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Chris Amirault

Corn Starch Only in Westernized Chinese Food?

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There's an ersatz version of "strange flavored"/Kung Pao chicken that I've tweaked over the years after stealing it from Charmaine Solomon's terrific Complete Asian Cookbook. Her recipe, like so many, includes a corn starch/water slurry, and I dutifully prepared it yesterday afternoon along with the rest of the prepped vegetables, meat, and aromatics.

So I went through the steps, deep-frying the chicken, then cooking the long green beans through, and so on. When I finally got to the stage where I add the stock/chinkiang/soy/sugar mixture, I blasted the wok cooker and very quickly reduced the liquids to a thick sauce. I dumped it quickly into the bowl and rushed inside.

It was delicious -- the best version I've ever made, if I do say so myself. And as I was enjoying it, I realized that I hadn't used the corn starch slurry. Thanks to the brutal heat of the propane, there was no need for it.

This has me wondering about the use of corn starch in either Chinese restaurants or home kitchens. Is it simply an accommodation for the lack of heat? I'll be experimenting with avoiding it in the future, given the success of this attempt. In the leftovers in particular, the absence of that starchy goop was notable and very welcome indeed.

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Hi Chris: My family and the restaurant have always used the cornstarch slurry in stir-fries or separate sauces for ginger beef, sesame chicken, etc. It really depends on how much sauce is wanted. Besides, who wants runny sauce? You want the sauce to stick to the surface on deep fried items and not soaking in. In stir-fries, I always mix the cornstarch with stock and only with water if there's nothing else on hand. As for starchy goob - no reason for that excxept that the cook has put too much slurry into the stock, or the slurry is too heavy with cornstarch. Like all cooking, it's a matter of balance.

On the other hand, if the protein has been "velvet - ed?", then when the stock is added, it is thickened by the cornstarch already cooked into the protein. I'm speaking of marinating (velveting) the protein in cornstarch, oil, and seasonings before cooking. Others use the hot oil velveting methid with maybe different.

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I never use cornstarch. Usually the heat and amazing powers of reduction are enough to get the sauce thick enough for my taste, but when it's not - insert shocked gasps here - I use a buerre manie. Works every time.

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Thanks, kitchensqueen. Dejah, what are the sorts of dishes you prepare that simply reduce the stock down for the sauce?

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I think potato starch is often used instead of corn starch. You get a little bit less gloppy results, I think (from my very unscientific testing). You use about 1/2 the amount as you'd use of corn starch. I think arrowroot is another thickener sometimes used in Chinese cooking, but could be wrong.


Edited by Will (log)

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Buerre manie is not really suitable for Chinese cooking...

I'll use reduction only when I don't want sauce / wet stir-fried vegetables, or dry-fried dishes like green beans either in chili paste or just garlic. I blanch the green beans so they don't need liquid to cook them through. Other times, I take the veg. out when I think they're done to my liking, then thicken the remaining liquid with a bit of slurry - just enough to barely coat my wok "shovel".

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When did corn make an appearance in China?

Long after rice flour ...

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Buerre manie is not really suitable for Chinese cooking...

Yeah, I certainly wouldn't say it's traditional/suitable in all situations. But for the limited types of sauced stir fries I do at home, it's a cheat that works and doesn't detrimentally affect the dish.

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i was born in hong kong.

i still watch lots of hong kong and other asian cooking shows and go to asian restauranrs...

yes corn starch usage to thicken sauces is very common,... almost most of the time they use corn starch either mix with water or flavoured liquid for slurry.

at least thats what i know for many canton style cuisine

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Corn starch may well be a common and authentic part of some modern Chinese cooking, but I wonder how long it's usage goes back. Obviously there was a time before corn was introduced to China. Was another starch used before that? Or is the quick thickening of sauces with a starch a "modern" technique that was not used in ancient Chinese cookery?

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Thank you, Jenni, for articulating the question I was trying to ask so, well, articulately!

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I might be shooting in the dark here, but... maybe tapioca starch?

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Corn starch may well be a common and authentic part of some modern Chinese cooking, but I wonder how long it's usage goes back. Obviously there was a time before corn was introduced to China. Was another starch used before that? Or is the quick thickening of sauces with a starch a "modern" technique that was not used in ancient Chinese cookery?

My post from the mapo doufu topic regarding cornstarch: http://egullet.org/p1805379

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Another one who grew up in Hong Kong here....my grandmother, who was a very good cook, used corn starch. My aunts also. Yeah, it's used to thicken sauces when needed to, but it's most often used in marinating meat before stir fry. I've kept that tradition going.

Also, corn starch is used in frying. I don't like to batter my food, so I often just dust the meat in a thin coating of corn starch and then fry. It works really well in sweet and sour type dishes. The corn starch on the meat actually helps thicken the sauce without a slurry.

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Thank you, Jenni, for articulating the question I was trying to ask so, well, articulately!

Ah, I see now! That is an interesting question - I'm sure there must be a book or study of ancient Chinese food that addresses this... now just a matter of finding it! The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee is a fairly recent book I've read that examines the differences in Amercianized/Westernized Chinese cuisine versus Chinese cuisine, but it doesn't discuss sauces or thickeners or such in any detail...

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Water chestnut (WATER CALTROP, not typical water chestnut) flour I believe was more traditional.

dcarch


Edited by dcarch (log)

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Water chestnut flour I believe was more traditional.

dcarch

Is that similar to the arrowroot mentioned earlier? I have used it and it is a much more delicate starch

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Water chestnut flour I believe was more traditional.

dcarch

Is that similar to the arrowroot mentioned earlier? I have used it and it is a much more delicate starch

No, It has nothing to do with arrowroot. It is a very strange looking fruit.

http://amylamsg.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/1271189917_e32f06054d.jpg

I think you can still buy the flour in a large Chinese store.

dcarch

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In this part of China cornstarch is the only starch I can find. Potato starch is widely used in Sichuan.

a "modern" technique that was not used in ancient Chinese cookery?

There is a lot of that. Pressure cookers and electric rice cookers are basic equipment in Chinese households today. Also, many standard "Chinese" ingredients are relatively new imports - tomatoes, potatoes, chillis etc.

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This topic made me curious, so I looked it up in Charmaine Solomon's Encyclopedia of Asian Food. She lists a number of starches for thickening, but doesn't mention one as more or less 'authentic' than any other.

  • Arrowroot
  • Cornflour/Cornstarch
  • Kuzu
  • Lotus root starch
  • Mung bean starch
  • Potato starch
  • Rice flour
  • Tapioca starch
  • Water chestnut starch/flour/powder
  • Wheat starch/wheaten cornflour

I include mung bean starch only because she says that arrowroot and cornflour make an acceptable substitute-she doesn't specifically say it is used as a thickener. And it seems kuzu may only be a thickener in Japanese cuisine. She also says that starches made from roots and tubers absorb water more easily and thicken at lower temperatures. My mother, who learned to cook a few chinese dishes from a friend, always used arrowroot in preference to cornstarch when she could get it, based on what she was taught.

Personally, I am always amazed at how widespread and important foods from the Americas have become throughout the world, and how much they have changed the cuisines they are introduced to.

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I've never seen WATER CALTROP starch. I've eaten the nut. Mom called it gnow gok nut (water buffalo horn nut). They are a pain to crack, peel and eat.

I DO use waterchestnut starch. It comes in small boxes and quite lumpy, but it dissolves readily in water. I use it along with cornstarch in my dim sum beef meat balls but have never used it as thickener.

I have used arrowroot powder, but it is more expensive.

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I've never seen WATER CALTROP starch. I've eaten the nut. Mom called it gnow gok nut (water buffalo horn nut). They are a pain to crack, peel and eat.

I DO use waterchestnut starch. It comes in small boxes and quite lumpy, but it dissolves readily in water. I use it along with cornstarch in my dim sum beef meat balls but have never used it as thickener.

I have used arrowroot powder, but it is more expensive.

Those water caltrops really do look like water buffalo horns - and I'd hate to step on one too, so caltrops is rather perfect.

So is the water chestnut starch used as a binder in your meatballs or are you using for a coating? Does it have a particular flavor? And are there applications where you would prefer arrowroot over cornstarch, or do you find it not worth the expense?

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This question (the history of sauce thickeners in Chinese cuisine) might be a good one for these guys.

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