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Chinese Radish Cakes

The Chinese name for this dish, luobogao or “radish cakes,” is remarkably uninspired given the lusciousness of this Cantonese New Year specialty. What could sound more boring than cooked radishes? And calling this delicacy “cakes” seems plain wrong, but just about anything made with a batter can be called gao in Chinese cuisine.

RING IN THE YEAR

OF THE DRAGON


A series on celebrating Chinese New Year

Part 1: A dumpling, or jaozi, bash

Part 2: Hong Kong-style radish cakes

Part 3: Suzhou-style sweet rice cakes

A much better translation for this dish would be “fried charcuterie pudding,” which is what I’ve called it here. But even that doesn’t do it justice, for the perfect luobogao is served as light crunchy nuggets that barely control the chaos inside: molten rice lava spangled with bits of Chinese cured meats  and mushrooms.

Finding this ethereal dish in a restaurant has proven nearly impossible, so over the past few decades I’ve searched for the perfect recipe. I think I’ve found my holy grail. This version of luobogao is fried into crackly crusts encasing the hot pudding hiding inside. A gentle taste of radishes — Chinese luobo, by the way, are a kissing cousin to Japanese daikon —  hover in the background, with gravelly bits of sausage and mushroom spiking each bite. It takes some time to explain (recipe below), but you’ll see that luobogao is actually quite easy to put together.

To ensure a moist sumptuousness, I grate most of the radish and leave a small portion in petite batons, which allow the taste to really come through, and use very little rice flour in proportion to the radish. I got both ideas from a Chinese-languageblog based in Hong Kong. This version has an incredible lightness and is packed with a variety of Chinese charcuterie, black mushrooms and dried shrimp for distinctive flavor. If you are serving vegans or vegetarians, simply cut out the meat and shrimp and add lots more mushrooms.

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Chinese radishes are different from daikon. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips

An ideal recipe for Chinese New Year celebrations, this dish may turn sour if refrigerated for more than three days. However, luobogao freezes well, so make enough to treat your friends and yourself to breakfast and snacks over the holidays.  Happy Year of the Dragon!

Fried Charcuterie Pudding Hong Kong Style

 港式蘿蔔糕  Gangshi luobogao

Makes two loaves

Ingredients

2 large, very fresh Chinese radishes (luobo or daikon), about 4 pounds
¼ cup dried shrimp
boiling water
16 fresh or plumped up black Chinese mushrooms
6-inch strip of Cantonese-style cured pork belly (larou)
1 Cantonese-style sweet sausage (lachang)
1 Cantonese-style duck liver sausage (yaganchang)
4 shallots, trimmed and peeled
4 cloves garlic, trimmed and peeled
¾ cup regular rice flour* (not glutinous or sticky rice flour)
6 tablespoons wheat starch (zhengfen)*
1½ cups filtered water
lots of freshly ground black pepper (at least 1 teaspoon)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
cornstarch as needed
peanut or vegetable oil as needed
sea salt for garnish
fresh cilantro, chopped, for garnish

Directions

  1. Trim and peel the radishes. Cut up about 2 cups of batons (around 1-by-¼-by-¼-inch in size) and coarsely grate the rest for a total of about 9 cups of lightly-packed radish.
  2. Place the dried shrimp in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water; let them plump up while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, then drain and dice coarsely. Remove and discard the stems from the mushrooms, and chop the caps into pieces about ¼ inch in size. If the cured meat and sausages are at all hard, steam them for around 10 minutes to soften; reserve any juices and add them to the batter later on. Remove and discard the skin from the pork belly, and chop it as well as the sausages into very small pieces about the size of lentils. Finely chop the shallots and garlic.
  3. Measure the rice flour and wheat starch into a medium work bowl and mix together, then stir in the water to form a thin batter. Line the bottom of 2 large loaf pans with parchment paper, greasing both the paper and the insides of the pans. If you are not using a bamboo steamer basket, wrap the lid with a kitchen towel so that moisture doesn’t drip back into the cake while it steams.
  4. Place the chopped cured meats in a cold wok and cook them over medium heat so the fat is rendered as the meat cooks. Once the fat is translucent, add the diced shrimp, mushrooms, shallots and garlic, and stir-fry over medium-high heat until the mushrooms have shrunk down and started to brown a little. Scoop the meat mixture out of the wok and into a small work bowl.
  5. Turn the heat under the wok to high and add all the radish shreds and batons. Sprinkle as much black pepper over the radishes as you like, and then cook, tossing occasionally, until quite a lot of liquid forms at the bottom of the wok and the radishes are completely cooked but not at all mushy; taste a baton to be sure (see Tips below). Toss the meat mixture in with the cooked radishes, reserving a few tablespoons of the meat for decoration later on. Taste the radishes and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.
  6. Remove the wok from the heat and stir the thin batter into the cooked radishes. Gently toss the radish with the batter off the heat so that the bottom does not scorch. After about 30 seconds, the residual heat in the wok should cook the batter enough so it starts to thicken. When everything is completely combined, scrape into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the reserved meat mixture on top and lightly press it into the batter.
  7. Heat a few inches of water under your steamer until it comes to a full boil. Either position the pans on a large trivet and cover them with the wrapped lid, or place the pans in covered bamboo steamer baskets. (You may need to steam the pans separately if your steamer is not large enough.) Steam the pudding for about 90 minutes, replenishing the water as needed, but otherwise not opening the lid, as this will help to cook it evenly. Test to ensure the pudding is completely cooked through by inserting a paring knife into the center; it should come out clean. Remove the pans from the steamer and allow them to come to room temperature before covering the pans with plastic wrap and refrigerating.
  8. To serve, slice the pudding into either 1-inch cubes or 1-inch thick slices. Coat them completely in cornstarch and shake off any excess. Prepare a serving platter by the stove and cover it with a few sheets of paper towel (see Tips). Heat about ¼ inch of oil over medium-high heat in the bottom of a flat-bottomed pan until a pinch of cornstarch immediately foams and subsides, and then add the dusted cubes to the hot oil piece by piece. Fry them all over, adding more oil as needed. When they are a golden brown, remove to the platter. Serve hot, sprinkled with sea salt and fresh cilantro. A dipping sauce may be served but is not necessary.

* Note: Regular rice flour and wheat starch can be found in most Chinese markets. Be sure to get regular rice flour, as glutinous (or sweet) rice flour does not work here. See the slide show for pictures of both packages.

Tips

Asian radishes. Daikon and Korean radishes (and even red radishes) can be substituted in a pinch, but taste them first to be sure that they are not at all bitter. Select roots that are plump, hard and heavy, and which have lively rootlets at their ends, as this means that they are fresh.

Cooking the radishes. Make sure the radishes are totally cooked before the batter is added. Otherwise they will sweat into the pudding while it steams and make it soggy.

Wrapping the lid. If you are using a solid cover with your steamer, wrap it in a cloth to keep the water from dripping back down into the pudding (see slide show). Be sure that the cover is far enough away from the pudding that it does not drape down and touch it. Another option is to lightly cover the pans with foil.

Savory ingredients. Vary the savory ingredients as desired. You can use all mushrooms, toss in some green onions and finely chopped ginger, use plumped up dried scallops that have been shredded by hand, or add just about anything else that strikes your fancy. Oyster sauce is a good substitute for the soy sauce if you want to heighten the aroma of the sea.

Freezing. Slice the chilled pudding and freeze the slices individually before placing them in a freezer bag; this way you can remove only as much as you want. Defrost the slices and cut them into cubes before dusting them with the cornstarch and frying.

Paper for draining fried foods. Use tempura paper or a clean paper bag instead of paper towels, if you have them, as they will not stick to the fried pudding.


Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.



Top photo: Fried radish cakes, aka, Fried Charcuterie Pudding Hong Kong Style.

Photo and slideshow credits: Carolyn J. Phillips



Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.

 

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