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Pak wan is a woody perennial shrub found in many parts of Southeast Asia. The leaves and stalks of this plant are edible, and especially popular in Thai cuisine, although they are also used in Malaysia and Indonesia. Pak wan is both crisp and tender, and the dark green leaves are highly nutritious, making it a healthy as well as tasty addition to a meal.
You may also hear pak wan referred to as sayur cekur manis in Malaysia, or katuk in Indonesia, and some English speakers call it “tropical asparagus,” referencing the tender, crunchy texture of the stalks. The leaves and stalks may be eaten raw or cooked, and many people separate them from cooking since they behave differently when heated.
Pak wan leaves are often added to stews and curries, where they may be allowed to cook down significantly, while the stems are used in stir fries to add a bit of crunch. Both leaves and stems taste sort of like pea shoots, another popular vegetable in Asian cuisine. The leaves also tend to stay dark green as they cook, adding a bit of color to the dishes they are included in.
There are all sorts of ways to use pak wan, from salads to spring rolls. Southeast Asian markets are a good source for this vegetable, which is generally available fresh in the produce section. When purchasing fresh pak wan, look for crisp specimens without any signs of wilting or discoloration. Also check for soft or slimy parts, which indicate that the vegetable may be past its peak. The darker green, the better, and the smaller the pak wan is, the more tender and flavorful it will be.
Pak wan should be stored in a paper bag under refrigeration until use. It generally keeps around a week in the fridge, depending on how fresh it is to begin with and how cold the fridge is. Wash the vegetable directly before use and pat it dry or allow it to rest briefly on a towel to drain.