Turnip cake, 蘿蔔糕 lo pak go, is one of my favorite dishes for Chinese New Year. True, you can eat it year round, and many restaurants offer them as dim sum, but for me it’s the childhood memories of new year. Of my mom making them a few days before the new year, of eating the steamy cake straight off the stove, of visiting relatives and being served it, of adults comparing notes of who makes it best (so-and-so’s is too hard, so-and-so’s falls apart…)
I enjoy making turnip cake. I got this recipe from my mom, and is probably the closest thing to a heirloom recipe I own. My husband loves it so much, he doesn’t even order turnip cake at restaurants anymore (my recipe uses a lot more turnip, while the restaurant version is usually mostly flour.) This year I gave some to my boss, whose parents are from Taiwan, and he reported that they said it was the best ever turnip cake they ever had.
So, I decide I should post my recipe here, for posterity.
Like most of my recipes, I do not use exact measurement.
First, the ingredients. Traditionally, dried mushrooms, dried shrimps, dried scallops and dried sausages are used. Some also used dried pork belly. Vegetarian version calls for veg ham, mushrooms and carrot, but it’s not common. Here’s a recipe. As my hubby refuses to eat the veg version I make mine with the traditional ingredients.
You can easily get these at most Chinese grocery stores. If you can’t get the real thing use ham. For the more health conscious there are sausages with chicken meat or less fatty cuts. Soak dried shiitake mushrooms, scallops and shrimps. The mushrooms and shrimps usually require just an hour to a few hours of soaking, depending on size, but the scallops need overnight. When soft, chop them up into small cubes. Shred the dried scallops.
Stir fry the ingredients in a wok. Season with soy sauce, cooking wine, salt and sugar.
Next, the daikon turnips. I use about 5 lbs for a 2.5 quart Corning casserole dish. Wash, chop off ends, peel, and cut into big chunks.
While my grandma used to shred her turnips by hand, my mom and I benefit from modern technology. A food processor helps make this a breeze…
Gently squeeze the juice out of the turnip, set aside a bowl-ful of juice. Add the turnip shreds to a wok and stir fry. Add a little white pepper. I also add two chicken or vegetable bullions for flavor.
When turnip is cooked and turns a yellowish shade, add in the mushrooms, suasages, etc. Mix in well.
Now the flour. I use half cornstarch, half rice flour, with liquid from the turnip or the water soaking the mushroom. Please note that the rice flour I use is 粘米粉, milled from long grain rice. It’s different from 糯米粉, made from the short grain sweet/sticky/glutinous rice. 糯米粉, or mochiko in Japanese, is used to make the chewy, sticky, stretchy stuff in mochi, dango, niango, rice dumplings, and all that delicious stuff. Anyway, for the flour, more rice flour will make the cake firmer and more cornstarch will make a softer cake that falls apart easier. Half and half is about right. I usually use one cup of each, mixed into a thick yet pour-able paste.
I put the stir fried mix of turnip shreds and mixings into a corning ware, or any deep baking pan you may use. I pour the flour paste in and stir. Depending on how moist your stir fried mix is, you may end up needing more or less flour paste. Generally, I will stir in enough so that the turnip shreds are like orange peels in a marmalade. If you prefer a cake with less turnip and more flour, you can make more paste and stir it in. But don’t just add water as the cake will become too soft.
Now your cake is ready to be steamed. You will need a big wok, or a very deep pot (like a dutch oven or a soup pot) with a steamer rack like this:
Fill the pot with water just below the rack, and when water boils, put your baking pan in, cover the pot with lid, and steam on high heat for 45 min to an hour.
To test, insert a chopstick into the cake. If it comes out clean the cake is cooked.
Sprinkle sesame seeds and cilantro on top. Put the lid back on for 10 sec so the cilantro “cooks” into the cake.
I love eating fresh lo pak go. It will be on the soft side, very delicious with a little sirracha and oyster sauce.
The popular way to serve turnip cake is to pan fry it. Just cut into half inch slices and pan fry, then add hot sauce, soy sauce or oyster sauce to taste. I’ve known people who dip them in sugar too… If the cake turns out softer than you’d like, a trick is to let the cake sit slightly uncovered in the refrigerator, so it dries out somewhat. For my Corning pan, I just use two chopsticks to lift the lid a bit higher.