• Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create an account.

Chris Amirault

Corn Starch Only in Westernized Chinese Food?

46 posts in this topic

I don't think it matters how long the process has been used. Think about it -- cornstarch in China isn't a much more recent innovation than tomatoes in Italy.

We wouldn't even consider questioning whether tomatoes are a traditional Italian ingredient. Why bother question the provenance of cornstarch in stir fries?

All I can tell you is that 100% of my Chinese in-laws use cornstarch.

Nearly all meat at my mother in law's is prepped by marinating it in a soy-xiao hsing-cornstarch slurry. Sauces are thickened with cornstarch, and deep fried items are dusted in cornstarch.

I would say it's a de facto part of the cuisine.


Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't know how indigenous corn is to China, I know corn silk has been in use in Chinese herbal medicine for many centuries.

dcarch

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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?

They look like mustaches if you flip them around. Pretty delicious too.

I think the person above meant 'water caltrops' when they said 'water chestnut' (and looks like they've edited their post to be more clear about that) -- I didn't know this either (only heard the Chinese name for them), but confusingly, while these are sometimes called water chestnut in English, they are not the same thing as what we normally think of as water chestnut.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_caltrop


Edited by Will (log)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't think it matters how long the process has been used. Think about it -- cornstarch in China isn't a much more recent innovation than tomatoes in Italy.

We wouldn't even consider questioning whether tomatoes are a traditional Italian ingredient. Why bother question the provenance of cornstarch in stir fries?

Personally, for me this is exactly the sort of thing I like to ask. When did a cuisine first get x ingredient? What did they use before? I am fascinated by the history of cuisines. It's not about defining authenticity, it's about exploring the history of country's culture.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I did this long time ago (Yes, long time ago there was a thing called Whiteout)

Whiteout bottle for the body, little brush inside the bottle for the tail, and #2 pencil for the legs.

water caltrops can be enjoyed cooked or raw.

dcarch

cow3.jpg

cow2.jpg

cow.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Also works the other way around:

us2.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't think it matters how long the process has been used. Think about it -- cornstarch in China isn't a much more recent innovation than tomatoes in Italy.

We wouldn't even consider questioning whether tomatoes are a traditional Italian ingredient. Why bother question the provenance of cornstarch in stir fries?

All I can tell you is that 100% of my Chinese in-laws use cornstarch.

Nearly all meat at my mother in law's is prepped by marinating it in a soy-xiao hsing-cornstarch slurry. Sauces are thickened with cornstarch, and deep fried items are dusted in cornstarch.

I would say it's a de facto part of the cuisine.

Why bother? I think curiosity is a fine thing. Learning about the history of a subject is fun and interesting, and helps us learn new things.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Why bother? I think curiosity is a fine thing. Learning about the history of a subject is fun and interesting, and helps us learn new things.

It is interesting to a point (and I'd definitely be interested if someone ends up finding reliable information about historically used thickeners in various Chinese cuisines), but it doesn't address the question posed in this thread, which, as I understand it, is simply whether cornstarch is used in modern (but "authentic", whatever that means) Chinese cuisines (compared to "Westernized" Chinese food). I think it's clear that it is, though other substances, such as potato starch, etc. are also used, both for coating food prior to frying, and as a thickener.

Of course, China is a huge country with a number of different cuisines. Even in contemporary usage, I would imagine that different thickening agents are popular in different areas, so the question, even as asked, is a little silly, because there is not one "Chinese food". And, this may reflect to a greater or lesser extent what substances were common or available in the past in a given area.


Edited by Will (log)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

the question posed in this thread, which, as I understand it, is simply whether cornstarch is used in modern (but "authentic", whatever that means) Chinese cuisines (compared to "Westernized" Chinese food).

Exactly.

And the point I think I was trying unsuccessfully to make is that over time, "new" techniques and ingredients become "traditional" and "authentic." Just like the tomato in Italy -- which has only been in widespread use for a few hundred years.

Am I interested in pre-Columbian Italian* cuisine? Sure. But I'm not going to accuse marinara sauce of being ersatz Italian.

* Yeah, I know there was no "Italy" in 1491. But it's a lot easier than listing off Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Sicily etc.


Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've never seen WATER CALTROP starch. I've eaten the nut. ------

OK, I got this from a friend:

菱粉 = WATER CALTROP starch.

馬蹄粉 = Water chestnut flour

dcarch

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

the question posed in this thread, which, as I understand it, is simply whether cornstarch is used in modern (but "authentic", whatever that means) Chinese cuisines (compared to "Westernized" Chinese food).

Exactly.

And the point I think I was trying unsuccessfully to make is that over time, "new" techniques and ingredients become "traditional" and "authentic." Just like the tomato in Italy -- which has only been in widespread use for a few hundred years.

Am I interested in pre-Columbian Italian* cuisine? Sure. But I'm not going to accuse marinara sauce of being ersatz Italian.

* Yeah, I know there was no "Italy" in 1491. But it's a lot easier than listing off Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Sicily etc.

Hmm...I don't think anyone here's saying that corn starch (or cornflour as we brits call it!) isn't used in modern Chinese cuisine, and I don't think we're arguing about authenticity. It's just a curious and interesting thing to talk about, just as it is interesting to talk about Indian food pre-chillies. No-one's saying that chillies aren't an authentic part of Indian cuisine because they are imported, it's just fascinating to look at the way a cuisine changs as new ingredients and techniques become available.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree, this is a really interesting topic, and I have enjoyed (admittedly) lurking behind the scenes here. So many excellent points and good insights into Chinese cuisine.

As Will correctly noted, different thickeners have been - and still are used - in the different cultural regions of China. Sichuan, for example, uses pea starch (yes, as in carrots and peas), where it's called wandou qianfen or quanqing doufen. Most traditional Chinese cookbooks I refer to call for "starch" (qianfen or dianfen), which is as general a term in Chinese as it is in English. Others include the ones already mentioned, as well as potato starch, sweet potato starch (really popular in Taiwan and Chaozhou cooking), lily bulb powder (as for Jiangxi's crystal meatballs), and mung bean starch. Lots of this seems to be due to local tradition and availability more than anything else, although sweet potato starch does give fried coatings a nice chewiness.

I liked Chris Amirault's initial post here, where he went with his gut and made Kung Pao chicken without a final thickener. That was spot-on correct, at least according to my go-to source for Sichuan cuisine, Chuancai pengren shidian (Encyclopedia of Sichuan cooking). Volume 2, page 108 has the following recipe for Kung Pao chicken, which shows where the starch is added, and to me at least this makes a lot more sense: the starch is dissolved in water and tossed with the raw chicken and flavorings before the chicken is fried, which allows the starchy flavor to get fried away. Later, though, when seasonings (i.e., vinegar, soy sauce) are added, this moisture combines with the fried starch and gives the chicken that nice sheen:

"Select tender rooster meat and cut into cubes 1.5 cm square. Toss it with flavorings and a starch slurry (shuiqian). Remove the stem ends from dried chilies and cut into short sections. Cut ginger and garlic into slices, and green onions into small rounds. Place the wok over high heat, add oil and heat it up. Add the dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns and fry until they change color. Add the chicken cubes and break up clumps while stir-frying them. Add seasonings and reduce the sauce. Quickly toss and shake the ingredients; add fried peanuts and distribute them evenly before removing the wok from the fire and serving."

Anyway, food for thought. And I love those photos...


www.carolynjphillips.blogspot.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My mother always shakes her head because I don't use cornstarch at all, except in the Taiwanese fish-ball soup (sounds like "bah gee" in Fujianese).

She always marinates pork with it before stir-frying.

And sometimes she makes the slurry. All of my family in Taiwan do this.

I reduce liquids.

My father prefers my sauces. :)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Just a couple of observations on this excellent thread:

...arrowhead and arrowroot are two different plants

...the reduction method of thickening a dish will work, but only with those dishes (like Chris' originally mentioned dish) where the vast bulk of the ingredients will not deteriorate with the reduction process. For example, if you served me a dish of peashoots or water spinach thickened by the reduction method, I would be calling you all sorts of uncomplimentary names. The reduction method is not recommended for stir frying as it is contradictory to the whole idea of a quick, hot procedure yielding crisp results with good mouth feel.

Buerre maniere in Chinese cooking? Another argument against the melting pot approach to a culturally inclusive society.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Slightly O.T. - in the current (July 2011) issue of Mother Jones magazine is an article about working conditions in the Hormel plant. It mentions that liquified pork brains (that's how they get the brains out of the pig) are shipped to Asia where it's used as a food thickening ingredient, I assume in processed food products.


Monterey Bay area

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I received one hands-on Chinese food lesson from a Chinese person -- the mother of another kid at a 70s pop-up preschool. It was in her apartment near Cook County Hospital, where her husband was a Pharm Doc. I can't remember the dish she taught us but I remember the technique she taught about dissolving cornstarch -- yes, cornstarch. "Always blend it into the water with your finger, not a whisk or a spoon." She was right: no lumps ever, and I love the tactile thing.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just took a cooking class here in Beijing and the Chinese chef (a pretty knowledgeable guy who does consulting in the US) went thru a lot of corn starch. No mention was made of any other types of starches but it was by no means an intensive course (just some half-drunk foreigners learning a few dishes) and I didn't ask. It is sold in bulk at the street markets, granny can get a little bag or restraunteurs can wheel off a load.

The chef used a lot of it to coat eggplants wedges that were deep-fried. It was also included in meat marinades, it's purpose is to coat and protect the meat while stir-frying (seal in juices). It should be the last item added to a marinade BTW.

Chef ran his fingers thru the slurries added at the end to check for lumps.


Maybe I would have more friends if I didn't eat so much garlic?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That's true about adding cornstarch last in a marinade. Once you add the cornstarch, it seals the meat so the seasoning would not be able to penetrate.


Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Fuchsia Dunlop's new book (UK edition) calls for "potato flour" as a thickener.

Is this English-English for potato starch, or is it a separate thing? Googling seems to say it's a separate thing. Any pros, cons to potato flour vs. potato starch vs. the (easily available here) cornstarch?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's different but works the same. Tapioca starch will also do the job. Corn starch is much cheaper, that's all. :smile:


Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Remember, Katakuriko (Potato starch) isnt made of Russet type potatoes but from the bulbous root of a lily plant in Asia.

I think the reason English written Asian cookbooks say to use cornstarch is cause there werent many Asian Mkts here yrs ago to buy the

Katakuriko starch from, so it was a substitute


Wawa Sizzli FTW!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

  • Similar Content

    • By liuzhou
      I was recently asked by a friend to give a talk to a group of around 30 first-year students in a local college - all girls. The students were allowed to present me with a range of topics to choose from. To my joy, No. 1 was food! They wanted to know what is different between western and Chinese food. Big topic!
       
      Anyway I did my best to explain, illustrate etc. I even gave each student a home made Scotch egg! Which amused them immensely.

      Later, my friend asked each of them to write out (in English) a recipe for their favourite Chinese dish. She has passed these on to me with permission to use them as I wish. I will post a few of the better / more interesting ones over the next few days.

      I have not edited their language, so please be tolerant and remember that for many of these students, English is their third or fourth language. Chinese isn't even their first!

      I have obscured some personal details.

      First up:

      Tomato, egg noodles.

      Time: 10 minutes
       
      Yield: 1 serving

      For the noodle:

      1 tomato
      2 egg
      5 spring onions

      For the sauce:
       
      1 teaspoon sesame oil
      1 tablespoon sugar
      ½ teaspoon salt

      Method:

      1. The pot boil water. At that same time you can do something else.

      2. Diced tomato. Egg into the bowl. add salt and sugar mixed. Onion cut section.

      3. Boiled noodles with water and cook for about 5 minutes.

      4. Heat wok put oil, add eggs, stir fry until cooked. Another pot, garlic stir fry the tomato.

      5. add some water to boil, add salt, soy sauce, add egg
       
      6. The tomato and egg sauce over noodle, spring onion sprinkled even better.
       


      More soon.
    • By zend
      I just bought these greens from the neighborhood Asian grocery. Had them once in China as a salad, and they tasted exceptional - a bit peppery like arugula, yet much more subtle and fresh, with hints of lemon.
      Store lady (non-Chinese) could not name them for me other than "Chinese greens".
      Any help identifying them is greatly appreciated
       

    • By liuzhou
      China's plan to cut meat consumption by 50%
       
      I wish them well, but can't see it happening. Meat eating is very much seen as a status symbol and, although most Chinese still follow a largely vegetable diet out of economic necessity, meat is still highly desirable among the new middle classes. The chances of them willingly giving it up, even by 50%, seems remote to me.
    • By JohnT
      I have been asked to make Chinese Bow Tie desserts for a function. However, I have never made them, but using Mr Google, there are a number of different recipes out there. Does anybody have a decent recipe which is tried and tested? - these are for deep-fried pastry which are then soaked in sugar syrup.
    • By chefmd
      My son married a lovely young lady from Yakeshi, Inner Mongolia, China.   Mongolian: ᠶᠠᠠᠠᠰᠢ ᠬᠣᠲᠠ (Ягши хот); Chinese: 牙克石; pinyin: Yákèshí
       
      We had a wedding in the US but her family also wanted to have a traditional wedding in China.  DH and I have never being to China so this was an exciting opportunity for us!  We spent a few days in Beijing doing touristy stuff and then flew to Hailar.  There is only one flight a day on Air China that we took at 6 in the morning.  Yakeshi is about an hour drive from Hailar on a beautiful toll road with no cars on it.  I wish we took pictures of free roaming sheep and cows along the way.  The original free range meat.
       
      The family met us at the airport.  We were greeted with a shot of a traditional Chinese spirit from a traditional leather vessel.  Nothing says welcome like a stiff drink at 9 AM.  We were supposed to have a three shots (may be they were joking) but family took pity on us and limited it to one only.
       

       
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.