Lucky is the gardener with a long season and established water garden, for the water chestnut is a tender perennial that not only produces edibles at the end of the season, but anchors any water garden with its spiky grass-like foliage. The water chestnut is not a nut at all, but an edible corm grown in a light, sandy soil under the water. The plant won’t tolerate frost and during the corm producing season, thrives in hot climates. In China, water chestnuts are typically grown in rotation with rice in the wet fields, as it takes a good 6 months for a sizable corm to form. Those with full sun, a long season and large pond can try planting corms directly in a shallow shelf created at pond’s edge. The key point is to plant the corm about 4 inches deep, and about 18 inches apart. The water level must always be at about 2 inches above the soil line. It’s important to keep the water level as consistent as possible.
Those of us without the benefit of enjoying a natural water garden can still grow water chestnuts successfully. In zones 6 and below, sprouting the corms before the weather warms would help extend the season. Fill any container to about 2 -3 inches from the top with a rich, sandy soil. As far as containers, try dollar store buckets, bins, and tubs. Many people use small, plastic, kiddy wading pools to grow water chestnuts. Plant corms about 4 inches deep and thoroughly soak the soil. When the corms sprout their reed-like hollow leaves and grow to about 8 inches tall, bring the whole operation outside after any chance of frost has passed. Flood the container with water to cover the soil line by about 2 inches. Keep the water filled to the top throughout the season.
Alternatively, it’s possible to grow a smaller bucket of water chestnuts by setting the corm-planted bucket in your existing backyard water garden. Keep the water level about 2 inches above the soil line by boosting the bucket up with bricks or stones if necessary. If you’re planting, it’s best to buy water chestnut corms from a source that sells them specifically for growing. If you’re lucky enough to find them in an Asian supermarket, they will taste delicious but often won’t sprout.
It’s simple to know when it’s time to harvest. When the leaves die back, remove the container from the water, or drain the water from the container/tub/pool. Carefully remove the corms and gently rinse off the mud. Be sure to save some of the largest corms to replant next season (or immediately if you’re in a hot clime). Water chestnut plants cannot survive the freeze of a cold Northern winter. To save corms for replanting, bury them in damp soil or sand and store in a cool, dark place. Be sure they don’t dry out during storage.
* Some people use goldfish as a natural form of mosquito control in water gardens or water chestnut growing containers. My friend Grace talked every morning to her little piscine friend “Goldie” who lived happily in her rain barrel. Unfortunately, Goldie did not survive the trip through the overflow spout. If you’re going to try adding goldfish to your water feature, but sure to have some provision for a heavy rain that will create an overflow!
Canned water chestnuts are available in most supermarkets. Asian supermarkets may have fresh water chestnuts. If you can buy them fresh, do not even bother trying the packed in water, canned in tin, and shipped on a truck who knows how many months ago type. It will not compare to a fresh water chestnut.
I was not prepared to fall in love with the water chestnut. I’m not a fan of eating a spoonful of chicken and veggies in a brown sauce with steamed rice and then in mid-chew, discovering a sliced water chestnut hidden within, spoiling my bite. I don’t enjoy the conspicuously canned, yet still semi-crunchy texture and almost sweet flavor in an otherwise savory dish that leaves no room for the juicy, nutty chunks. But, this was before I tasted a fresh water chestnut – rinsed off, patted dry, peeled, sliced by myself, right before eating.
My daughter and I had both been turned off by prior experience, but as the good sports we are, reluctantly tasted the fresh water chestnuts. We were both in awe of the exotic little treats and agreed that they tasted a cross between a crisp apple and a fresh young coconut. We proceeded to peel, slice and eat a small bowlful. After this experience, I’m convinced that playing up the slightly sweet flavor in a dessert would restore the once poorly-regarded (at least by me!) water chestnut to a place of culinary respect.
Rubies in Coconut milk is a treat enjoyed in Thailand. The sweet coconut milk is a perfect base for the little crisp, juicy, and nutty water chestnuts. The chopped pieces are often thought to resemble rubies or mock pomegranates. Coated with ultrafine tapioca flour, each ruby becomes enveloped with a sort of gelatinous shine, both tasty and beautiful.
Rubies in Coconut Milk (makes 6 servings)
5 drops red food coloring
1 ¾ cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 ¾ cup water
1 cup sugar
12 fresh water chestnuts peeled and diced
½ cup tapioca flour
1) Boil water and sugar until sugar melts to create a syrup. Allow to cool.
2) Add about 5 drops of red food coloring to large bowl containing diced water chestnuts. Stir quickly to color all pieces evenly. Boil medium-sized pot of water. While waiting, add tapioca flour to water chestnuts and stir to completely coat pieces. Gently sift through sieve to remove excess flour. While water is almost boiled, rinse out large bowl and fill halfway with ice water.
3) Add coated pieces of water chestnuts to boiling water. Cook for just couple of minutes until rubies float to the top. Remove rubies with a slotted spoon and add to ice water to cool.
4) Add coconut milk to syrup. Whisk if necessary.
5) To serve, remove rubies from ice water with slotted spoon and divide evenly in small bowls. Top with coconut milk and crushed ice. Close your eyes and pretend you’re in Pattaya. Enjoy!