Pickles and Tea Adventures in Asian American Cooking

Turnip-a-looza is Over!

Above: Purple-top turnips, whole
Below: Purple-top turnips, shredded

Oof, I’ve just finished the last of my turnips! Yay!

For the last two to three months, it’s been raining turnips at my house. Every Saturday, I’d pray that the CSA Gods would be kind to me and replace the turnips with something more versatile, say carrots, or broccoli perhaps? I told myself I’d even be happy with kohlrabi! No such luck—they kept coming, and coming and coming… Needless to say, my family and I are all turnipped out.

Believe or not, there were advantages to my turnip-ful winter. One, I’ve earned a reputation for being generous, even if my neighbors and friends turned down my offer of turnips every week. And two, I’ve diversified our dinner repertoire. I’ve turned the purple-topped turnips into turnip fritters, fried spring rolls, turnip gratin, pickles, tossed them into soup, and finally my favorite—Chinese turnip cake (or luo bo gao/lor bak ghor)!

Freshly-cooked turnip cake waiting to be sliced up.

The “turnip” in turnip cake in this dim sum delicacy is a misnomer. Chinese turnips are in fact most similar to the long, white daikon radish that is common in the U.S. To further complicate matters, the Chinese name for the dish means “carrot cake.” However, in Singapore, we call it “radish cake” which totally makes sense because radish is a white carrot, right? Get it?

Anyway, I was perusing the web and came across a turnip cake (the daikon radish kind) recipe on The Woks of Life. Before then, I never attempted to make it but I realized how simple it was to make at home. I’ve made a few (both literal and figurative) turnip cake batches over the last month or so.

So I ask you, is there no more fitting way to end the season than with a last batch of (literal) turnip cake?

~~~

Savory Purple-top Turnip Cake

Turnip or radish cake is one of my favorite dim sum dishes. No one else in my family likes it much so I often get to eat the whole entire plate by myself. I like to dip it in a mix of hoisin sauce and chili-bean paste but oyster sauce is also tasty. As I researched different recipes, I found an interesting detail in Grace Young’s seminal cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. Grace cooks her turnip cake in a round pan, not a rectangular pan. There are several reasons for this. Turnip cake is traditionally eaten at Chinese New Year when superstitions abound. A round pan signifies harmony and family-togetherness while a rectangular or square pan with sharp edges implies discord.

Makes: 6 to 8 servings as a snack or appetizer
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes, 40 minutes active

Ingredients:

4 to 5 turnips (about 1-1/2 pounds), grated (3 cups)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
¼ cup fresh shrimp, chopped
4 large dried Chinese black mushrooms, washed, soaked in 1/2 cup water, drained and chopped (1/2 cup, reserve the liquid)
1 Chinese sausage (“steamed” with 1/4 cup water for 1 minute in microwave), diced (1/4 cup)
1 large green onion, chopped, white and green parts separated
1-1/2 cups rice flour (not sweet or glutinous rice flour)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
White pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil for cooking

Hoisin or oyster sauce for dipping (optional)

Directions:

  1. Bring the grated turnip and water to a boil in a wok or large pot over high heat. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the turnip is soft and tender. You’ll have about 1 cup liquid left in the pan. Scoop the turnip into a bowl and reserve the liquid.
  2. Combine the reserved turnip liquid and mushroom liquid to make 1-1/2 cups. Top it up with water if needed.
  3. Wipe out your wok. Swirl in the oil and heat over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the sausage and green onion whites and stir and cook until fragrant, 1 minute. Add the shrimp and mushrooms and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes until the shrimp turns pink. Stir in the green parts and turn off the heat. Mix in the turnip and set aside to cool.
  4. Combine the rice flour, cornstarch, salt, sugar, and white pepper in a large mixing bowl and pour in the reserved turnip and mushroom liquids. Mix until smooth; small lumps are okay. Add the cooked shrimp, mushrooms and sausage, scraping the pan juices into the batter. Mix well and set aside for about 15 minutes.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 C. Oil a loaf pan liberally (I used a 10x5x3″ ceramic pan). 
  6. Give the batter a final stir and pour it into the pan. Line the bottom of a large Dutch oven or heavy pot with a tea towel, fill with about 2 inches of water and carefully place the pan inside. (For the traditional stove-top steaming method, go here.)
  7. Cover and bake/steam for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until a knife inserted in the cake comes out clean.
  8. Remove the pan from the steamer and let your turnip cake set for about 30 minutes.
  9. Once cooled, loosen the sides with a spatula and turn it out onto a cutting board. Dip a sharp knife in water and slice into ½-inch thick pieces. You can enjoy the turnip cake immediately but I like to pan-fry them first.
  10. Swirl 2 tablespoons oil into a non-stick or cast-iron pan and heat over medium-low heat. Working in batches, fry the slices on both sides for 1 to 2 minutes each, until golden and crispy. Serve with hoisin or oyster sauce.

Tips:

  • Substitutions (for more info on these ingredients, go here):

Fresh instead of dried mushrooms.

Dried shrimp instead of fresh.

Thick-cut ham (like Virginia ham) or bacon instead of Chinese sausage.

  • You can make the turnip cake in advance. To store, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate in the loaf pan. When ready to serve, slice the cake and microwave the slices covered with a damp towel on medium for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or fry the slices in a pan (as above) for a little longer.

 

Discussion

  • S Bird

    That sounds yummy! I’m impressed with your creativity. You thought of so many ways to use turnips.

    • Pat Tanumihardja

      Thanks! I had help though, it’s called Google!

  • Filed Under

    April 6, 2017
    Celebrations
    Recipes
    Cooking method    Pan-frying    Steaming    
    Course-type    Appetizers    Snacks    
    Culture    Chinese    
    • Posted By

      Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Pat Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens. Pat especially enjoys covering topics that converge on food, history and culture and has been published in numerous international, national and regional publications. Her cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens is a treasury of family recipes and stories spanning over a dozen Asian cultures.

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