Making Chinese New Year radish cake (蘿蔔糕)
It’s Chinese New Year tomorrow and it’d be a travesty not to have lor bak go (蘿蔔糕/ radish or turnip cake) to eat in celebration. It’s always been one of my favourite dim sum items, and the fact that it’s a vital part of CNY lends the perfect excuse to make it at home. ;)
Last year I was lucky enough to be able to head back home to Hong Kong to celebrate CNY, but this year not so much. So in the past few weeks I’ve been trying to cast my mind back to 2008 when my mom taught me step by step how to make radish cake at home. Of course, I called a few days before and grilled her on the various steps, since I didn’t note down any quantities last time around! Her tips were to make sure your radish:rice flour ratio is high (minimum 4:1, though according to my calculations the ratio we used at home is more like 7:1); that you don’t add too much water when you cook the grated radish (as the veg will release enough of its own juices when cooking) and to sift the rice flour well to avoid lumps.
The vital ingredients are simple. With the ingredients I had, I made about 4 containers worth of radish cake paste, which makes a LOT – it would probably feed a family of four for at least a few days. To cook the radish cake, I use those simple aluminium foil loaf tins. You’ll also need two fresh, long white radishes, rice flour, 4-5 sticks of Chinese laap cheung (wind-dried sausage), 8 shiitake mushrooms and a small handful of dried shrimps. And we keep the seasonings simple with a small amount of salt and white pepper.
Step 1: peel and grate your radishes. This is the most physically exerting bit – my upper arms ache a bit the day after (er, which is probably a sign of how little exercise I’ve been getting lately…). I weighed all the grated radish afterwards so I could work out the ratio of flour I should be using. My two large radishes came to about 1.6kg’s worth.
* Now I should say now that my radish cakes in the end came out a bit too gluey because I got confused with my mom’s instructions – she told me to use a 4:1 ratio, so I calculated 400g worth of rice flour but used 300g to make sure it wouldn’t be too sticky. Turns out I noted in the margins that they used 200-250g of flour for their 1.8kg worth of radishes – a 9:1 ratio! D:
ANYWAYS, so make sure you don’t have too much rice flour. You can always add more if your mixture is too soft, but it will be hard to rectify a stiff radish cake!
Step 2: chop up your sausages and shiitake mushrooms (soaked beforehand, naturally. Reserve the soaking liquid for later!) so that they’re quite small. Wash and drain your dried shrimp. Heat a large pan and add the sausages (don’t add any oil) and fry for several minutes over a medium low heat until the fat in the sausages has rendered out. Then add the mushrooms and then the dried shrimp. Fry lightly until fragrant but don’t allow them to brown. Transfer the mixture to a bowl (keeping most of the oil in the pan) and set aside.
Step 3: tip your grated radish into the pan, along with about a small cup of the water used to soak the shiitake mushrooms, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occassionally, until softened. Make sure your radish isn’t swimming in liquid, but are comfortably moist. Season to taste with salt (not too much as the sausages and shrimp are quite salty already) and white pepper. Turn off the heat.
Step 4: measure out your rice flour, then sieve it. Add small quantities of the flour into the pan with the radish, stirring well to incorporate it before adding more. You want a mixture that isn’t too stiff, but not too watery either. It should be relatively loose and have a dropping consistency. Then, stir in your goodies – the sausage, mushrooms and shrimps from earlier!
Step 5: pour the mixture into your containers of choice (they should be heatproof). Set up your steamer. I didn’t have one large enough, so improvised with a wok, a steam rack, and another wok to act as the lid… haha. Set your radish cakes into the steamer (don’t let it touch the water) and steam for about 45 minutes to an hour. My mom says the water should be bubbling, not simmering. So keep an eye on the water level and top up with hot water often. When ready, a skewer (or chopstick ;D) inserted into the middle should come out clean.
At this point we take it out to cool, and we like to add a sprinkling of chopped spring onions and a drizzle of sesame oil. You can eat the cake now as is, but I much prefer radish cake pan-fried… (If you’re not eating immediately, allow to cool completely then put into the fridge. It’ll last about 3-4 days).
So, if you want to pan-fry…
T’is simple. Heat up a good non-stick frying pan, add a drizzle of oil and pan-fry on both sides for about 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp :-) Best washed down with copious amounts of Chinese tea…
Every family’s recipe is different, so you don’t have to take this as gospel. I have to say, my first attempt came out pretty decently, but I’m still a bit miffed with my messing up the radish:flour ratio as I like my radish cake a bit less firm (the crisp exterior/melting interior is king!). But essentially the recipe works. If you have any tips to add, please do!
In two weeks’ time, I’ll be looking forward to making tong yuen (glutinous rice balls) to mark the end of the new year… :-)