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Chris Amirault

Corn Starch Only in Westernized Chinese Food?

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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.

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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

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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)

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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.

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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

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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

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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.

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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...

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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. :)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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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

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