With just a couple days left before Chinese New Year, this weekend carries special Chinese New Year’s Eve celebrations involving good food. Traditionally, Chinese families would gather for a feast on Chinese New Year’s Eve. This dinner is one of the most important meals for being united with family that it carries the name 團 圓 飯 “tuan yuan fan”, literally translated as reunion rice. There is always an abundance of food that must include traditional dishes such as dumplings and nian gao new year cakes.
One of these snacks, eaten all year round but especially during the New Year, is Chinese turnip cake or daikon cake. I’ve even seen it called a Chinese radish cake. It symbolizes prosperity and increasing good fortune and has been traditionally associated with Chinese New Year generation after generation. Although this is a staple on dim sum menus, no restaurant turnip cake recipe compares to the homemade version, which bares the aroma of just-cooked mushrooms and pork even days after it’s made.
You will need to pick a firm white Chinese turnip about 10 to 12 inches long and 4 to 5 inches wide. You can either grate the turnip as I suggest in this radish cake recipe, or slice it into thin strips to be cooked. The slicing method gives the cake a firmer texture that holds together better during pan-frying. I suggest grating half the turnip and slicing the other half to give a softer texture that still holds together well. And the Chinese never eat the whole cake at once; usually we eat a few pieces after the cake has just been steamed, then tightly wrap the rest in plastic and refrigerate. We then pan-fry the rest for breakfast or when friends and relatives come to visit.
Every year I look forward to Chinese New Year festivities. Having grown up in a Western culture, I don’t adopt all of the Chinese traditions and superstitions associated with Chinese New Year. For example, by now I have cleaned the entire house to get rid of things from the old year that I don’t need. And I have purchased red money envelopes to give to my friends’ kids. And most of all, I have arranged a family feast on New Year’s Eve and prepared dumplings, nian gao new year cakes, and this turnip cake recipe. I value the time spent with my husband and his immediate family because I never had a family of my own to celebrate with prior to getting married. To everyone celebrating the Lunar New Year, happy year of the Dragon! 龍年快樂!
3 cups rice flour
1 3/4 cups water
500 g white turnip or daikon (about 1 large)
80 g Chinese sausages (about 2 sausages)
20 g cured meat, like pork belly
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 tsp salt
3 tsp chicken powder
1 tsp white pepper
3 tsp light soy sauce
3 tsp Asian sesame oil
Wash and peel the turnip, and grate into thin sticks.
Place the grated turnips in a colander with a long handle. In a wok or a large pot, blanch the grated turnips for 30-45 seconds in boiling water (enough to cover). Set aside.
Once the shiitake mushrooms are done soaking, remove from water, squeeze out excess water, finely chop, and set aside. Dice the Chinese sausages and the cured meat.
Heat a wok or a non-stick skillet with 1 tbsp oil and fry the sausages, cured meat, and mushrooms until fragrant.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the rice flour and water. Mix well until the mixture is smooth and velvety; set aside.
Mix in the turnips, mushrooms, sausages, and meat.
Then stir in the salt, chicken powder, white pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Make sure the ingredients are well incorporated.
Divide the mixture evenly between two 8 x 8-inch square pans. Smooth the tops with dampened fingers lightly touching the surface of the cakes.
Bring water to a boil in a large wok big enough to fit the cake pan. Steam on high heat for about 20 minutes, or until the cake has solidified.
Carefully remove the pan from the wok and allow to cool on a rack for 10 minutes.
Flip the cake out onto a cutting board and cut into squares.
Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add enough vegetable oil to just cover the bottom of the skillet and fry the cake squares until golden brown on each side.
Serve immediately plain or with your favorite chilli sauce.