Cambodian Weed

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

A member of the morning glory genus, ipomoea aquatica soon crept into Southeast Asia and India, along the way showing how it's become one of the most prolific invasive species in the world. Capable of incredible growth—4 inches per day—ipomoea can blanket waterways in a matter of days with a thick tangle of vegetation. The Philippine government calls water spinach its second-most problematic plant.

But unlike other invasives, this weed carries powerful medicinal properties. Ipomoea can treat constipation, ringworm, fever, arsenic or opium poisoning, and high blood pressure, and it produces a chemical similar to insulin, environmental research has shown. Even more amazing, the vegetable can purify water, even ponds contaminated with heavy metals, by absorbing pollutants found in farm drainage and construction waste.

And, oh, yeah: It tastes pretty good. In the Vietnam War, Vietcong carried dried water spinach with them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Even when food was at its scarcest during the Khmer Rouge famines that swept Cambodia in the 1970s, water spinach was accessible, etching an indelible memory in the genocide's survivors. "We didn't have meat," said Born Kea, 74, black-toothed and uncertain on his feet. "We didn't have other vegetables, but we did have trakuon."

Sophan Soum, 25, loads a delivery truck transporting water spinach
Daniel Kramer
Sophan Soum, 25, loads a delivery truck transporting water spinach

More than 150,000 Cambodians eventually came as refugees to the United States, part of a broader trend that has remade American demographics. Roughly 10 million Asians have immigrated here since 1965, and today, more Asians arrive than any other ethnic group—even Latinos, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in June. The Cambodians in Houston began what they thought would be a happier life, and in virtually every way, it was. This was an era of simplicity, before the economic wolves infiltrated the town or the authorities demanded everyone get a permit to farm. People were poor, yes, but they found some modicum of sanity in the work. "It was our crop for our people," resident Chheav Peng said. The Village was a place for forgetting—the genocide, American bureaucracy, intractable poverty—where dogs ran collarless and no one cared if the music was too loud or you had a few numbers on a piece of paper to grow a weed.

* * *

One day years ago, from across the nation, newcomers began materializing in the Village. From Boston, Philadelphia, Ohio, the Bronx, a smattering of Cambodians embarked on a journey spanning hundreds of miles to arrive here, at this confluence of rural Cambodia and impoverished Texas. In the Village, the rumors went, you could escape the cold and eat real Khmer food. You could dispel the trappings of memory and time. You could make a fortune.

Even today, if recent migratory patterns are any indication, myths of warmth and water spinach still elicit something visceral in Cambodians. Over the past decade, the number of permitted farmers in the Village has increased 50 percent, from around 60 to around 90 today. Nearly 10 new operations have started in the past year alone. How many more there are, without permits, is anyone's guess.

A community of Vietnamese water spinach farmers sprouted in southern Florida. Another in California's Central Valley. Some Hmong launched production in central Iowa. With the exception of the community in California, all these enclaves clashed with the states over the right to cultivate and sell a federally designated noxious weed. Rural Asian farmers from every state have invariably trotted out similar arguments, which go beyond weeds and regulation and touch on the difficulties of assimilation. Water spinach became a metaphor for something greater. The refrain: This is our culture. We can't get employment otherwise. Your wars brought us here.

"I know [more than] 100 families in Rosharon that got no skill, no education," Chelsea Tang told the Texas agency in 2009. "They depend on water spinach."

Eventually, the Florida and Texas agencies buckled and allowed production after they decided water spinach wasn't an environmental threat after all. The Iowa Department of Agriculture didn't rescind its regulation, a representative said, and the plant is still prohibited. While Texas and Florida permitted farming water spinach, the caveats were fastidious. Farmers needed a permit to grow, sell and transport across state lines, and they had to follow specific packaging guidelines. They needed to maintain exacting quarterly documentation. But then something strange happened. The farmers in Texas were pretty much forgotten, economically at least. No one knew how much the plant could be worth.

Texas Parks & Wildlife representative Luci Cook-Hildreth, who issues water spinach permits, had no idea that more than 40,000 pounds of the weed could clear the Village in one week, calling that figure "wild." "Maybe the farmers can pull a fast one on us," she said. "But [how much they grow] doesn't even fall into the realm of things we're particularly concerned about."

Al Tasker of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service said, "It surprises me there's that much going on. It's an awful lot of product for something that's federally regulated."

Seemingly indicative of what has been an utter misunderstanding of the water spinach trade, Texas game warden Nick Harmon, who monitors the Village, said, "They grow things that I guess would be considered food items in their culture."

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