Water chestnuts, those little round discs that provide crunch to so many Chinese takeout dishes, are not nuts at all, let alone chestnuts.
They are a vegetable that grows in conditions similar to rice.
In Southern China, water chestnuts can often be found growing alongside rice paddies. The water chestnut itself is the aquatic bulb of a marsh plant by the Latin name of Eleocharis dulcis.
These solid bulb-like parts, which grow in the muddy soil, are known as corms by botanists. These corms have a loose, papery, mahogany colored covering with a uniform, solid interior. In outward appearance, they resemble a chestnut shaped like a slightly rounded disc, which is how they got their name. They are grown extensively in China and the Philippines.
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Although the canned version we get in the West taste like crispy potatoes with a slight “canned” taste, when fresh they are snappy and sweet and can be used in raw as well as cooked dishes. Unlike other starchy vegetables, they maintain their texture when cooked.
Fresh Water Chestnuts are Much Better than Canned
We often hear that the canned version of a vegetable is inferior to fresh. Often, this is an unfair and knee-jerk reaction. However, the canned version of water chestnuts, which have almost no taste, are quite inferior to fresh which lose a lot of their sweetness and take on a tinny taste. Fortunately, fresh water chestnuts have been available in Chinese grocery stores since the 1980’s so if you want to try the real thing, you can, although it may take a bit of travel for those of us without an Asian market nearby.
Buying and Storing Water Chestnuts
They basically grow in mud and when sold fresh, they will probably still be covered in mud. When buying, you want a nice outward appearance without a lot of defects or soft spots, which means bruising that can affect the taste. The mud might obscure quality so bring a cloth or paper towel along to rub off some of the mud so you can check the shell. Good ones will have a hard, shiny appearance.
It is okay to wash water chestnuts before storing, but do not peel until you are ready to use, as the flesh will turn brown, similar to apples, when exposed to air. After washing, store wrapped in paper towels in the fridge, for up to two weeks. When you are ready to use them, peel and use immediately or place them in water to retard browning. They can be eaten raw, as in salads, or used in cooking of any kind. Fresh water chestnuts become more flavorful when cooked.
When using canned water chestnuts, it is possible to remove some of the tinny taste by boiling them in water for about one minute. Although they will still taste bland, compared to fresh, they will still give a satisfying crunch to your Asian dish.
Water chestnut image © Shariff Che’Lah