This fall, I successfully grew watermelon radishes in my garden. They have beautiful roots, especially when they’re young and jewel pink, and taste just like daikon (or 蘿蔔 lo bak).
My husband loves turnip cake, so I was so excited to use homegrown daikon for Spring Festival turnip cake this year. In fact, I started thinking, “Our lo bak go is going to be pink!”
Red Fingers and Pockets
But why stop at pink? How could I turn this turnip cake a deeper red? Synonymous with luck and prosperity, red is the nonnegotiable color of the lunar new year. But I’d never seen it in a turnip cake.
I’ll admit, Red 40 popped into my head as the quickest way to dye my food. But then I remembered an equally perniciously red stain that has left bloody marks on my cutting boards, my fingers, my kitchen towels:
In fact, their woody, sweet flavor would complement the sulfury, savory one of the turnips, and I’d added carrots in the past with success. So why not?
Local Chinese Food
Instead of white daikon, what about watermelon radish and beets?
Instead Chinese preserved sausage, what about breakfast sausage and prunes?
Instead of shiitake mushrooms, what about chanterelles?
What follows is not a traditional turnip cake recipe. I started playing around with unconventional filling two years ago. This year, once I’d decided on watermelon radish and beets, I started reworking my entire recipe to go as local as possible using local Oregon ingredients, many from the Willamette Valley and my own backyard.
The result is a carmine red turnip cake that’s just as satisfyingly savory and textured as a traditional lo bak go. You can play around a lot with the filling. After all, the turnip is the star.
A few notes on ingredients and equipment
Watermelon Radishes & Beets
These are home grown and managed to survive through the winter. We had a few ice storms this winter that wiped out many of our annuals, but the watermelon radishes and beets lived on under a simple hoop house. Though they were a little bedraggled and freezer burned around the edges, the roots themselves looked in good shape.
In fact, thanks to the multiple cold snap, they had lost some water and had a higher concentration of sugar, so the turnips–though dry–were sweeter than usual.
We frequently buy this from our local butcher, Long’s Meat Market. They source high quality, non-factory-farmed meat from local farms, and they have a delicious breakfast sausage blend that’s not too salty, a little sweet, and maybe has something like fennel in it. I don’t know exactly–it’s a wonderful mystery.
Sausage and prunes in lo bak go works so well. I tried it for the first time 2 years ago, and something about the sticky, gooey texture with the crisp saltiness of the sausage just fits with turnip cake. Try it!
These gorgeous mushrooms were foraged in Colorado and dried by my sister-in-law.
You can put your lo bak go batter in almost any vessel that can withstand heat: a pie plate, a cake pan, a bowl… stainless steel, silicon, glass…. my favorite size is a 9 x 5 loaf pan because the block size allows me the most flexibility for cutting pieces for frying.
There are many ways to steam.
I have a wok and a steaming ring, but I actually prefer to steam in my 7.5 quart dutch oven. It has a heavier lid which seems to seal in the steam and it means I don’t need to constantly check the water level.
I typically use my steaming ring in the dutch oven, but I’ve also hacked it by using a few canning rings at the bottom. Some people wad up some rings of aluminum foil. Basically, something to elevate your vessel from the direct heat of the bottom of the steamer.
“Lucky Red” Watermelon Radish Turnip Cake
- 2.5 cups of watermelon radish, peeled and shredded (approx. 400 g)
- 1 cup of red beets, peeled and shredded (approx. 100 g)
- 3 cups of water, for boiling
- 6-7 oz. of breakfast sausage
- 10-12 prunes, diced into 1/4″ pieces (approx. 90 g)
- 7 – 8 dried chanterelle mushrooms (approx. 7 g)
- 1 spring onion, minced fine
- 1 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- 1.5 cups of rice flour (regular rice flour, not glutinous)
Optional (for garnish)
- Sesame seeds
- spring onion green tops, finely sliced lengthwise
- 1 bird pepper, finely sliced lengthwise
1. Soak the chanterelles in water, for about 15-20 minutes.
2. Using a box grater or food processor, shred watermelon radish and beets and measure out the appropriate quantities. Set in a pot and cover with 3 cups of water.
3. Cook sausage in a pan, breaking it up into fine pieces (of about 1/4″, but various sizes are fine). Cook until evenly brown and crisp (10 min). Set aside.
4. In the meantime, bring the pot of shredded root veggies and water to a boil and let simmer for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. The water should turn a bright red color. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid, and set aside veggies in a large bowl.
5. Prepare your steamer by bringing 1-2″ of water to a boil while you finish the last few steps.
6. Mince the now soft chanterelle mushrooms and the prunes into 1/4″ pieces. Add these, the sausage, the minced spring onion, and the rice flour to the large bowl with radish/beets.
7. Add 2.5 cups of the reserved, bright red cooking liquid. Stir together gently, and you’ll be left with a pink, liquidy batter.
8. Pour the pink batter into a 9 x 5″ loaf pan and gently smooth the top with the back of your spoon.
9. Gently place it in the steamer. Adjust the temperature so that it is at a gentle to medium rolling boil with plenty of steam. Cover, and set a timer for an hour.
10. Check after 1 hour to see if the top feels firm and a toothpick comes out clean.The cake should feel fairly firm when you poke it with your finger, though there may be some seepage on the surface. If it feels very soft and runny, keep steaming and check every 15 minutes or so. The cake should be slightly darker now too.
COOL & FRY & SERVE
11. Let it cool (wrap and refrigerate if making it ahead). Cooling is important as it helps the turnip cake firm up.
12. When ready to serve, slide a butter knife around the edges of the pan, turn the cake out on a cutting board, and slice. Fry up the slices so that each side is browned.
13. Serve with minced spring onions and spicy chili oil or sriracha.