Chinese Water Chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis)

Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis), an edible tuber that belongs to the sedge family of Cyperaceae. This is not to be confused with the horned water chestnut or water caltrop (Trapa spp.) or with the tree chestnut that is usually roasted and eaten (Castanea spp.). The Chinese water chestnut is a popular ingredient in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Origins and distribution
The plant is native to the Far East. It can be found widely throughout the Old World tropics but is mainly cultivated in China and Japan. While not found in Singapore or Malaysia, it does grow in Indonesia. The plant thrives in water-inundated areas like ponds, flooded fields or paddies, swamps, marshes and in the mud of shallow lakes. In China, the plant is extensively grown for its round turnip-shaped tubers and harvested using forks to scoop them off from the bottom.

The plant became known to the West only in the 17th century. In Fiji, since the 1990s, the plant has become endangered and sorely missed by the Fijian women because for hundreds of years, they have used the plant, known indigenously to them as kuta, for weaving mats. Water chestnuts are sold in markets throughout Southeast Asia.

The water chestnut plant is leafless and perennial. Due to the absence of leaves, photosynthesis in the plants is carried out by the culms or stems. The plants grow from 50 to 200 cm tall and are deep shining green in colour. They produce many flowers which are very small and occur on the tips of the culms. Flowers are usually produced before the plant reaches its height of vegetative growth. The plants have elongated stolons with a tuber attached to it at its bottom.

The plants produce two types of tubers: the first type for propagation and the second for storage. The second type of corms is the edible water chestnut. The corms, a.k.a. tubers or rhizomes, are rounded turnip-shaped bulbs with a brown skin. Enclosed within it is the bright white flesh. The brown skin is difficult to peel. The taste is what led to the plant's botanical name of dulcis for "delicious".

Usage and potential
The tubers are cooked, forming a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine. They are used as stuffing, in soups, chop suey and in salads or served boiled or steamed as a vegetable dish, sometimes with a sauce of sugar, butter, and flour. The tubers are high in carbohydrate with some protein. However, it is their crisp texture and sweet taste which makes them sought-after. Chinese water chestnuts are also eaten raw.

Other uses
The tubers, being high in starch, are used in the production of starch. The sedge of the plant is used to make mats in Sumatra though the mats are not durable over long periods of time.

Variant names
Common name: Chinese water chestnut.
Scientific name:
Eleocharis dulcis.
Chinese names:
Ma ti, bi qi, ma tai, ling kok.
Malay name: Matai (Malaysia), purun tikus (Indonesia).
Other common names: Ground-chestnut, waternut.


Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

Burkill, I. H. (1966). A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsula (p. 921). Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives.
(Call no.: RSING 634.909595 BUR)

Hutton, W. (1996). Tropical vegetables of Malaysia and Singapore (p. 54). Hong Kong: Periplus Editions.
(Call no.: SING 635 HUT).

Fiji women rescue endangered weaving plant. (March 2000). Women envision, 78/90, 9.

M. Zain Hamijaya. (2004, May 26). Penanggulangan penggerek batang padi. Banjarmasin Post. Retrieved November 16, 2005, from

Oregon State University. (2002). Chinese water chestnut. Retrieved September 4, 2003, from

Pacific Island Ecosystems at Risk (PIER). (2002). Eleocharis dulcis. Retrieved September 4, 2003, from

Purdue University. (1996). Water chestnut. Retrieved September 4, 2003, from

Further Readings
Earthcare Enterprises. (1998-2000). Water chestnut information. Retrieved September 4, 2003, from

The information in this article is valid as at 2003 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources.  It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject.  Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Chinese water chestnut--Southeast Asia
Science and technology>>Agriculture>>Plant crops

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