With Chinese New Year around the corner (on 28 January this year), I’m already thinking ahead to our lunch menu. Last year, we celebrated the event with some good friends at home, and my mum would have been proud of the spread which I created. The menu included spring rolls (which Americans call “egg rolls”), fried rice, Chinese tea eggs, as well as these Chinese Turnip Cakes, or Daikon Radish Cake. The latter is a dish you might be familiar with if you are a fan of Dim Sum.
As a child, I recall many Sunday mornings eating Dim Sum with my mum in Sydney’s Cabramatta. We would always order far too many dishes for just the two of us; I loved the pork and shrimp dumplings (Siu Mai) as well as the BBQ pork steamed buns, and my mother always, always ordered a serve of braised chicken feet for herself. I never understood her love for that dish (I still don’t!), but I know that it was a dish which took her to her happy place. And because we would have always eaten too much but would be still greedy for dessert, we often left with a serve of Chinese egg custard tarts to enjoy at home later.
One dish which we would order from time to time were Chinese Turnip Cakes. To be honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of these Chinese Turnip Cakes as a child; I was always more interested in the many dumplings on offer. But strange things happen when you grow older and move to a country where good Chinese food, let alone Dim Sum, is hard to come by. Suddenly, all of the foods of your childhood, even the ones you didn’t eat very often or like very much, bring back nostalgic memories which create within you the urgent desire to taste them once again.
So one day, after spotting some beautiful-looking daikon radishes at the farmers’ market and wondering what I could do with them, other than adding them to my son’s favourite chicken noodle soup or to our regular Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew, I decided to give these Chinese Turnip Cakes a try. And since then, I have been addicted.
Most recipes I have tried include dried shrimps in the cake but, as I am not a fan of the pungency of dried shrimps, I choose to omit them from my recipe. I also like add lots of chopped spring onions (scallions) and coriander (cilantro) to make the cakes fresher tasting. And whilst a lot of people are happy to eat these cakes just freshly steamed, I prefer to go one step further and to pan-fry them until they have a crispy coating which contrasts beautifully with the soft, creamy interior. A dipping sauce made of soy sauce mixed with Sriracha is obligatory.
- 6-8 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 kg (2 lb) daikon radishes
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 Chinese sausages, finely diced
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 180 g (1⅔ cups) rice flour
- 3 tablespoons cornflour
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons spring onions (scallions), finely sliced
- sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
- coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
- Soak the dried shittake mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes until they have softened. Drain the mushrooms and gently squeeze out any excess water. Finely dice the mushrooms and set aside.
- Peel the daikon radishes and coarsely grate them. I do this using a food processor with the grater attachment.
- Place the grated daikon radishes into a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring the pot to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the radishes for about 45 minutes until they are very tender.
- Whilst the radishes are cooking, heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan. Cook the Chinese sausages for about 5 minutes until they have softened and have released some of their fat. Add the chopped shallots and cook until the shallots have softened. Take the pan off the heat and allow to cool.
- Drain the radishes but do not squeeze out any liquid. Return the cooked radishes to the pot.
- Add the rice flour, cornflour, and sesame oil to the radishes. Mix well with a wooden spoon.
- Add the shallots and Chinese sausage mixture to the radishes, together with the spring onions. Season with salt and pepper.
- Mix until everything is well combined.
- To steam the cake, you can either use a 21 x 11 cm (8 x 4 inch) loaf pan or 20 cm (8 inch) round cake tin. Line the tin of your choice with some baking paper. Pour the mixture into the cake tin.
- Steam the cake for 45 mins to 1 hour, until the cakes are set and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. You can steam the cake in a Chinese-style metal steamer, in a steam oven (if you are lucky enough to have one), or in a large roasting pan. In the latter case, place the cake tin in a large roasting pan, and pour enough boiling water into the pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the cake tin. Make sure the cake tin you are using is watertight (i.e. do not use a springform tin), otherwise, water may get into the cake tin. Cover the roasting pan tightly with some foil, and place in the oven at 150°C (300°F).
- Once cooked, leave the turnip cake to cool completely, and then refrigerate for at least a few hours to set.
- To serve, heat some vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Unmould the turnip cake and cut into thick slices. Fry the slices in batches until they are lightly golden on each side. I like to cook them until they have a nice, golden and crispy crust, but some people prefer to keep the cake soft in texture.
- Sprinkle the turnip cake with freshly chopped coriander (cilantro), and serve with soy sauce and Sriracha sauce.
Chinese Turnip Cakes are traditionally made in loaf tins, but I find it easier to make them in round cake tins, mostly because I don’t have a Chinese-style steamer but use a Moroccan-inspired couscousier for steaming; it’s a bit smaller than most Chinese-style steamers and fits a round cake tin comfortably. So depending on what shape or size tin you are using, you may have to adjust the steaming time accordingly.
I always double the above recipe as the steamed cake keeps well for a few days in the fridge.
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