Crushed sago pearls is the next crust you need
” relentlessly speckled with pale, large-sized granules that crunch much more enthusiastically than its homogenous peers “
You’ve been doing it all wrong.
Ok, sorry, I’m being rude. Let me be specific. If you live outside of Taiwan and have been trying to mimic any number of Taiwanese-style fried street foods like crispy chicken poppers, cutlets, or pork chops, chances are, you’ve been doing it all wrong. But, it’s not your fault.
Truth is, you’ve been misled. And in fact, among others, I’ve been one of the guilties who have mislead you. So please, today, let me correct my wrongs.
To explain, one must start with what exactly is so specific about “Taiwanese-style” fried… well, everything. Aside from seasonings which is not of today’s focus, what sets these crispy morsels apart from others is a very, very distinct crust. One that predominantly shares the same laced textural surface of a fried crust that is made of tapioca or potato starch, but in a closer look, is relentlessly speckled with pale, large-sized granules that crunch much more enthusiastically than its homogenous peers. It is these “white sparkles” that gives Taiwanese-style fried dishes their unique edge. And it is also, where things go wrong for you.
You see, in order to achieve such meticulously defined texture, one must use an ingredient that I have only seen being used in Taiwan, called sweet potato starch. It is the only starch that I know of that come in this kind of grainy texture instead of a fine powder. But what complicates things is that sweet potato starch is rarely seen in supermarkets or even Asian groceries, except maybe in stores that specializes in Taiwanese exports. Which is why, regretfully, it is often times replaced with tapioca starch or cornstarch that completely lack this unique characteristics. I too have been guilty of doing it that way.
But, not until I’ve found a solution.
You see, again, sweet potato starch behaves the same way almost in any other ways (as a thickener or in batters and etc) as a much more common ingredient, tapioca starch (made from cassava instead of sweet potato), except that tapioca starch comes in fine powder form without granules. But, ah-ha, there is something made of tapioca starch that does comes in “granules”, if you will, and equally important, is much much easier to get your hands on. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Yes that, my friends, is sago pearls.
How could I not have thought about this in my twenty years of hunting for sweet potato starch to no avail? How could I not have known that, duh, when sago pearls are put through the pulsing magic of a spice grinder, it resembles almost perfectly the exact same niche texture as the elusive sweet potato starch? And how could I, after having unearthed this revelation for months, took my sweet-ass time to finally bring it to your attention just now? Bad blogger… bad.
But well, now you know. Whether you’re thinking about making Taiwanese crispy salty chicken poppers, or something more like this, a classic Taiwanese spiced pork chop that is often served with rice, or whatever deep-fried fantasies your hungry mind is taking you where a crust with starry speckles of salty and crunchy pops glimmers above the horizon, now you know.
It’s better late than never.
The crushed sago pearls can be used to replace or partially mixed with other types of breading such as flour or cornmeal, and will be perfect for dishes such as Taiwanese chicken popcorns, cutlets, fried calamari and etc.
- 1 lb (450 grams) of small unflavored sago peals, see note *
- 1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 4 bone-in pork chops, each about 3/4" or 2 cm thick
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 crushed star anise
- 1 crushed garlic
- 1 tbsp rice wine
- 1 1/2 tsp granulated chicken bouillon
- 1 tsp light brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground Sichuan peppercorn
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp curry powder
- 1/16 tsp ground cinnamon
- ground white pepper to dust
- Canola oil for frying
- MAKE CRUSHED SAGO PEARLS: You'll need a spice-grinder for this task. Unfortunately food-processor won't be able to efficiently break down the sago pearls. I've also tried hammering the pearls inside a plastic bag, which proved to be useless either. These pearls are tough little fuckers. So, place the sago pearls inside your spice-grinder (in batches if need be). Pulse the grinder for 8~10 times, then gently shake the grinder to let the ground powder sink to the bottom of the container while the larger pieces get pushed to the surface. Check and make sure that there are no un-crushed pearls left, where the largest piece is NO BIGGER than 1/3 of the original pearl. If not, pulse a few more times and check again (this is important otherwise your crust would be too hard). You can now store the crushed sago in a zip-lock bag until needed.
- MARINATE PORK CHOPS: In a large container, mix together soy sauce, water, star anise, garlic, rice wine, chicken granules, light brown sugar, black pepper, Sichuan peppercorns, salt, curry powder and ground cinnamon. Use the spiky side of a meat pounder to pound the pork chops a few time to tenderize and slightly flatten the chops, then drench each chops in the marinate and let sit for at least 2 hours, turning once in between.
- FRY THE PORK CHOPS: In a wide pan, mix 1 cup of crushed sago pearls (not the whole bag! leave the rest for later), garlic powder, salt and black pepper until even. Drench the marinated pork chop inside the pearl-mixture, spooning it over the chop and pressing it gently, making sure every nooks and crannies are covered. Then dust off the excess breading and place the pork chop on a rack to allow the starch to hydrate for 10 minutes. This hydration is important for the crust to adhere to the protein and not become overly crunchy to the bite.
- Add enough canola oil to a frying pot until it reaches 2" (5 cm) deep. Heat over medium-high heat until it reaches 315 F/157 C, or until it bubbles up immediately around an inserted wooden chopstick. Gently lower one pork chop into the oil and swivel it around to let the hot oil washes over the surface evenly. Fry until the majority of the surface becomes golden browned with a pale specks all over, about 1 minutes on each side. Drain well, then dust generously with ground white pepper, and cayenne if desired. Serve immediately.
- You can also pre-fry the pork chops and let sit on a cooling rack, then re-crisp them up in a 350 F/176 C frying oil for 15 seconds before serving.
Sago pearls come in several different sizes and sometime colors/flavors. Make sure you buy the smallest sized pearls that are white and unflavored. Also, sago pearls are not the same as the large pearls used for boba tea, which is black.