Life is full of important questions.
Why did the chicken cross the road? What's up, doc? Who's on first?
Why, for as long as I can remember, have I been using arrowroot instead of cornstarch to thicken the sauces in my Chinese cooking?
During my hippie-food days when all sorts of roots were fashionable, I'm sure I read somewhere that arrowroot was a healthier alternative. Honestly, though, until I sat down to write about it, I couldn't have told you whether it is a root, and whether it's the root of an arrow or a root shaped like an arrow. And yet, there it is, always on my spice rack.
Arrowroot is, in fact, a powder made from the ground root of a Marantha arundinacea, a plant indigenous to the West Indies. The starch is extracted from rhizomes that have been growing for 6-12 months. My favorite explanation of how arrowroot got its name is that the Arawak Indians (who called it aru aru, meaning "food of food") used the starch to draw out the toxins from wounds made by poison arrows.
Considered easier on the stomach than other forms of starch, arrowroot contains calcium and carbohydrates (less than in cornstarch) as well as other nutrients, making it an effective digestive and nutrition aid. In fact, in my supermarket, arrowroot biscuit packaging now features happy, smiling babies on the box.
Here in the kitchen there are several advantages to using arrowroot.
First, it's a more powerful thickening agent than wheat flour. Substitute two teaspoons of arrowroot for one tablespoon of all-purpose flour. Half a tablespoon of cornstarch will give the same thickening power. I usually substitute one-for-one in recipes calling for cornstarch.
Second, arrowroot is flavorless and becomes clear when cooked. Unlike cornstarch, it doesn't taste like chalk when undercooked, and it doesn't dull the appearance of sauces, fruit gels or ice cream.
Third, arrowroot mixtures thicken at a lower temperature than mixtures made with flour or cornstarch, making it ideal for delicate sauces. Like cornstarch, arrowroot should be mixed thoroughly with a cold liquid before being added to hot mixtures.
Penzeys sells arrowroot, which can be difficult to find in the supermarket but is readily available in health food stores. Try it instead of cornstarch in stir-fries, stews, gravies and sauces, as well as in baked egg rolls, rhubarb crumble, and double-chocolate ice cream.
Curried chicken wontons
Without the invention of store-bought dumpling wrappers, these would be impossibly complicated to make. But they're really very quick to assemble and cook, and they can be frozen weeks ahead of time. Just pop them into a hot oven for 10-12 minutes to crisp. Makes approximately 40 wontons.
1 lb ground chicken (or turkey, or beef, or chopped shrimp)
2 slices minced ginger root
2 green onions, minced
4 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp arrowroot
1 Tbsp oyster-flavored sauce
Black pepper to taste
Peanut oil — 1 whole bottle
1 package dumpling wrappers (square or round)
In a nonstick frying pan, brown chicken in 1 Tbsp peanut oil. Add onions, ginger, curry powder, salt and pepper. Blend arrowroot into oyster sauce and stir into chicken mixture. Mix well, and set aside to cool.
Heat remaining oil in wok. Fill a dumpling wrapper (These can be either rectangular or triangular, or half-moon shaped if you're using round wonton skins.) with 1 tsp chicken mixture, placed in the center; paint the edges of the wrappers with water, fold wrapper in half, and press to seal. Fry 4-5 at a time for two minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels, and serve with plum sauce or hoisin for dipping.
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