Starching it up

Kim Yang Asian Cuisine

Feast. Steak cubes. Seasonal vegetable. Steamed fish. Chicken, bamboo, mushroom. Spicy scallop sauté.


Halfway through our vacation it was evident that being Asian made us all crave a dose of authentic Asian cuisine. It was slightly funny, as we were in Paris when this happened, and obviously, when you’re in Paris, you should be eating Parisian food, haute cuisine, all that jazz. No matter. Asian cravings dominated. Plus, we spoke the language (Mandarin), so being in a chinese restaurant always was somewhat of a relaxing endeavor (at least for the rents’). We could read the menu, communicate to the waiters, and things didn’t get lost in the ether. I hardly eat out at chinese restaurants, as my mother does it the best. But on this occasion, we were on vacation.

I hadn’t noticed it until now, but Asian-inspired dishes always seemed to be a bit starchy, regardless of the inherent composition of the dish. It could be a rather simple sauté of meat and vegetables, and the dish would still come out with a pool of semi-thickened sauce that coated the meat. We all understand the MSG effects of eating at chinese restaurants; MSG is usually what’s added to enhance the already present flavors in a dish, resulting in a stronger, saltier taste. But common to chinese cuisine is also the use of cornstarch and powders, which are usually used to tenderize* the meat that is cooked.

Starched meat. What’s the dealio?

Velveting and tenderizing are two different things. Velveting usually means “dipping/coating in a mixture, and then subsequently cooking it, without further rinsing or removal of the mixture. Tenderizing is dipping/marinating in a mixture, and then subsequently removing/washing the mixture off, and then cooking.

Cornstarch (Velveting technique). I researched a couple of hours (exaggeration: couple of minutes), and didn’t find much of anything on the mechanism of cornstarch on meat. Cornstarch is mostly amylose, but I couldn’t conjure a mechanism of how a polysaccharide could go off and demolish proteins (enzyme-style), or somehow keep the juices in. (Jury is still out on that one…but it is the most likely scenario, even though it is specious). We can definitively rule out enzymatic action. Starch does not possess any kind of enzymatic activity whatsoever, and to my knowledge, starch is not a viable (or common) activator substrate for other enzymes. Moving on. My best guess, if I were to assume that the cornstarch actually did something, would be that starch somehow prevents the moisture within the meat itself from leaving.

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A sad representation of cornstarch.

What do I really think? The cornstarch does absolutely nothing to the meat itself, but rather, is damn efficient at sticking to the meat surface and thickening sauces (so the sauce subsequently sticks to the meat). We all know the rumour of “sealing in the juices via searing” is nothing more than the Maillard reactions perking up your own production of saliva. Also, the meat needs to be cut against the grain. Proper cuts (tenderloin vs. chuck vs. etc) and proper cuts (against/with the grain, and on the bias) are essential.

Crash course in understanding the grain. Picture below. Click to increase the size.

Brown lines = protein fibers/meat. The grain runs this way. Red lines = bonds between protein fibers. Notice when cutting against the grain, each brown line can be “pulled apart” more easily (less red bonds holding then together. Thus, against the grain cuts will tend to fall apart nicely.

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Choppa time.

Egg-white (Velveting technique). Biochemical facts of egg white. Overall, it is alkaline. It possesses alot of lysozyme, which digests bacterial walls (but not proteins). Egg white also possesses alot of ovomucoids, which inhibit the action of enzymes. Where’s the tenderizing effect?

To be honest, I didn’t find any substantial proof of the mechanism of egg whites on meat, just lots of anecdotes. I may have to come back this topic. For the time being, it apparently works, as many chinese restaurants and recipes online have been saved. Granted they’re not controlled experiments…but since when is anything? We don’t live in bubbles.

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I'd rather eat this than use it for tenderizing.

Baking Soda. Sodium Bicarbonate (Tenderizing). Use of baking soda is known to keep excessively boiled vegetables as green as possible, as the alkaline conditions of baking soda + water prevent free hydrogen atoms (a signal of higher acidity) from replacing the magnesium ion in the chlorophyll of the beloved greenery. A changing of the “ion” guard by hydrogen causes a different electronic transition, thus, ruining the forest green color of vegetables, and turning them to mush if left too long in solution. But this isn’t about vegetables.

In meat, excessively alkaline and high-sodium conditions are harsh, and may contribute to the surface denaturation of proteins, which technically acts as a “tenderizer.” This certainly is a viable mechanism.

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Sodium Bicarbonate.

Papayas, pineapples, figs, kiwis (Tenderizing). These fruits listed here (by no means is this a comprehensive list) have enzymes that digest a variety of compounds. Bromelain for example, found in pineapple, digests the bonds that make gelatin. Papain, in papayas, digest certain peptide bonds. There’s also ficin in figs. Tropical fruit enzymes. There are most likely hundreds of undiscovered ones as well.

Basically, fruits contain natural enzymes that happen to digest certain proteins, and can be used in a tenderizer. Protein -> Enzymatic action -> Digested protein (easier for your jaw). End of story (maybe…this entire post is a complex topic which may need further exploration).

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Some eye candy.

Obviously, all these rudimentary-ass pictures means I didn’t take any when I was actually there. *Looks around nervously* Enjoy!