What Are Water Chestnuts?

What are those crunchy things in your stir-fry? They're water chestnuts, and they're surprisingly good for you!

You probably already know a few things about water chestnuts. They’re white and crunchy, and you’ll find them in a ton of Asian-style stir fry dishes. (We especially like them in Cashew Chicken with Ginger!) But you might be surprised to learn that these aquatic vegetables aren’t actually related to nuts.

What Are Water Chestnuts, Exactly?

It turns out that water chestnuts are actually the bulb of a Southeast Asian marsh plant (Eleocharis dulcis) that grows alongside rice paddies. When the plant’s leaves turn brown and die in the fall, the small, round “corms” can be harvested from the mud in which they grow. The bulbs are a brownish-blackish color even after being cleaned, but the flesh inside is brilliant white. So, why do we call these crunchy vegetables “chestnuts?” Well, before they’re peeled, they look almost exactly like those glossy, round nuts!

What Do Water Chestnuts Taste Like?

If you think water chestnuts have a bland flavor, you may be eating the canned variety. It’s hard to find them in conventional grocery stores, but many Asian markets or specialty stores sell fresh water chestnuts. Pick up a few to taste the true character of these crunchy, juicy vegetables–a sweet-tart flavor that’s slightly reminiscent of an apple or a coconut. Since the bulbs grow in the mud, you’ll want to wash them well and peel them before using.

Pro tip: Since most of us don’t have access to the fresh bulb, use this trick to revive the flavor of canned water chestnuts. Choose the whole kind (instead of the pre-sliced cans) and blanch them quickly in boiling water.

How to Cook With Water Chestnuts

Taste of Home

Water chestnuts are a popular addition to vegetable stir fry recipes. Unlike other vegetables that soften as you cook them, water chestnuts maintain their crisp texture. They give any dish a pop of juicy, fresh flavor! They pair exceptionally well with soy sauce, ginger and garlic, making them perfect for Asian-style dishes like our Slow Cooker Sweet and Sour Chicken.

You can also use them raw in lieu of celery for chicken salad recipes, or swap them in to create an inexpensive version of bacon wrapped scallops. We also love using them as a low-calorie chip for your favorite dips.

The Health Benefits of Water Chestnuts

Adding water chestnuts to your favorite dishes is a great way to fill up without adding extra calories. They’re naturally fat- and cholesterol-free, and they only have 60 calories per half-cup. That same serving will provide your body with fiber and essential vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B-6, potassium, thiamin, and riboflavin.

Fun Fact: You can also find water chestnut flour at many specialty stores. This gluten-free flour is traditionally used to thicken sauces, soups and stews, but it could also be used for gluten-free baking.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.