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Known as ma tai in China and kurokuwai in Japan, these underwater stem tips of a rush grass were possibly cultivated by man as long ago as 9750 BCE--anyway that's the carbon date of the waterchestnut seeds that were found by archeologists at "Spirit Cave" in Thailand.
Ma tai translates as "horses hooves," and that's very like the shape of these dark brown corms, only with flat bottoms and tufted tops. Certainly the Chinese have cultivated these in their rice paddies, streams, and ponds for centuries, where they are considered yin--or cooling--and are eaten both for pleasure and for medical reasons. Not only do they sweeten breath, but they are reputed, when dried and pounded into a paste, to help a child who has accidentally swallowed a coin (!).
They are low sodium and low calorie--about 35 calories a cup--and contribute fair amounts of potassium to the diet.