After utilizing some nice modified industrial starches for awhile (ultratex, pure cote, trisol, etc), we've found some very interesting textures from more traditional starches. The post title is not to suggest that the following starches are any more 'natural' or less processed than the industrial ones... just that they have more of a set place in traditional cuisine. In this case, that cuisine happens to be Asian. Both of these were actually brought to my attention by Ming. It's always exciting to explore old techniques for modernity. The texture of the taro dumpling below is especially refreshing. I always like to compare it to Grant Achatz' epiphanal moment of creating the truffle explosion. How similar it is in context to a centuries old Chinese soup dumpling. Just another juxtaposition of old school and new school.
Sweet potato starch is used in Taiwanese fried chicken. The texture is different from our western style version. It is very crispy, and the breading process requires the starch to rest on the marinated chicken for half an hour after being dredged. I found this instruction to be interesting since I was told to avoid that when first learning to fry southern style chicken (a la Popeyes style). My mind also reeled back to eating Taiwanese fried chicken from a street vendor in Dan-Shuei near T'aipei. For an American southern boy, I was taken aback by how good it was. All apologies to Edna Lewis.
Here is one common brand of the starch. Price is cheap, so keep it in y'er pantry.
Not much visible difference here. What I've also noticed with it is how great it picks up sauces if tossed or stir-fried afterwards (much moreso than flour dredges). That was actually how I first pondered sweet potato starch. Ming and I were sitting in our favorite Miami izakaya one day, and I was trying to analyze the chicken liver dish being executed in the open kitchen. Ming said, "I think they are using sweet potato starch." I said, "hmmmm...," and it has not left my mind since.
As an aside, I've always wished for more English books on Taiwanese cuisine. Hopefully it will be one that really gets attention in the near future. Due to the politics and the way the country was founded, many Taiwanese dishes are more true to Chinese culture than they are in China. What the new Chinese communistic government has tried to stamp out was celebrated and preserved on the little neighboring island (not to mention the waves of master Chinese chefs who migrated to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek during the revolution). The influence of Japanese cuisine and ingredients just makes it all the more interesting to boot. It's almost time to make another trip... let the baby see the other half of her lineage.
The next interesting fried texture will be familiar to anyone who has had a Chinese dim sum crispy taro dumpling. After searching the web, I found this recipe on Eupho Cafe (which Ming swears must be written by a Taiwanese woman). It used a dough consisting of taro root and wheat starch to encase a filling before frying. The Eupho link is outlined spectacularly with pic's and instruction, so I won't get into too much detail (except for a modification I had to make).
Use large taro root, steam, then mash.
Wheat starch is a key element. It is mixed with boiling water and formed into a gelatinous dough before being incorporated into the taro dough.
Afterwards, lard, baking soda, salt, and sugar are mixed in. The dough forms a very cool system of fried 'netting' which gives a sensation of lightness. It actually took a while to get the dough correct. The Eupho recipe wasn't working for me, so I incorporated an extra 6 tablespoons of AP flour to force it to maintain itself in the hot oil. For these, I made a lobster filling and we served it with a roasted banana caraway purée. The banana and caraway was a great combination. Also, the recipe goes into great detail on how the frying oil must be at the perfect temperature... and then doesn't give out the temp. I ended up frying mine at 355ºF.
The outside of the dough forms a crispy netting, but the interior stays soft like a taro mash working its way to the filling. I like the flavor and texture of the taro. The scent of the root coming out of the steamer is incredibly appetizing.