Friday, December 27, 2013

What the heck is that? Water Chestnuts

As an inveterate Chinatown produce shopper, I frequently see vegetables for sale that are totally mysterious to me. For years I noticed displays of mud-encrusted brown bulbs, but had no idea what they were. Since I had plenty of other items available to amuse me, I paid the bulbs little attention and busied myself with many other produce delights.

But when I was recently shopping at a favorite Chinatown stand (making a typical purchase of broccoli, mushrooms and kabocha), I overheard another customer asking for a pound of water chestnuts.  The vendor obliged by scooping up some of the papery bulbs. This long-term mystery was solved!

Water chestnuts? Sure, intellectually I understood that water chestnuts were not born boiled and canned, but I never realized they were were so readily available fresh.

I hadn't actually given them much thought at all. I had only had water chestnuts in Chinese dishes such as stir-fries, in which they distinguished themselves as the crunchy-but-otherwise-bland element. I assumed they also showed up in pot stickers and other finely chopped vegetable conglomerations, mainly because no vegetable escapes such associations.

But I was curious enough to buy a pound of water chestnuts myself and begin exploring this familiar yet strange new vegetable.

I learned that water chestnuts aren't actually bulbs; they're corms, similar to bulbs, but made up of solid tissue, whereas bulbs are made up of layers of quasi-leaves. Water chestnuts grow in marshes, and - as I had seen over the years - they're generally sold covered with a layer of dirt. They resemble tree chestnuts (actual nuts, not vegetables) somewhat, hence the name, but the two are entirely unrelated.

I gave my water chestnuts a good soak and scrubbing.

The next step: removal of the papery skin. Forget the vegetable peeler:  water chestnuts are small, round and tricky, so you'll need a sharp paring knife. Cut off both ends, then pare off the skin. 

 You'll be left with a lot of debris and small white nubs. 

What to do with these nubs?

One obvious idea was to use the fresh water chestnuts in the manner of canned: sliced in a stir-fry;  chopped finely for pot stickers; or wrapped with smoky tempeh in a vegetarian version of the only non-Chinese water chestnut recipe I know, bacon wrapped around water chestnuts, covered in a ketchup sauce and baked.

But all of them seemed a waste after the hassle of peeling them. Besides, I was curious about how fresh water chestnuts differed from their canned cousins, and sauces would obscure the distinctions.

I decided to try the water chestnuts as is. First bite: crunchy! Sweet, with a mild apple + coconut taste, then a hint of something more vegetal, maybe broccoli stem. After seeing my prep work, my friend Charlotte was sufficiently game to try one. She said, "The taste is changing a little while I eat it. It tastes a little like an apple, but then it tastes different, maybe more like a vegetable by the time you swallow." I thought so too.

It wasn't love at first bite, but I kept eating these little nubs, partly to figure out their elusive taste, partly to figure out if I liked them, and partly because they made a satisfying crunch. I had thought, "Good for crudites," and "Try it with a dip," but before I knew it, there weren't any water chestnuts left to try.

Perhaps another trip to Chinatown is in order...

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