What's The Difference: Kangkong Vs. Spinach

Hint: You can tell by the leaves.

IMAGE Riell Santos, Shutterstock
ILLUSTRATOR Roselle Miranda

You might be wondering: is kangkong spinach or is water spinach the same as spinach?

The water spinach or more locally known as kangkong is the most common kind of spinach many of us know. This is and has been the substitute used for many recipes that otherwise use spinach in its recipe. (The other spinach that you might know is the alugbati, also known as the Malabar spinach, which is distinctive with its green leaves and purple stems.) 

Kangkong is used in many recipes, especially local recipes, but for those who like to experiment and try recipes from other cultures, you might encounter recipes that use spinach. Kangkong is a great substitute, but you'll be delighted to know that you can find real spinach in the chilled section of your supermarket and other specialty vegetable grocery stores.

Here are the differences between these two kinds of cooking greens so you know which is which when shopping for spinach: 

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1 Kangkong grows well in water. Spinach is grown in soil. 

You'll commonly find recipes that not only include the kangkong leaves but also the tender stems and stalks of the plant. These stalks are hollow, making it super easy for the water to filter through the entire plant and nourish it as it grows. These are unique for the kangkong.

You won't find this same characteristic in the spinach plant. This is because spinach is traditionally grown in soil. Since the plant gets its nourishment from the soil, not water, the stalks are more solid so the roots can provide the portal needed for the plant to thrive.    

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2 Kangkong has triangle-shaped leaves. Spinach has rounder-shaped leaves. 

Kangkong, also known as swamp spinach, have leaves that look like arrows. The leaves slightly flare from the pointed tips of the leaves towards the stem where it curls almost around the part where the stem meets the leaf, creating a narrow arrow shape.

Spinach leaves meanwhile are rounder in shape, with either round leaves if young or more oval in shape when the plant leaves are more mature.  

3 Kangkong has long stalks. Spinach has short stalks. 

Since the kangkong is grown in water, it has long stalks that act like straws with hollow stems. These stems make it easy for the leaves to rise up and out of the water. These are divided into the tender stems, or the stems closest to the leaves and thus more tender than the main stalks.

The spinach meanwhile is grown like other plants and has short stems rising from the soil in bunches. These can be pulled out by the roots but it's just the leaves that are harvested for the palengke. 

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Photo by Karishma Etong

4 Kangkong is best cooked. Spinach can be served as salad greens. 

While kangkong is normally prepared cooked, lightly simmered, or sauteed in a flavorful sauce, it can be eaten raw. If you take a bite of kangkong leaves that hasn't been cooked yet, you will notice a slight bitterness to its flavor. This subtle flavor is less prominent when cooked. 

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The spinach meanwhile retains its fresh green flavor as well as the bitterness even when cooked. This bitterness is less when you use baby spinach than with the mature leaves, so when using in salads, use baby spinach while reserving the more bitter-tasting leaves for use in cooking, especially when added to more flavorful dishes. 

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Thinking about what to cook next? Join our Facebook group, Yummy Pinoy Cooking Club, to get more recipe ideas, share your own dishes, and find out what the rest of the community are making and eating!

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