daeng. It’s that easy.
In fact, Pad Pak Bung Fai Daeng is so ordinary and so easy to make that brilliant marketing minds have figured out how to make it appear extraordinary and more complicated than it really is. How? They make the dish fly and give it a new moniker, “Flying Pak Bung” (ผักบุ้งลอยฟ้า).
It’s quite entertaining, though; I’ve got to admit. But, oh, what a waste of food it can be sometimes. Kids, don’t try this at home.
The Chinese influence of this spicy stir-fry is undeniable. In fact, most stir-fried dishes in the Thai repertoire have been influenced by the Chinese. The method of cooking (in a wok over extremely high heat**) is Chinese. The seasoning ingredients are commonly use in Chinese cuisine. Even the main ingredient itself, Ipomoea aquatica, is called in Thai, Pak Bung Jiin, which is literally “Chinese Pak Bung.” Most of the time, though, it’s labeled “Ong Choi” or “Ong Choy” (蕹菜) at your local Asian grocery store. The generic Thai name of this vegetable is Pak Bung, but the designation “jiin” (Thai for “China/Chinese”) is sometimes added to avoid confusion with Pak BungThai (Thai Water Morning Glory or Thai Water Convolvulus). This photograph shows Thai water morning glory in the middle and Chinese water morning glory right next to it (to the right). Notice that the (hollow) body of Thai Pak Bung is a bit larger than its Chinese cousin. The two are similar, but not entirely interchangeable. The kind used in this dish is the Chinese variety which also goes by Chinese morning glory, Chinese watercress, Chinese water morning glory, Chinese water spinach, etc. in addition to Ong Choy or Ong Choi, mentioned above.
I’ll always regard Pad Pak Bung Fai Daeng with fondness, because its main ingredient, Pak Bung Jiin is the first vegetable my hopelessly brown thumb and I have ever grown from seed successfully (5th grade), and it is the first farm (i.e. a small plot in my grandma’s back yard) -to-table dish I’ve ever made from scratch (also 5th grade). Don’t let the “aquatica” in Ipomoea aquatica or “water” in Chinese water spinach lead you into thinking that you need to grow this vegetable in a pond; you don’t. You can even grow it in a deep indoor plant pot provided that you allow them enough sunlight. This vegetable grows very easily and quickly.
Thai-Style Chinese Water Morning Glory Stir-Fry (ผัดผักบุ้งไฟแดง) Serves 4 (with steamed rice or plain rice porridge)
- Make sure you have a woklarge enough to give you room to move the vegetable around.
- Wash 1 1/2 pounds*** Chinese water morning glory, cut it into 3-inch long pieces, spun bone-dryor drain it very well, and place it in a large bowl.
- Pile on top of the water morning glory the following ingredients:
- 1 tablespoon salted soybean paste 1 tablespoon fish sauce 1 tablespoon oyster sauce 1 teaspoon sugar 1/4 cup chicken broth, preferably unsalted 4 large cloves garlic, smashed and left whole 4-5 red bird’s eye chillies, smashed and left whole [You can use green chillies. But using red chillies makes it less likely that you will accidentally eat whole chillies whose color blends into the green background. The chillies as well as the garlic are there to flavor the sauce, not so much to be eaten, although that doesn't mean you can't eat them.]
- Set the wok over high heat***. Once the wok is hot, add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.
- Once the oil begins to smoke, dump the vegetable and the seasonings into the wok.
- Stir quickly to coat the vegetable with the oil and the sauce; it should take less than a minute for the vegetable to be tender-crisp and thoroughly coated with the sauce.
- Once that happens, transfer the stir-fry from the wok to serving plate immediately. Do not allow the stir-fry to stay in the wok beyond that point as the residual heat will continue to cook the vegetable beyond the tender-crisp stage thereby killing both the perfect texture and the beautiful, vibrant green color.
- You can toss the stir-fry across the room, if you want. I don’t recommend it.
- [Note: You can also replace Chinese morning glory with the same amount of other green vegetables the most suitable of which include: broccoli florets, sliced savoy cabbage, Chinese broccoli/kale, and water mimosa (if you're lucky enough to find it). Curly leaf or baby spinach, in my opinion, is nota good substute; its texture is too fragile and it releases too much moisture into the sauce diluting the flavor.]
*Or Pak Boong. I’m just not a fan of using “oo” to represent a short u vowel.
**The “Fai Daeng” (literally “red fire”) in Pak Bung Fai Daeng indicates the (red-hot) blazing flame over which the dish is cooked.
***This may look like a lot of vegetable, but it cooks down by a lot. What starts off almost spilling over your wok will end up barely filling your serving platter.