Kitchen & Pantry

Tapioca starch (cassava powder) Tapioca starch (cassava powder)

Before I post the recipes all lined up for the rest of the week, let me write something about starch. Yes, starch. The powder used to thicken sauces and coat strips of meat or even whole fish in Asian cooking. Years ago, corn starch was the standard as it was what was available; it has always been inexpensive too.

But the best starch for Asian cooking is arrowroot starch. The problem is that it is so hard to find. Industry rumor has it too that commercially sold arrowroot starch is often mixed with the less expensive potato starch.

Can’t find arrowroot starch? The next best thing is tapioca starch. Depending on your location in the world, it may be labeled as cassava powder or even cassava flour.

What makes tapioca starch so unique? The texture it gives sauces, for one. Corn starch may thicken a sauce but it won’t give the sauce that sticky texture that makes Chinese stir fries so good. And the fact that when tapioca starch is used to coat the meat, even after the meat is tossed in sauce, the crispy crust of the meat is retained. And the fact that meat coated with starch before frying does not get soggy for hours. It may have to do with the fact that tapioca starch does not contain gluten.

Next to tapioca starch (just in case it isn’t available), what else is good? Potato starch is almost as good as tapioca starch. Corn starch would be a far third.

What about flour? Flour is not a good substitute. Flour results in a cloudy rather than a clear sauce. Meat dipped in flour-based batter turns soggy within minutes after frying.

So, when cooking Asian, think starch, not flour.

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