On Friday, the Year of the Ox begins. With the scourge of the pandemic, traditional Chinese New Year’s celebrations are likely to be subdued. But while a noisy, lavish, multigenerational New Year’s Eve dinner and a fortnight of feasting with friends may be impossible, many classic foods of the season can be enjoyed on a more modest scale.
Radish cake is one of them. The name of this classic dim sum hardly does justice to its extraordinary deliciousness. A huggy, comforting mass of Asian white radish slivers in a rice-flour batter, threaded with nuggets of pork and shrimp, it is typically cut into thick slices and browned in a frying pan, so the crisp outer layer contrasts blissfully with the smooth, voluptuous interior.
Chilli sauce, chilli oil and Laoganma black bean sauce all make fine accompaniments. Strangely, its name is often translated on English menus as “turnip paste”.
Radish cake is just one of a whole family of “cakes” made from various starchy ingredients that are particularly beloved by the people of the Chaozhou region of south-eastern China, as well as the Cantonese and Taiwanese. They include the denser five-spiced taro cake (yutou gao 芋头糕) and a translucent, golden cake studded with crisp morsels of water chestnut (mati gao 马蹄糕).
Radish cake is often made in huge round dishes and scattered with fried shallots, sliced spring onions, coriander and sesame seeds, to be sliced, fried and eaten when guests arrive.
While the classic version is made with cured pork and dried shrimp, it’s fun to play around with extra ingredients. Many cooks add some diced Chinese wind-dried sausage; I’ve sometimes used thick-cut smoked English bacon. Below you’ll also find a vegetarian version with smoked tofu, dried mushrooms and peanuts.
The batter can be made with rice flour alone but introducing a proportion of other starches (potato flour, cornflour or water chestnut flour) lightens and loosens the texture. In China the cake is usually cooked in a steamer over a wok but I prefer to use a pressure cooker for ease and speed.
Mindful of pandemic restrictions, I’ve written this recipe for restrained quantities: enough radish cake to fill a 750ml rectangular Pyrex food box, which yields at least eight decent slices and should fit in a pressure cooker. Feel free to scale up the quantities if you are feeding a crowd or wish to stash some in the freezer (in convenient slices separated by parchment paper).
The cake will keep in the fridge for up to four days. Eat it on its own or with steamed or boiled dumplings, bought or home-made, for a dim sum brunch, served with Chinese tea. Alternatively, a fried slice or two makes a superb breakfast or midnight feast with scrambled eggs and chilli sauce.
Instead of the pork and shrimp mixture, use the following recipe:
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