The sizzle of the grill.
Smoke pluming and settling in your hair.
A greasy, salty smell seducing your olfactory receptors and your stomach. You lean close, inhale, and watch every movement, charting the nuances.
This is street food culture in Hong Kong.
One quarter of my blood is from this former British colony, and although my mother’s genetics came from elsewhere, her father settled in the south of China, very near Hong Kong, so in my veins flows Cantonese flavors.
A trip to this kinetic city last June caused a stirring of hearth and home in me. I hit the pavement in search of my childhood dream: turnip cake.
Piercing through my family dramas was the constant presence of food, the one binding agent that made us come together like sticky rice.
The days when my mother brought out the rice flour, my sister and I gathered around the eating table and helped her press out dough, heaping the flattened circles with savoury meats and finely chopped vegetables. Time became immaterial as we observed her measuring out liquids and powders, heard the clanking of fry pans against two tiered steamers. She directed us on how to knead the dough correctly or measure the right amount of filling by the eye alone.
That is Hong Kong to me, a cozy familiarity. While I lack four walls to surround me, the kind that denotes home, what I do when I’m there is eat until I’m waddling down the streets. The food becomes my grounding.
Turnip cake is a popular Cantonese snack, comprised of shredded Chinese radish (or Daikon), rice flour, dried shrimps, minced pork or pork bacon/sausage and shitake mushrooms. Variations have been known to appear, versions without pork, but just the dried shrimps, or sometimes the mushrooms are excluded.
The cake is steamed first, then cut into squares that are fried on high heat to produce crispness on the outside, chewiness on the inside. My salivary glands are wanting some now.
On what occasion do you eat turnip cake? It normally shows its face on dim sum carts, but during my childhood, it was the pre-snack before dinner at Chinese New Year. However, now you can get turnip cake anytime the fancy strikes, restaurant or street style, which is what I did in Hong Kong to immense satisfaction! I ate 4 squares without blinking.
Before you gag on the oddity of a cake that is not sweet or even really cake, keep in mind that Cantonese cuisine is about simple tastes which translates into a crackle of deliciousness.
I Invite you to prepare the cake at home for me, since I carry my home within. Notably, I’m a decent eater, but a sad, weary cook.
Recipe for Turnip Cake or Lo Baak Go
- 6 ounces Chinese bacon (lop yok), store bought or homemade
- 1 large Chinese white turnip, about 2 pounds
- 8 Chinese dried mushrooms
- 1/2 cup Chinese dried shrimp, about 1 1/4 ounces
- 2 teaspoons Shao Hsing rice cooking wine
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 2 cups of rice flour
1) Cut the bacon into 3 equal pieces and place in a 9-inch shallow heatproof bowl. Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered steamer large enough to fit the bowl without touching the sides of the steamer. Carefully place the bowl into steamer, cover, reduce heat to medium, and steam 15 to 20 minutes, or just until the bacon is softened and there are juices in the dish. Check the water level from time to time and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and set aside to cool.
2) Peel the turnip and grate to make about 4 1/2 cups. In a 3-quart saucepan, combine grated turnip and about 1 quart cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 30 minutes, or until very tender. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid.
3) Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, soak the mushrooms in 1/2 cup cold water 30 minutes, or until softened. Drain and squeeze dry, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off and discard stems and mince the caps. In a small bowl, soak the dried shrimp in 1/2 cup cold water for 30 minutes, or until softened. Drain, reserving soaking liquid. Finely chop shrimp and set aside.
4) Remove the bacon from its dish and reserve the juices. Cut off and discard the rind and the thick layer of fat. Cut the remaining meat into paper-thin slices and then finely chop. In a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet, stir-fry the chopped bacon over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until meat releases fat and just begins to brown. Add the minced mushrooms and shrimp, and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice wine, sugar, and pan juices from the bacon, and stir to combine. Remove from heat.
5) Return the cooked, drained turnip to the saucepan, add the bacon and mushroom mixture, and stir to combine. In a large bowl, combine the rice flour and the reserved mushroom and shrimp soaking liquids, stirring until smooth. Stir in 1 cup of the hot turnip broth. Pour this batter into the saucepan, add the salt, and stir until combined. The consistency will resemble that of rice pudding. Pour mixture into a heatproof 8-inch round, 3- to 4-inch-deep, straight-sided bowl, such as a soufflé dish.
6) Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered steamer large enough to fit the dish without touching the sides of the steamer. Carefully place the dish into the steamer, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and steam 1 hour, or just until cake is set and is firm to the touch. Check the water level and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the bowl from the steamer and allow to cool on a rack for about 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 to 4 hours.
7) Run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen sides. Place a cake rack over the bowl and invert to unmold. Flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board. Wrap the cake in plastic and refrigerate until ready to use.
8) When ready to eat, cut cake into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges, but into two 2-inch-wide strips. Cut each strip crosswise into scant 1/2-inch-thick slices. This is the typical way of slicing a cake Chinese style.
9) Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet, over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add just enough oil to barely coat the wok. Add the turnip cake slices in batches and cook 2 to 3 minutes per side, until golden brown. Serve immediately, with oyster sauce. (I personally like chili sauce myself or without sauce at all!)
*This recipe comes from Grace Young, author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. Order her book here.*
I found my turnip cake at this street stall by the Dragon Hostel in Mongkok, on the corner of Argyle and Tung Choi Street. Drop by and wave to the ladies for me!
What foods invoke a sense of rootedness and home for you?