I suppose it’s a telling reflection of the high intensity flavour world in which we live, but I just don’t get the water chestnut. I mean, call me cynical, but isn’t food supposed to taste like something? Even tofu has flavour, after all, but not the water chestnut. It’s just a hard little white nugget that seems to draw taste out of your mouth, rather than contribute any.
But first things first, water chestnuts are impostors in any event. They’re not a nut at all, they’re the corm (a kind of root) of a water-grass that grows in rice paddies. It must have been a pretty bad harvest to start eating grass roots, I reckon.
But things get worse. Not only doesn’t the water chestnut have any flavour of its own, is doesn’t take on flavour either. You can’t marinate it or stew some taste in. It is the original Teflon-coated vegetable.
So why? Why on earth do we eat this crazy thing?
Then it came to me in a dream. Master Shifu from Kung Fu Panda had just washed my car and I was packing away the jelly crystals (don’t ask me, I have no idea what it meant), when he turned to me and said, “Texture!”.
Now I could be wrong, he may not have been talking about water chestnuts, but don’t discount the possibility.
Texture. They’re all about texture. This is something that lies at the core of Chinese cuisine, an essential appreciation of the four pillars of food: colour, flavour, texture and shape.
You cannot create great food without contrasts in these areas. Red need white, green and brown to be effective. Sweet needs sour to develop its character. Soft and elastic needs crisp to define its edges.
The problem is that many crisp food bring additional flavours to a dish, flavours that may not sit well with the balance created. Sometimes you need a simple crispness with complicating flavours. For that, you need water chestnuts.
It’s kind of like taking cooking back to its grass roots.
Scallop curry with water chestnuts