Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef:
Erick Williams (MK)

The Challenger:
Jenner Tomaska (Next)

The Ingredient: Kudzu starch

Challenged by Jenner Tomaska of Next to create a dish with kudzu starch (also often called kuzu starch), Erick Williams of MK said, “Jenner is out of his damn mind for challenging me with something so weird. How do you get to creativity with a starch?”

The starch comes from the root of the kudzu plant, a perennial vine in the pea family. Native to southeast Asia, it has a number of uses but is now considered a noxious weed in the U.S. because of its tendency to choke out other plants (it can grow as much as a foot a day and is often referred to as “the vine that ate the south”). Kudzu starch is used in Japan as a thickener for soups, sauces, and desserts, and the root is believed to have a wide variety of medicinal applications.

Erick WilliamsCredit: Julia Thiel

Its flavor, according to Williams, is nonexistent. “It tastes like absolutely nothing. Cornstarch might taste better.” On the other hand, he said, kudzu starch isn’t heavily processed like cornstarch is, and because it’s derived from a root it can be used in place of flour to make a dish gluten-free. While the starch doesn’t increase flavor, he worried it could add an “off texture.”

“My approach to using kudzu was basically acting as if it was another starch and trying to figure out what the ratios were to get it to act like other starches I’ve used in the past, such as rice flour or cornstarch,” Williams said. He ended up using the ingredient in almost every part of his dish: panfried veal sweetbreads dusted with kudzu starch; tempura-fried morel mushrooms battered in a mix of kudzu starch and flour; English pea puree thickened with kudzu starch; chicken stock combined with kudzu starch to create a sauce; and peas brined with wasabi, salt, and kudzu starch and then deep-fried. The only kudzu-free elements were sauteed peas, pickled ramps, and the garnishes: chervil and golden pea shoots.

Williams thinks he’ll use kudzu starch again in the future, because it would allow him to offer more flour-free items. However, he added, “I don’t think we’ll be doing a whole menu full of kudzu starches.”

Kudzu-starch-dusted sweetbreads with tempura-fried morels, English pea puree, and wasabi-brined peasCredit: Julia Thiel

Who’s next:

Zoe Schor of Ada St., challenged to make a dish with geoduck clams. “They are a gnarly little beast,” Williams said. “It takes a little practice to really get the science down.”