Thursday, April 8, 2010

Growing, Buying, Cooking: Water Chestnuts

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.

To Harvest

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.

Fun Fact

* 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!

Buying Water Chestnuts

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.

Cooking with Water Chestnuts

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
Crushed ice


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!


  1. I learned about fresh water chestnuts from my mom-in-law. She would peel painstakingly peel a bunch of them for soup. I never used canned chestnuts ever since then.

    The rubies in coconut dessert is such a refreshing dessert. When I first had it, I really thought it was apple pieces but my mom told me it was water chestnuts. Thanks for the recipe. Now I can make it fresh at home.

  2. I like taking water chestnuts in drinks like this one here... often serve at the end of Chinese dinners. I love to eat them fresh as well. I buy them (4 skewed in a stick) from fruit peddlars. I love the moderate sweetness, crunchiness and juiciness of the fruit - a refreshing treat after a meal :-D

  3. This recipe looks delightful... I have never had a chestnut before in my life. I would be willing to try it if someone else cooked it though. :)

  4. Wow, Wendy, this was all new to me. I did not even know the natural form of the water chestnut. I'm definitely going to seek some out the next time we go to the city and visit the international farmer's market. :) F. loves water chestnuts -- and that's only the canned kind, so I must give this a try.

    And if I ever have a water garden, I'll definitely give it a shot. (I won't do the bucket idea here because two inches of water won't support a goldfish, and I can't handle *more* mosquitoes in my garden. ;)

  5. Wendy this is a fascinating, well-written piece! I actually LIKE canned water chestnuts so the fresh must be stupendous. And growing them sounds like a fun and rewarding project. Good for kids too.

    My condolences to Grace and the loss of Goldie. Been there.

  6. I love chestnuts and put them in soup when the weather is hot because chestnut is a cooling food. It offsets the heat in the body. Love the Thai ruby dessert too, very popular in the Vietnamese culture as well.

  7. I've never cooked with these before... thanks for the info!

  8. Hi Wendy, love your humour re your profile, 'landscape gardener at nights'....
    I guess weather means more when you have a garden. There's nothing like listening to a shower and thinking how it is soaking in around your green beans.

    Enjoyed reading your this interesting post.
    Don't wear perfume in the garden, unless you want to be pollinated by bees. Ha ha.
    Have a beautiful Sunday, stay young and keep a song in your heart, best regards, Lee.

  9. I'm inspired. We have a pond and we can go years without freezing. I should give these a try. Maybe some fresh ones form the local Chinese grocer could just be sunk in a sandy mix in the fishpond?

  10. Wow, thanks for all that wonderful info and the recipe! I'll definitely scour the markets in search of fresh water chestnuts so I can try your recipe. Cheers!

  11. Fascinating. I suppose it's like this with many things. I've only tried the canned water chestnuts and don't much care for them (unless they're bacon-wrapped appetizers, of course! :) But, I'll bet I'd love fresh ones. I'll have to do some searching for a local place to buy them. Great post!

  12. Wendy,

    Awesome Blog! I am going back to the archives to check out more.

    Thanks for the info.


  13. I love water chestnuts fresh, i.e. just peeled and eat. I think it is at its most tasty when eaten raw. Here, we use them to make deserts (tong shui), water chestnuts cakes with pandan flavour and also mix with mince meat to cook dumplings. We also add to stir fry dishes e.g. lotus root, leek which is very common in Chinese restautrants.

  14. Thanks for visiting all!!! Hope you're inspired to try!

    James - I've heard the ones from Asian supermarkets tend to have trouble germinating. My opinion is that it's worth a try though!

  15. I tried growing some chestnuts this year - worked out well and easy. Here are my experiences.

  16. Our Little nursery is now selling water chestnut plants! Give us a look at


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