Cambodian Weed

How a small village outside Houston influences the Asian restaurants of Little Saigon, Long Beach and beyond

Cambodian Weed

In a small farming village hidden down dirt roads and among shrubs and tall grass, everyone's sleeping, and the rain won't stop. It's early afternoon on a Tuesday near Rosharon, south of Houston, and the downpour has canvassed the paths with deep crevices and pockmarks, making driving all but impossible. Not that anyone here would ever be driving at 2 p.m. Afternoon is when they sleep.

The cash crop here has a lot of names: trakuon in Khmer, ong choy in Mandarin, rau muong in Vietnamese, water spinach in English. It has a spindly stalk, swallowed in leaves resembling a dog's tongue, and a maddening resilience. During the 1990s, water spinach nearly strangled some waterways in the Everglades with a canopy of vegetation—"Impenetrable," Florida reports said—until state environmentalists found a pesticide potent enough to eradicate it. Since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has added it to its list of noxious weeds, spurring states such as Iowa, Vermont and Arizona to outlaw it.

But in this farming village—lined with mobile homes whose frames are expanded with slabs of corrugated iron and long, slanting awnings—it has become a cash crop par none.

One of the dozens of greenhouses that grow the prized weed
Daniel Kramer
One of the dozens of greenhouses that grow the prized weed
Yin Vuth takes hundreds of pounds of the crop into Houston on Thursdays but says he makes substantially less money today than he did years ago
Daniel Kramer
Yin Vuth takes hundreds of pounds of the crop into Houston on Thursdays but says he makes substantially less money today than he did years ago

A community of about 90 Cambodian families has set up dozens and dozens of greenhouses here and dominates the water spinach market in the United States. In 2007, cultivation under permit was allowed in Texas. Before that, water spinach was banned outright, though farmers have clandestinely grown it for decades. It's hellish, monotonous work, leaving shoulders stooped and hands gnarled. But newcomers have unleashed modern machinery on the village—tractors, ATVs, behemoth coolers, anything that can maximize output and crush other operations.

The water spinach is omnipresent, heaped in large piles outside most homes, stuck to the bottoms of shoes, poking out of the mouth of a passerby. But no one here seems to like—let alone trust—anyone else. This isn't the pastoral pocket of Southeast Asian farmers that authorities may think it is, but rather the epicenter of an emerging, combative and largely informal market. Both local and national regulators, seemingly unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, dismiss water spinach as either an invasive species or some quaint Asian oddity and have misunderstood the vegetable's importance, allowing nearly unchecked and untaxed movement and industry expansion. Meanwhile, this little village has been trapped inside some sort of libertarian dystopia in which every farmer competes with everyone else in the absence of any mutual agreements or government intervention.

The area's water spinach melts into a little-understood underground economy, scattering across the nation inside semi-trucks bound for places such as Little Saigon, Michigan and Long Beach's Little Phnomh Penh neighborhood, ultimately arriving on someone's platter. And that's where the demand is. From Houston to Bolsa Avenue, Asian restaurateurs who care about authenticity need water spinach for soups and stir-fries.

The trade to get it there works similar to an ethnic conveyor belt: The Cambodians, Hmong and Laotians grow the crop, and then sell it for 50 cents to 90 cents per pound to the Vietnamese and Thai, who run the wholesale transport system. The wholesalers cart it to the markets in Texas and beyond, which are predominantly governed by the Chinese. The grocery stores then sell it to the consumer for anywhere from $2 to $10. This entire process must occur within five days, before the plant spoils. And the higher you get in the hierarchy, or the deeper you move water spinach into cold climates where cultivation's impossible, the richer you get.

Johnny Bopho moves a staggering 10,000 pounds of water spinach every week across Texas and to Oklahoma. He hustles the plant as though it's a narcotic, saying if you cut out wholesalers and ship your own, then you're in the real money. Or if you can somehow control the product supply—which is what he tried to do years ago but failed at—you can build a fiefdom.

"Ong Choy is definitely considered one of the highest-valued vegetables," said Jet Tila, who teaches Southeast Asian cuisine in Southern California and whose family was a pioneer in Orange County's Thai-restaurant scene (it continues to run Royal Thai in Laguna Beach). Tila's family was the first to commercialize water spinach in California, he said, during the 1970s—meaning it was sold on a large scale after being bought from local farmers. Tila says the crop has gone for $20 per pound in California, supplied by local farmers who guard their businesses like "the mafia."

"It's the way it eats versus other greens," he says. "It's sweeter and more delicate, crisp and refreshing. Bok choy is your Toyota; ong choy is the Mercedes."

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department estimates the local water spinach industry churns out $1 million every year, but farmers say it's worth 10 times that. They're just a little fuzzy on their records and taxes. "All cash," one villager said. "It's all cash. Keeps things under the radar." How an apparently booming industry has gone unnoticed only becomes obvious after spending a lot of time here: No one's watching. Farmers inhabit a separate world in every sense.

Authorities such as Texas Parks & Wildlife, openly uninterested in the trade in water spinach, simply do not care how much gets produced. And then, lubricating the trade even more, the USDA stopped investigating the illegal transportation of noxious weeds this year because of budgetary reasons. Like something out of a Joseph Heller novel, USDA spokesman Dave Sacks explained the lapse in oversight: "We're not not aware of it."

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