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Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Singapore active senior food, travel & lifestyle diary

History of Kang Kong from Sejarah Melayu 📗 Malacca Envoy Introduces Kang Kung to Emperor of China 马来风光

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I think it is safe to say that almost everyone in Singapore and Malaysia have eaten kang kung in one form or another. The humble vegetable is used in many dishes in Singapore and Malaysia, as a garnish or the main ingredient itself. There's a curious story about the Malacca ambassador, the emperor of China and kangkung in the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals.


The curious incident took place in the Forbidden City over 500 years ago during the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca sultanate (1459 - 1477) and Emperor Ying Zhong of Ming dynasty (1457 - 1464). But, before we go back in time, let's recap on what is kangkung in our lives today.


Kangkung, also spelt kang kong, is known in Chinese as 马来风光 (Malay glory), 空心菜 ("hollow heart vegetable), 蕹菜 ong choy in Cantonese, eng cai in Hokkien, in English water spinach, river spinach, water morning glory, water convolvulus, etc. So many names 🤔


Kang kung belongs to the same convolvulus family as the morning glory, so perhaps that's why the Chinese call it "Malay glory" or is there another reason behind it? 🤔 

From the Malay peninsular and archipelago, kang kung spread to China, India and is now found in waterways around the world. It is considered an invasive species (i.e. pest) in some Western countries.

Someone threw some kang kung in streams in Canada, and the "weed" flourished. I remember harvesting them as a student in the 1980s during the summer. We harvested a few trash bags worth of them, blanched and packed them in the freezer - free vegetables for months 😄

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The whole green plant is eaten from leaves to the hollow stem, except the roots.

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Kangkung is a very versatile ingredient. It can simply be stir fried with sauces like soy sauce, sambal belacan (fermented shrimp), diced garlic, etc. The leafy vegetable has a hollow stem which is crunchy and juicy, and picks up sauces (i.e. flavours) in its hollow. Inexpensive, widely available in Singapore and Malaysia, it is popular in restaurants and often cooked (stir fried or blanched) at home.

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You can't see it in this picture but satay bee hoon always has a bed of blanched kangkung beneath the ingredients and satay sauce.

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Cuttlefish kangkong is a mound of blanched kangkung topped with a heap of crunchy cuttlefish dressed with a spicy sweet savoury nutty sauce.

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Kangkung is a definitive ingredient in Penang style Hokkien mee, even if it is just a few token strands of it. For purists, no kangkung means not an authentic Penang Hokkien mee.

When I was a child I was taught to respect the kang kong as it was the vegetable that helped many people in Singapore and Malaysia survived the Second World War. During the Japanese occupation of Malaya (1942 - 1945), there was little to eat. Many people survived on "wild" kang kong and are forever grateful to the humble vegetable. 

Now, the curious kang kung story from the Malay Annals.


Sultan Mansur Shah of the Malacca sultanate sent Tun Parapati Puti as his ambassador to China, which was then under the Ming Dynasty (ruled 1368 - 1644). When brought before the emperor, all ministers, officials and envoys had to be on their palms and knees, and face down looking at the floor. No one was allowed to look at the emperor's face.

The ambassador from Malacca stayed in the Forbidden City as the emperor's guest for a time (in the days of sail, the return trip had to wait for the Northeast Monsoon). One day, the emperor asked the ambassador what was the favourite dish of Malaccans.

Ambassador replied, "Kangkung".

And so, the emperor ordered kangkung to be prepared according the preference of his guests. The kangkung was not cut but slit lengthwise. 

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For illustration only. That obviously isn't kang kung but you get the idea.
When kangkung was served, the ambassador and his entourage lifted up the stalk of vegetable high, opened their mouth and slid in the long stalk of green vertically. In the process, the ambassador and his men caught a forbidden view of the emperor of China 🙄

Anyway, the emperor didn't take umbrage offence and that was how the Chinese learned to enjoy kangkung from the Malaccans.  


Tun Parapati Puti's mission was a success. The emperor was so pleased that he sent his daughter princess Hong Li-po and a retinue of five hundred daughters of nobles to go with the ambassador to Malacca as Sultan Mansur Shah's bride.

And that, is the story of Malacca, the emperor of China and why Chinese enjoy eating kangkung today 😋 And, maybe why it is called Malay glory.


The Sejarah Melayu was written in Jawi in the early 1600s, and the English translation by Dr John Leyden was published in 1821. The kangkung story is in chapter 15.
"The raja of China one day asked him what food the Malaca men were fond of, he replied, kankung greens (convol-vulus  repens) not cut, but split lengthwise. The  raja of China ordered them to prepare this mess according to the direction of Tun Parapati Puti; and when it was ready, he sent for Tun Parapati Puti, and all the Malaca men, and they all eat of it, taking it by the tip of the stalk, lifting up their heads, and opening wide their mouths, and thus Tun Parapati Puti and the Malaca men had a full view of the raja of China. When the Chinese observed this proceeding of the Malaca men, they also took to eating the kankung greens, which they have continued to the present time." 

Another kangkung legend.

During the Shang dynasty of China (1600 BC - 1046 BC), there were severe floods in the kingdom's south. Fields were flooded and many people drowned. There was also famine as a result. Unfortunately, the Shang emperor was more interested in pleasures with his concubines and had no time to attend to the natural disasters in the south.

When officials reported the crisis in the south to the Shang emperor, the concubines were annoyed at their intrusions. They instigated the Shang emperor to execute them for disrupting their merry making.

When the Shang emperor's uncle 比干 (Bi Gan) heard about this, he decided to see the emperor and advice him about the crisis in the south. All the other officials advised 比干 against it as it would mean certain death. But, 比干 insisted as the people needed help urgently and not to advice the emperor would be disloyal to the king as well as people.

比干's persistence irritated the concubines. They instigated the emperor that since 比干 was highly regarded as a sage of Shang dynasty, the king should verify if it was indeed true. They suggested to the king to dig out 比干's heart to see if it had seven segments. A sage's heart was supposed to have seven segments. 

The Shang emperor, thus, ordered soldiers to cut out 比干's heart for inspection. And thus, 比干 died and was no longer disturbing the emperor and his concubines.

In 1046 BC, people from the south rebelled and overthrew the Shang emperor, thus establishing the Zhou dynasty which ruled China from 1046 BC - 256 BC.

One of the first things the Zhou emperor did after establishing his kingdom was to pay respects at the tomb of 比干. Everyone was surprised that at 比干's tomb, only the hollow stem kangkung grew around his grave.

And so, people named the vegetable 空心菜 or "empty heart vegetable" in honour of 比干 Bi Gan.

Obviously, the link between kangkung and 比干 Bi Gan is likely a myth but when eating kangkung, it is good to remember 比干's integrity and courage in the face of death.

The Zhou dynasty lasted over 700 years, the longest of any dynasty in China. The fascinating musical bells at Hubei museum in Wuhan is one of the artefacts from the Zhou dynasty.


Written by Tony Boey on 17 Jun 2021

Reference:

Image of Ying Zhong emperor courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of kang kong courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of kang kong courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Forbidden City courtesy of Wikipedia.

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