For most Americans, water chestnuts are synonymous with the bland and crunchy sliced vegetable found in Chinese takeout and '70s-era "Asian" salads. You know what I'm talking about—those yellowed coins that come in cans and taste primarily of the water and citric acid in which they're stored. And, if they're the only kind you've ever tried, their utterly unremarkable flavor can even be precisely what makes water chestnuts so appealing—like iceberg lettuce, they're a delightfully crisp and profoundly mild-tasting delivery system for whatever sauce or seasonings they're dressed in. But for those in the know, the canned specimens are nothing short of a travesty.
That's because real water chestnuts—the fresh kind, that is—are fantastically flavorful and downright fruity: sweet and nutty and tart all at once, like a cross between a coconut and an apple, with the texture of an Asian pear. Tasted side by side, the two iterations have about as much in common with each other as a piece of tuna sashimi does with a can of water-packed chunk light. "Fresh water chestnuts have a delectable crispness and delicate sweetness to their flavor that is entirely missing in the canned version," says Fuchsia Dunlop, whose latest cookbook, Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes From the Culinary Heart of China, comes out this October.
Which is why, when it comes to cooking, "canned water chestnuts are barely an adequate substitute [for the fresh]," writes Eileen Yin-Fei Lo in Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking. She's so dismissive of them that she suggests buying jicama if you can't find the fresh stuff. Dunlop is a bit more forgiving, but only to a point: "I think it's okay to use canned water chestnuts if they are a minor element in a dish, added to give a little crunch rather than standing out on their own," she says. "I occasionally use them in meatballs, for example. But if they play a major role in a dish and you can't get the fresh ones, I'd say: Make another dish instead."
Happily, fresh water chestnuts are widely available at most Asian markets. On the streets of New York City's Chinatown, you'll find them sold in tubs, a dark and knobbly jumble encrusted in dried mud—the plant, Eleocharis dulcis, is indigenous to tropical Asian wetlands, where its edible, tuber-like corms flourish and multiply at the water's edge, beneath long tufts of grassy sedge.* Once unearthed, though, water chestnuts are susceptible to rot; since the vast majority are imported from China and Taiwan, experienced shoppers tend to hover over the bulbs, giving each one a squeeze and selecting only the very firmest of the lot.
* It's worth noting that Eleocharis dulcis is unrelated to Trapa bicornis, also commonly referred to as a water chestnut or water caltrop, which grows wild and has been classified as an aggressive invasive species in the United States.
A quick scrub under running water transforms the muddy corms into smooth and shiny bulbs with dark, purple-brown skin. Only then does their resemblance to the namesake nut emerge. Thankfully, peeling them is a heck of a lot easier than shelling actual chestnuts—a paring knife or, better yet, a Y-peeler, will make short work of the skin, revealing the snow-white flesh within. But if you're not using your water chestnuts right away, there's no rush to wash or peel them, notes Yin-Fei Lo. "Unpeeled, with the remnants of mud still on their skins, they will keep in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for seven to 10 days," she writes. When rinsed and peeled, they'll keep for an additional two to three days in a covered container, she adds.
Once you've tasted a fresh water chestnut, though, you probably won't have to worry about storing them for too long. That's because they make an exceptional snack. "In China, fresh water chestnuts may simply be peeled and eaten: Street vendors sell them skewered on sticks, like a fresh, fruity kebab," says Dunlop. It's her favorite way to eat them, and, after recently making my way through a bowl of crisp and juicy freshly peeled corms, I understand why.
Unlike the flavor-sapped canned variety, fresh water chestnuts are often used in China as a key ingredient in sweets. Around Lunar New Year, candied renditions are a popular treat, and, if you're lucky, you may spot them prepackaged at your local Asian grocery. The corms can even be turned into a starch or flour for sweet cakes, according to Yin-Fei Lo. And, in Thailand and Vietnam, variations on a dessert called "rubies in coconut milk" find them stained red with food coloring, fruit juice, or alcohol and floating in a sweetened coconut milk broth.
But the most common use for water chestnuts remains savory cooked dishes. Yin-Fei Lo slices and lightly cooks the corms for pan-fried egg noodles and fried rice, typically adding them to the wok for just one or two minutes before removing them from the heat. They're a natural candidate for virtually any stir-fry, from Americanized Chinese takeout favorites to the mix of lotus root, water chestnuts, day lily bulb, and celery that Dunlop encountered in Suzhou—"the kind of subtle, lightly flavored dish that I don't think you get so often in typical American takeout food," she says. For a more mildly flavored crunch, they can also be finely chopped and added to wontons, siu mai, and meatballs.
If you can't track down fresh water chestnuts locally, don't despair—you can order the bulbs online. It's pricey (at least, considering that my local vendor sells them for just two dollars a pound), but if you're an intrepid gardener, you can sprout a corm or two in a bowl of water and plant them in a bathtub or kiddie pool. Just be sure to winter them indoors if you don't live in a tropical climate. The growing cycle is slow—roughly six to seven months, all told—but they'll multiply into dozens of corms in that time. As for me? I'll be stalking the vendor around the corner from my office, so I can be sure to always have a batch to crunch on raw when the mood strikes.